Simple interventions can help freshmen conquer their fear of failure

Students from underserved backgrounds are the hardest hit by feelings of inadequacy

With the right motivation, freshmen can overcome self-doubt to feel like they truly belong in college, David Kirp writes for the New York Times' "Sunday Review."

As a student from an underserved high school, Kirp himself didn't believe that he deserved his admission to Amherst College. He would later learn at a class reunion that many of his peers felt the same way in college.

According to Kirp, low-income, minority, and first-generation students are the most likely to doubt their place in college. That lack of confidence can become self-fulling and lead to students dropping out. However, research shows that with some encouragement, students can become more confident in their abilities, leading to better outcomes.

Kirp cites one large-scale experiment in which freshmen and upperclassmen at an unnamed college read accounts of navigating college life. Students learned that while upperclassmen didn't feel like they fit in at first, things got easier once they made friends and interacted with their instructors.

Other freshmen learned through online research about the power of a growth mindset. Such an attitude holds that it is possible to improve with the right attitude and effort.

"The view of intelligence that you adopt for yourself shapes your educational experience," says psychologist Carol Dweck.

Related: Why texting your students isn't "coddling" them

Researchers found that both exercises had a positive effect on students from underserved backgrounds. The year before, just 69% of students completed a full freshman year course load, compared with 79% for their peers who were better adjusted to college life. But with the intervention, that gap was cut almost in half. The exercise has also been shown to make a dent in the achievement gap between black and white students and help graduates in the early stages of their careers.

A similar experiment involving mostly low-income and minority students at elite urban charter schools produced similar results. Forty-one percent of students who completed the exercise remained in college full time their first year, compared with 32% of students who didn't. While all the students initially felt out of place, as freshmen, they were more likely to participate in on-campus activities, live on campus, and seek academic help.

"When you're starting college, you're asking yourself whether you belong here. You're ready to hear from someone like you, someone who has made it," says Claude Steele, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley.  "That's especially important for a negatively stereotyped kid who feels he doesn't fit in" (Kirp, "Sunday Review," New York Times, 8/20). 

Learn how nudges can empower students to overcome self-doubt


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