article6 min read

Helping students manage challenges and change

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Tom Stoppard

The disorientation involved in moving away to university, entering a new job, or restructuring an organisation can feel dizzying, sleight but significant, like the world suddenly starts spinning in the opposite direction. Take transitioning from high school to university, for example. You move away from home for the first time, you have to make new friends, handle finances, adjust to more demanding learning regimes, and create a new identity as a ‘student’. With these stressors comes an increased risk of developing mental health problems, jeopardising psychological wellbeing and, as a consequence, academic performance. How might universities and communities – and, for that matter, any individual or organisation undertaking transitions within any context – help successfully manage transitions?

In 1982, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville wanted to find a way to help new college students cope better with worries about their academic performance in a new and challenging environment.[1] So he presented them with statistics showing that most new students receive disappointing grades initially but find they rise over time. In combination, Wilson played videos of older students talking about their originally unfavourable but lately improving academic performance. Wilson’s results revealed his group’s grades got better quicker than those of students who didn’t receive these messages. His group’s retention probability by the end of their second year at university was also better than that of others.

How did Wilson’s simple interventions relieve student anxieties about performance and attainment?

A significant component finds grounding in attribution theory. Wilson’s experiment encouraged participants to attribute anxieties to their external world rather than to beliefs they held about themselves. Wilson understood that when searching for the causality behind a problem we often turn to the mirror, and reflected in that mirror is our own inwardly projected gaze, the intensity of which tends to burn holes in our self-esteem. In other words, when we attach our ego to a failure and self-blame or rebuke ourselves too harshly we reinforce a negative self-image of ourselves that, if buttressed by further negativity, constructs self-limiting beliefs that inhibit our ability to succeed.

Working in tandem with the external attribution of anxieties’ causality is Wilson’s acute understanding of normalisation. Showing callow students footage of older students testifying to the hardships they faced as they transitioned from high school to university had a reassuring effect on the youngsters. They realised they were not alone, that their emotions weren’t abnormal and unique but globally experienced. This relieved their perception of anxieties as signifiers of incompetence and unpreparedness for university life – beliefs, incidentally, that when unchallenged can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Such normalisation – the realisation that it is ‘not just me’ – reduces the potency of negative emotion by deconstructing beliefs of incapability, inferiority, and isolation. It reassured students that their anxious emotions are commonplace, impermanent, and surmountable if they take positive action henceforth.

Wise Psychological Interventions

Although Wilson didn’t use such a term, what he implemented has become known by psychologists as a ‘Wise Psychological Intervention’. His ground-breaking study indicated that behaviour and achievement are heavily influenced by self-beliefs. If limiting beliefs are deconstructed, reattributed, and normalised, their inflated and toxic presence in our consciousness is deflated and detoxified, allowing us more space in which to flourish.

WPIs come in many different forms but they all use an understanding of the psychological drivers of human behaviour to disinhibit individuals or groups with self-limiting beliefs and change disadvantageous behaviour. Beliefs are dismantled most frequently by a) providing knowledge that acts as convincing counter-evidence to the current belief, or b) facilitating a behavioural exercise in which a new usurping belief can establish itself. WPIs change how you see yourself and your understanding of how you’re seen in the eyes of others through straightforward acts of normalisation. From a practical standpoint, the really wonderful thing about Wise Psychological Interventions (WPI) – arguably the ‘wisest’ aspect – is their simple and efficient application.

WPIs can be employed to achieve a variety of ends within university settings and in other scenarios too, smoothing the jagged process of transitioning. Following Wilson’s trailblazing intervention, Stanford psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton sought a form of WPI that could enhance students’ sense of social belonging.[2]

To address common feelings of vulnerability and alienation when undertaking a significant transition – noting that such feelings are particularly strong in members of minority groups – Cohen and Watson got African American first-year students to read a report written by second-year students describing how they felt out of place initially but gradually ‘settled in’. This intervention resembled Wilson’s in both strategy and outcome: reading the list improved the grades, reported happiness and health of these students.

Cohen also halved something known as the ‘racial achievement gap’, which describes discrepancies between the achievement of white and black students. The gap is wedged by many extraneous social and economic factors. Yet there’s a powerful psychological driver at its nucleus: the stereotype that black students are less academically able than their white counterparts. As with any internalised notion of inferiority, the mere establishment of this belief can generate a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, preliminary research showed that black students often did worse on maths tests in the presence of white students, who, in turn, underperformed around East Asian students. These ‘stereotype threats’ fuel anxieties that inhibit performance, reinforcing the inaccurate belief.

Cohen’s intervention sought to close this gap. How? He got students to complete a process called self-affirmation by writing down values that were important to them. Even a short session doing this improved the grades of black students, closing the achievement gap by 40%.

What does this mean today?

Universities are increasingly diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic spaces. People from minority backgrounds especially may feel inhibited or threatened because of psychological stereotypes they hold about themselves and others. Applying Wise Psychological Interventions similar to Cohen’s could reduce feelings of alienation at university within minority groups and the rest of the student populous, normalising feelings of anxiety and increasing feelings of cohesion and belonging.

The sense of social support that stems from belonging can prove a significantly protective factor against the development of psychological issues. It instils a self-perception of stability and an outward perception of assurance within one’s peer-group that combine to enhance individual self-efficacy.[3] Such a psychological process is crucial to wellbeing and performance yet is put under severe strain during periods of transition, making the need for a widespread implementation of WPIs urgent and necessary.

Despite focusing on students, the upheaval of transitioning is not exclusive to them. We all transition; change is the precondition of our rapidly advancing and hectic world. When undertaking transitions, we may feel as though we’re ‘neither here nor there’, located in an ambiguous, uncertain, and disorienting space between the neatly-imagined past and the disorganised future. What WPIs do when applied to transitions, ultimately, is provide us with the psychological means to tolerate such ambiguities and uncertainties, subverting feelings of personal inadequacy and neutralising threatening environments. This way it becomes a little easier to establish a home away from home, wherever we are, wherever we’re going.

[1] Timothy Wilson, in

[2] Geoffery L. Cohen & Gregory M. Walton

[3] Albert Bandura, in

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