SAGE Musings: How Social-Psychological Interventions Change Academic Trajectories

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Apr 12, 2018 9:17am

I've recently begun dipping my toes into the research literature on sense of belonging and its effect on student academic success, and it is FASCINATING. Any student can wonder whether they belong in college; who among us hasn't had moments of doubt? These feelings may be more pervasive and persistent for some students than for others; for example, students who don't see many others "like them" on campus, including first generation college students and other invisible minorities. Yet "social-psychological interventions can unleash the potential of students and of the educational environments in which they learn." (Yeager and Walton, 2011). How?

In their 2011 paper on social-psychological interventions in education, Yeager and Walton answer four key questions:

  1. How do these interventions work?
  2. How can such a "small" intervention have such a large effect?
  3. How can these messages have such a strong impact, when students are bombarded by so many messages from educators all the time?
  4. How can the effects persist for so long? These types of interventions have been shown to have effects that persist for years.

Here's a brief summary of their answers to these questions.

Social-psychological interventions are exercises, typically brief, that focus on students' feeling and beliefs rather than teaching academic skills. For example, some students may feel that they do not belong in college, or may wonder whether they belong at the specific college they are attending. They may feel that all of the other students "have it all together" in ways that they (themselves) don't. They may wonder whether they "have what it takes" to succeed in college. Social-psychological interventions can help students to re-frame these feelings and beliefs, thus assuaging their doubts and allowing them to reach their potential.

Almost every student experiences some setbacks, particularly at the beginning of new endeavors. Students who lack self-confidence, who wonder whether they belong in college, may experience these setbacks as evidence that they don't, in fact, belong there. If so, they may begin a downward spiral: attending class less often, studying less, spending less time on assignments, and so forth. This behavior will lead to poorer performance in the future, which will further undermine their confidence. Yeager and Walton describe a number of interventions that are designed to interrupt and reverse this pattern; here are two of my favorite examples:

  1. From Wilson and Linville, 1982 (as described in Yeager and Walton, 2011): First year college students who were struggling academically watched videos of college students who were further along in their studies. In the treatment condition, the struggling students watched videos where students talked about how they had struggled at first, needing some time to adjust to the college learning environment, but were now successful. In the control condition, the struggling students watched videos where the same students talked about their social and academic interests, but did not mention their early academic struggles. Not only did the students in the treatment condition earn higher grades that year, they were also less likely to drop out of college and their grades continued to rise over time.
  2. In a similar vein, Carol Dweck and many of her colleagues have studied the effects of having a growth or a fixed mindset on student academic success. Students who believe that intelligence is malleable experience setbacks as temporary; they know that by applying themselves they will be able to learn new ideas and skills and therefore to succeed. Students who have a fixed mindset see setbacks as evidence that they are not smart enough, and may therefore give up. Teaching students about the research on mindset and its effect on learning can therefore be a powerful intervention. See the SAGE Musings blog post on Teaching about Mindset for more information.

The mechanism for these interventions is delightfully simple: they create positive, reinforcing feedback loops. The attribution of adversity as normal for anyone adjusting to college + growth mindset leads to increased study, which leads to improved performance, which leads to further study / hard work + better relationships with faculty and peers and support personnel, which sets the student on a positive academic, and social, trajectory. Because these interventions set students on a positive, reinforcing trajectory -- an upward spiral -- a relatively small intervention can have large effects. In fact, the benefits of these interventions can increase over time.

One key factor in the success of these interventions is the timing of implementation: they work best at transitional moments – the beginning of a new academic year, during the first year of college or the first year at a transfer institution. That's because they interrupt what could otherwise become a downward spiral. Once a student has begun a downward spiral, it's harder to change their trajectory.

Another key factor in the success of social-psychological interventions is that they are "stealthy." That is, the researchers do not tell the students that they are going to try to help the students because they are at risk; that could potentially reinforce the students' self-doubt. Instead, these stealthy interventions use strategies that engage students in re-framing their experiences without explicitly telling them that that is what they are doing. For example, in Wilson and Linville's 1982 study, the students were asked to write letters to future college students about their experiences. In these letters, the students in the treatment group echoed the message of the videos they had just watched, framing their early setbacks as part of their adjustment to college life. Framing their own experiences as examples of this normal adjustment to college helped reinforce that idea in their own minds.

My biggest take-away from this paper: teaching our students to think of their "failures" as temporary could change their lives.


Wilson, T. D., & Linville, P. W. (1982). Improving the academic performance of college freshmen: Attribution therapy revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 42, pp. 367–376.

Yeager, David S. and Gregory M. Walton, 2011. Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, v. 81, n. 2, pp. 267–301.

SAGE Musings: How Social-Psychological Interventions Change Academic Trajectories -- Discussion  

This post was edited by Eric Baer on Apr, 2018
As an instructor, I am looking for a suggestion of a way to mimic the intervention of showing a video that would achieve the same results as Wilson and Linville (1982). Perhaps having a student from the previous term come in? Something written by a previous student? I am not sure what sorts of interventions the literature supports that would be more doable than showing a video. Or maybe I need to talk to our video production people....


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