University of Texas Study: Want College Students To Succeed? Prepare Them Emotionally

Posted By Eliana Osborn on June 29, 2016 at 7:22 am
University of Texas Study: Want College Students To Succeed? Prepare Them Emotionally

Starting college is hard. The obvious difference comes from the academic side, which likely is much different from previous learning experiences. But that often pales in comparison to the transition to an entirely new environment—especially for those outside the dominant culture at a school who may lack emotional preparation for a new stage of their life. Students coming from disadvantaged high schools, those who are first in their family to attend college or racial minorities can feel out of place and disconnected during freshman year.

New research from the University of Texas-Austin suggests a promising strategy to help all students face the challenge of college with an attitude of success. The key is to let students know that things will be hard—ahead of time.

Instead of having them stumble into difficulties and feel alone in their struggles, students in three separate groups were prepared proactively. Researchers “presented participants with stories from older students describing social and academic challenges they faced in coming to college,” the report says. “The stories presented these experiences as being normal and improving with time. Incoming students then reflected on why early challenges are routine in the transition to college, and what they expected to experience.”

The name for this is “lay-theory intervention” in the world of psychology. Students participate online, similar to other orientation activities they might be required to complete. The results were significant, reducing the achievement gap for at-risk students by 31-40%.

It seems that students are more willing to take advantage of campus resources once they see that others have needed them. Instead of feeling like personal failures for struggling academically or emotionally, participating students recognize that help is available for a reason and that they should use it.

Specifically, students in the experimental group were more likely to finish the year at full-time enrollment, have higher grade point averages and be more socially integrated in college life. These are not minor achievements, as freshman year is a crucial time when many disadvantaged students drop out.

The researchers are part of a group called the College Transition Collaborative, which aims to help students fit in at college, no matter what their previous life experiences or advantages. Targeted strategies such as lay-theory intervention are being studied to identify which can narrow achievement gaps.

These interventions are most effective for students who draw negative conclusions about themselves when faced with challenges. If disadvantaged students can build confidence, feeling that they do belong and can succeed, much progress can be made. The CTC’s work will continue to search for the most effective strategies so that campuses can adopt them.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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