Build resilience, reduce early attrition in less than an hour

Best practice of the week: July 10 – 14

There is a well-documented gap in resilience between well-resourced students (those with plentiful financial resources, strong family support, and large social networks) and their peers with access to fewer resources (who are at more risk).

To address this gap in student confidence, University of Texas at Austin administrators worked with psychology faculty to construct a pre-orientation exercise designed to encourage resilience among high-risk students. Their hypothesis, motivated by research on the importance of self-improvement and belonging in personal success, was that introducing students to the concept of intellectual and social growth prior to their arrival on campus would increase their likelihood of completing their first set of courses.

Online retention exercise

The researchers created a controlled experiment within an online pre-orientation activity called "The UT Mindset," which took most students 25 to 45 minutes to complete. Some students received a set of readings that emphasized both growth (the idea that your brain is a muscle that you can build and improve over time) and belonging (the idea that it is common and normal to feel out of place when acclimating to a new environment and that over time, everyone finds others to connect with). The control group read general passages about Austin’s climate and culture.

Then, all students were asked to reflect on what they read by writing a personal message to another student struggling to acclimate to college, reinforcing and personalizing the key lessons in the readings.

In the control group, there was no clear impact measured by credit completion after the first term; and for low-risk students, neither intervention made much of an impact. But for high-risk students, the growth and belonging exercise had a significant impact: the gap between their credit completion rate and that of the low-risk population was cut in half, from 12% to 6%.

Convinced of the program’s effectiveness, administrators began including this exercise in pre-orientation for all incoming students in fall 2014. The faculty behind the intervention argue that while it does not necessarily change students' beliefs immediately, it subtly improves their reactions to the first few challenges that come their way.

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