The Psychology of Student Success

Higher Ed Gamma

“America,” the headline of New York Times opinion column by David Brooks blares, “should be in the middle of a schools revolution.”  The piece refers to K-12 schools, and the concerns it articulates should be familiar to anyone familiar with the 1983 Nation at Risk report’s catchphrase:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

As grounds for concern, Brooks’s essay points to five areas of concern:

  • Shrinking enrollments:  In California, public-school enrollment fell 270,928.
  • Academic regression:  The erasure of two decades of math and reading gains for 9 year olds.
  • Rising absenteeism:  70 percent of schools reported chronic absenteeism among students in the 2021-2022 school year.  41 percent of New York City children were chronically absent in 2021-2022.
  • Worsening discipline problems: 46 percent of schools surveyed saw a rise in fighting and threats between students, and 56 percent of schools reported frequent disruptions due to student misconduct.
  • Surging inequality:  Performance gaps between the highest and lowest performing K-12 students significantly increased.

“Let’s get beyond stale debates over charters, vouchers, gender neutral bathrooms and the like,” the center-right pundit proclaims.  This country needs “to rethink the nuts and bolts of how we teach in America.”  Nothing too controversial there.  But when he spells out his suggestions – at least one-day-a-week of at-home learning, more personalized, parental-led schooling, mastery-based instruction, open classrooms – it’s clear that he doesn’t have a genuine plan to address the serious challenges K-12 education faces.

Brooks is certainly right that the problems with K-12 education must be confronted head-on.  In fact, the issues of equity and achievement may be even worse than his op-ed suggests.  So let me offer a trigger warning and some caveats before I proceed.  No-stakes standardized tests that don’t count toward a grade or graduation are particularly poor measures of learning.  Still, these are the best we’ve got.

  • The State of Michigan requires public high school seniors to take the SAT.  A quarter of Asian Americans students scored 1400 or above on the SAT, compared to 4 percent or less of white, Hispanic, and African American students.  The figures were nearly as skewed for scores between 1200 and 1399.
  • In California, just 47 percent of students met the language arts standards, and 33 percent met the math standards, with the results heavily lop-sided.  Among Asian American students, 75 met the language arts standard and 70 percent the math standard.  For other groups, the scores were as low as 30 percent for language arts and 16 percent for math.  A sizable share of California 8th graders perform at a 4th grade level.

Discussions of proficiency and equity gaps often quickly descend into teacher bashing, parent-blaming, and worse, and Brooks’s readers’ comments certainly exemplify the blame game.  Among the supposed culprits contributing to low performance: teachers’ unions, ed schools, teacher quality, declining academic rigor, educational fads, unmotivated, disruptive, and distracted students, various educational fads, and the decline in time students spend on homework and reading — as well as under- and inequitable funding, excessively large classes, and low teacher pay.

Then there’s the biggest problem of all: This country’s lack of support for lower-income parents – including affordable childcare and pre-K services – which transforms schools into a kind of sanctuary, which is very little to do with learning but more to do with food, shelter, and safety.

I’m afraid the formulaic and predictable comments do little to elevate the conversation.  In fact, I found the comments less sophisticated than those generated by Chat GPS, which attributed performance disparities to:

  • Challenges in students’ personal lives such as inadequate nutrition, unstable housing situations, and exposure to violence and trauma.
  • Discrimination and bias, including lower expectations from teachers and peers, limited access to resources, and cultural differences in learning styles.
  • Differences in quality of schools and teachers, in levels of family support and involvement in their children’s education, and in levels of student motivation and engagement.

So, I thought I might turn to one highly touted solution to lagging academic performance: a focus on students’ psychology and its relationship to school success.

The headline of a recent article says “Persistence Makes The Biggest Difference To School Grades.”

Search the web and you’ll find many similar titles: That grit and resilience and mindset and drive and executive function and self-efficacy – not merely intelligence — are keys to academic success and student achievement.

Of course, you’ll also find other purported secrets of student success:  nightly sleep, hands-on activities, grades, curiosity, social integration and a sense of belonging, wrap-around support, a caring, interesting, and inspiring teacher, or simply a willingness to learn.

Clearly, there’s no single key to school success.

Still, one message that a growing body of research conveys is that instructors need to teach more than content and disciplinary skills.  Students’ psychology matters.  By that, educational psychologists refer to a host of cognitive and psychological variables that correlate with academic achievement.  These include a student’s self-concept, self-regulation skills, mindset, cognitive flexibility, emotional and impulse control, stress tolerance, and task initiation capabilities.

If that’s true for K-12 education, it also applies to college undergraduates.

But even if it’s the case that students’ attitude, mentality, or outlook are among academic success’ secret ingredients, we must nonetheless ask:  Can a growth mindset or a self-efficacy or focus and attention or time management or impulse control or task initiation or executive function or the ability to multitask or self-monitor be taught not just in K-12 schools but in college?

The answer is “yes.”

The problems that I encounter in my undergraduate classes in the pandemic’s wake resemble those found in many of today’s K-12 classrooms.  Not discipline and disruption,  but issues involving:

Focus:  Students who find it hard to concentrate or pay attention or resist distractions and who are having trouble following instructions, listening attentively, identifying crucial points made in the classroom, or remembering what they hear and read.

Executive Functioning: Students who find it difficult to initiate, plan, and complete tasks, or to remain on task, organize their time, and persevere to a longer-term project’s completion.

Coping: Students who are emotionally fragile, and who are having trouble managing stress and anxiety and responding maturely and positively to frustration, setbacks, and disappointment.

As a result, I, like my K-12 counterparts, must address my students’ “non-cognitive skills,” those “soft skills” that relate to motivation, conscientiousness, perseverance, academic mindset, and learning strategies (which, of course, involve cognition).

It’s easy to think of those psychological skills as a diversion or deviation from my primary tasks, but if I want my students to succeed, it’s a responsibility that I must take on.  That means addressing each of the following topics:

  • Time management:  I repeatedly prompt my students about assignments and due dates.
  • Mindset: I do my best to help my undergrads develop a more positive mindset and making sure that they understand that abilities aren’t fixed and that skills can improve over time with sufficient practice and persistence.
  • Attention and focus:  I devote class time to cultivating active listening and note-taking skills by asking students to sum up or outline, diagram, or visualize essential points made in class.
  • Accountability:  I provide opportunities for students to take responsibility for classroom learning by introducing a class session, organizing and leading classroom discussions, and reflecting on each class session’s take-aways.
  • Social skills:  I divide my students into small groups to research and solve problems and report back to the full class.
  • Self-regulation:  I work with the students to set realistic goals.  I also divide major assignments into smaller activities, and require students to submit progress reports.
  • Stress management:  I try to follow the advice of offered by experts and help my undergraduates identify the physical and emotional signs of stress, articulate the sources of stress, identify variables that they can control, and guide them toward various sources of support.
  • Resilience:  How a person construes failure makes a big difference.  Is a setback or frustration viewed  as “traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow”?  I use examples from literature or history to illustrate the ways that individuals successfully deal with difficult challenges.

Today’s college instructors must be much more than transmitters of information, graders, or feedback providers. They – we — must recognize the role that students’ psychology plays in academic achievement.

You may not be a cognitive scientist, but if you fail to do more to nurture your students’ executive functioning strategies and a positive mindset, you aren’t doing your job.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
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Tuesday, February 21, 2023