Study identifies factors that lead to greater college success
Educational attainment is a national priority because it creates both economic and personal gains: higher incomes, better individual and family health and deeper civic engagement. U.S. college enrollments are increasing, suggesting greater educational attainment; however, national college completion rates are lagging behind other developed nations. Recent research suggests that U.S. college students could succeed if they are encouraged to develop a sense of belonging, a growth mindset and salient personal goals and values, according to a new national report co-authored by a Rice University psychology professor.
"Supporting Students' College Success: The Role of Assessment of Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Competencies" was released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and commissioned by the National Science Foundation. Fred Oswald, a professor of psychology at Rice, was a co-author of the report, which was based on a review of 49 articles targeting 61 experimental studies that examined interventions to improve educational attainment.
Across these studies, three competencies most frequently showed evidence of supporting students' college persistence and success, as measured by grades, retention and graduation:
A sense of belonging, meaning that college students (particularly underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students) feel that they belong in college, fit in well and are socially integrated. Approximately 85 percent of the studies measuring students' sense of belonging demonstrated a positive impact of belonging on students' college GPAs.
A growth mindset, referring to college students' beliefs that their own intelligence is not a fixed entity, but rather a malleable quality that college can help improve. Seventy-five percent of the studies measuring students' growth mindset showed this characteristic had a positive impact on students' college GPAs.
Personal goals and values that college students perceive to be directly linked to the achievement of a future, desired end. Approximately 83 percent of the studies measuring personal goals showed this characteristic as having a positive impact on students' final course grades.
Oswald noted that this recent research reported some remarkable findings based on low-cost, brief writing exercises for improving these intra- and interpersonal competencies. One required students to write about the relevance of course topics to their own life or to the life of a family member or close friend. Another intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient, and used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the framing in their writing.
With these interventions, GPAs have been shown impressively to improve not only in the class where the intervention was given, but many semesters beyond, Oswald said. Furthermore, the interventions show the largest benefits accrue in student groups that are at greatest risk for academic failure. Oswald thus noted that these interventions have promise but deserve further intensive research to assure these interventions can impact student success in the future, in other college settings.
Oswald said measures of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies should be held to rigorous development procedures and statistical standards, just like the SAT, ACT, MCAT, LSAT and other standardized tests of cognitive competencies.
"Many current assessments of these competencies fall short in providing solid statistical evidence supporting their reliability and validity," Oswald said. "It is important to investigate these measures carefully, for example, because students can differ in how they interpret the meaning of rating scales, or sometimes they feel pressured to present themselves in the best light."
He and his co-authors recommend further research in partnership with higher education institutions to build on the report's findings and to find reliable ways to track these intra- and interpersonal characteristics that can lead to increased college completion.