Why some students are better than others at achieving goals

It's not what you say, but what you do that makes a difference

Though almost all college students believe academic performance is important, only some of them act on those beliefs, Melissa Ferguson and Clayton Critcher write for The Conversation

Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, and Critcher, an associate professor of marketing, cognitive science, and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, explain that it's not enough to simply ask college students how important it is to succeed academically. Most will unsurprisingly say that doing well in college is important, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will make good grades.

That's because when asked about the importance of succeeding at goals, people tend to state their explicit beliefs, which are more aspirational than actionable.

Nearly everyone's explicit beliefs about academic performance are the same—good grades are good—so then why do some students actually do better than others? To find the answer, Ferguson and Critcher looked to implicit beliefs, which are the mental associations that reveal people's judgments. For example, a large body of research shows that while people may have an explicit belief in equality for all racial groups, their implicit beliefs might indicate racial bias.

The researchers used a computer-based test to measure people's implicit beliefs regarding certain topics such as schoolwork and then measure participants' success and persistence in carrying out relevant goals. Ferguson and Critcher found that having an explicit belief in the value of a goal wasn't enough. Only those students who also believed in the goal implicitly actually acted on those beliefs and achieved their goals.

Their conclusions were consistent with multiple studies finding a correlation between having an implicit belief in strong academic performance and achieving higher grades. Similarly, students who had a stronger implicit belief in the importance of the GRE scored much better than their peers on a practice GRE test.  

Those who struggled with tasks related to self-determination—such as completing assignments on time—had the most to gain from an implicit belief in the importance of schoolwork.

"In other words, it was those individuals in need of a boost who most clearly benefited from the implicit nudge that their pursuits were important," Ferguson and Critcher write. 

The right messages at the right time can keep at-risk students in college

It remains to be seen whether implicit beliefs could actually compel people to work harder, or if it's simply people with strong implicit beliefs who have a greater chance of success. Or, perhaps if changing people's implicit beliefs could have an effect on how likely they are to succeed.

"To be clear: It is certainly not the case that what people say about how much they care about something does not matter at all," the authors conclude. "But, especially among those who say they do care about something—such as the vast majority of college students caring about their performance at school—a measure of their implicit beliefs may give us a better idea about how likely they are to succeed" (Ferguson/Critcher, The Conversation, 10/26). 

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