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New research demonstrates how specific interventions can boost success of first generation and minority students in college

May 31, 2016
A paper in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ reports on benefits of certain remedies to close achievement gaps.
A paper in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ reports on benefits of certain remedies to close achievement gaps.
A paper in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ reports on benefits of certain remedies to close achievement gaps.

Simple exercises to help incoming students understand the challenges that they would face in college substantially improved the success achieved by first generation and minority students, according to a new study from researchers affiliated with Stanford Graduate School of Education and other institutions.

The results add to the evidence that well designed psychological interventions could help close persistent achievement gaps occurring in higher education institutions nationwide. Students who are from lower income backgrounds, under-represented minority groups or families with no previous college graduates typically do worse than other students at the same schools. This gap can be attributed, in part, to negative stereotypes that may trouble such students about how members of their groups have historically been less successful in college than others.

The findings from the study, which were published in the May 31 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the interventions narrowed the difference not only in academic achievement in college but also in terms of students’ involvement in campus life and building relationships with classmates, faculty and administrators.

The research involved randomized controlled trials of three “lay theory interventions” in which recent high school graduates and incoming college students were presented with vivid stories from older students that described social and academic challenges they faced —and overcame — in the course of transitioning to and starting their college educations.

According to the paper, the stories cast these difficulties as “common and changeable,” and offered “data —either results of surveys or summaries of the neuroscience of learning—in support of these messages.” In turn, participating students could then “take ownership of the lay theory” presented in the stories “by writing about challenges they anticipated and how these challenges are common and likely to change over time.”

The paper explains that this “saying is believing” technique may help the targeted students to internalize the lessons and prevent negative stereotypes from undermining their confidence.

 “When students face difficulties in college, they have to make sense of them. Why am I feeling lonely? Why was I criticized? Why am I struggling?” said Gregory Walton, an author of the paper and associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and a principal investigator with the College Transition Collaborative. “It helps to know in advance that it’s normal to struggle at first in college. It doesn’t mean you’re dumb or that people like you don’t belong in college. When you know that struggles are normal, it’s easier to take a chance on making friends even when you feel different or isolated, join a student group, or go to your professor’s office hours. And doing those kinds of things helps students build relationships that can support them through college.”

The lead author is David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin and a Stanford alumnus who received his PhD from the Graduate School of Education in 2011.

Along with Walton and Yeager, other co-authors affiliated with Stanford are: Geoffrey Cohen, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education; Shannon Brady, a doctoral student at Stanford Graduate School of Education; Ezgi Akcinarb, Carol Dweck, Hazel Rose Markus and David Paunesku of the Department of Psychology; and Robert Urstein of the Graduate School of Business. The remaining authors are from Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington, the Character Lab and uAspire.

The study, which involved more than 9,500 students, documented a narrowing of achievement gaps by several measures. The exercises closed differences in full-time enrollment and grades between students from backgrounds that are disadvantaged in college and other students at the same schools by 31 to 40 percent.

When compared with similar students from disadvantaged backgrounds at the same colleges who did not receive the interventions, the targeted participants who completed the exercise were more socially and academically integrated in college, more likely to complete the first year enrolled full-time, less likely to fall in the bottom of the class, and earned higher grade point averages.

This is not the first time researchers have discovered the benefits of such interventions, but never before on such a large scale. Several earlier studies with much smaller sample sizes have shown impressive results. (See, for instance, this story about an earlier paper by Cohen on an intervention with middle-school Latino American students or a commentary on a Washington Post blog by Cohen and a colleague on other studies.)

“One reason these findings are so exciting is that they validate and replicate findings from earlier research conducted with a much smaller set of students,” said Yeager. “With more than 9,500 students, these studies provide an unparalleled test of the replicability and policy-relevance of such exercises to help students anticipate common challenges in the transition to college.”

The researchers emphasized that these interventions should not be mistaken to be silver bullets. The exercises do not work in isolation but help students take advantage of opportunities available to them. For the exercises to be effective, students need access to resources and other support.

Yeager and Walton are principal investigators with the College Transition Collaborative, a new organization that aims to advance the research and translate it into practice.

With support from school partners and the Raikes Foundation, the College Transition Collaborative is conducting ongoing work with colleges and universities to further evaluate this approach and identify in what kinds of schools and with what kinds of students it will be most effective in improving student outcomes.

The study in PNAS was made possible by support from the William and Melinda Gates Foundation, Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information about the College Transition Collaborative, contact Natasha Krol, at npk@stanford.edu or (415) 741-5663.

The above story was adapted by Graduate School of Education chief communications officer Jonathan Rabinovitz from a news release from the College Transition Collaborative.