Student Affairs

A Social-Psychological Perspective on College Persistence

Presenter: David S. Yeager, UT Austin Department of Psychology

  • Research Affiliate, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS)
  • Fellow, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Co-Chair, Mindset Scholars Network
  • Co-PI, College Transition Collaborative (CTC)

Information on the Terry Piper lecture series

Opening Remarks by William Watkins, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at CSUN

  • This is the sixth annual Terry Piper lecture!
  • Deepen understanding of factors that lead to student success
  • Terry Piper served as VP from 2001 until he passed in 2010
  • Terry was on a mission to put students at the center of what we do every day. He was an intentional and collaborative leader, a trendsetter and someone who wanted to make CSUN an exemplar in becoming a learning-centered campus. Dr. Piper was at the center of all the conversations around this movement.
  • Student success is not just the work of faculty members in the classroom, but all of us who work on this campus.
  • Our CSU system has focused on student success this year, in particular, through Graduation Initiative 2025 to help more students graduate – “make it to the finish line.”
  • We need to look beyond barriers students may experience

Remarks from Provost Yi Li

  • I appreciate how many people are in attendance today! This is important because it takes our entire community to support our students.
  • I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Yeager speak last year, along with several of my colleagues, and I was extremely impressed with his research in advancing our knowledge of student mindset, their ability to be aware of their place in the campus ecosystem, and their value, self-worth and potential for growth.
  • Dr. Yeager’s message is not just theory…it includes practical advice on how to address students who are having challenges. In general , we are not encouraging when having difficult conversations. We tend to use punitive language that frequently leads students to give up…the exact opposite of what we want students to take away.
  • CSUN’s initial work using Dr. Yeager’s recommendations is very promising!

Dr. Yeager’s Presentation

  • More than 1/2 of your students are first-time college attendees…your institution is a gateway to the American dream for so many people.
  • Your campus is doing great work with developmental math, and you have a willingness to learn and improve, which is critical to making improvements.
  • I’m going to share some insights about our research…some levers you might try pulling in your own work. My hope is that this will help you transform and continue to improve an already great place.
  • Our findings came through research and work over decades

“Solutionitis” – doing something – anything – to and for students

  • Mentoring, cohorts, accountability, choosing major, placement, career planning, video games, etc. These solutions may work for some students in certain situations, but are they coherent?
  • Most of these solutions did not “move the needle” in the desired direction, and in some cases falsely led to conclusions that students have a lack of ability and shouldn’t be in college to begin with.
  • Approach to doing things with more rigorous and faster: you need to keep standards high, but improve the supports for students
  • The questions students ask themselves when they encounter adversity can heavily influence their college success trajectory.

The College Transition

  • Self esteem typically drops during the first semester; it’s hard initially, but it improves over time.
  • When the student’s self esteem falls, we need to ask attribution questions: “Is this normal,” and “does it get better?”
  • These are the same kinds of questions our veterans ask themselves.

Belonging Uncertainty

  • The persistent worry that “people like me” don’t belong and cant succeed here.
  • It’s not just the questioning, but the questions themselves. Ambiguity can lead to answers that lead to concrete attributions, i.e. if you’re looking for certain answers, you’re gonna find them.
  • This is a recursive process that can gain momentum and  spiral downward.
  • It’s typically cumulative, beginning with bureaucratic hassles. Dr. Yeager provided flowchart examples for math and engineering pathways, which was pretty funny 🙂
  • Another bureaucratic hassle: web forms that delete your information! What does it MEAN that the form is frustrating. If you’re surrounded by advantages, than this frustration doesn’t portend anything significant…it’s just annoying. If you’re NOT in this position, the annoying form could be significant to you in other ways.
  • 1st generation students aren’t walking around asking whether they don’t belong, but when they encounter difficulty they may interpret it in a negative way.
  • What can you measure in high school that will impact retention? High belonging uncertainty is a big factor (particularly among 1st gen and minority students).
  • Belonging is something with traction that you can focus on
  • CSUN 2015 – 2016 survey: what is the best predictor of first-year, full-time enrollment for Fall & Spring?
    • Belonging
    • Extracurricular involvement

Pre-Matriculation Mindset Intervention

  • Difficulties are normal, and can get better with time if you take steps to become socially and academically integrated.
  • Growth mindset and social belonging
    • Give if/then behaviors to do
    • Give theory and meaning in advance, not proscriptive steps to follow
    • Make surveys as brief as we can
    • Read about the brain: struggle – “getting smarter,” not “dumb.” The brain is a muscle that needs exercise.
    • Read statistical results of a survey of upperclassmen
    • Read stories from diverse upperclassmen
    • Write your own story to comfort next year’s freshmen (“saying is believing”). This is an invitation to a community.
    • Freshman Orientation Website
    • On time degree completion in one of our studies: tripled and even quadrupled when the interventions mentioned above are done: 16% growth mindset only, 20% social belonging only, 20% mindset & social belonging.
    • UT Austin study showed a 20 %- 40% reduction in the achievement gap

Post-Matriculation Moments of Psychological Friction

  • How many events are students experiencing that threaten their success?
  • Common student frustration factors:
    • Faculty members’ beliefs that only students with exceptional brilliance can succeed: “If it’s not easy for you, you’re in the wrong major”
    • Losing interest in pre-req courses
    • Frustrating web sites and other bureaucratic hassles
    • Stigma of remediation and probation
  • What can be done to slow decline and psychological friction?
    • Mentor’s dilemma: how to simultaneously criticize and motivate. Many do this via the “shit sandwich,” i.e. provide a useless compliment, followed by the gut punch of criticism, followed by another useless compliment.
    • High standards & achievement that show you respect students. Example: a Post-it note given to students a couple weeks in advance of a writing project, “I give criticism because I have high standards, and I know you can meet them.” was quite effective.
  • Relevance matters: help students see and construct the relevance of classroom activities.
    • Select a topic covered in class
    • Write a one paragraph essay that applies the topic to your life or to the life of someone you know (control: just summarize)
    • 3-5x per semester

Think about the “belonging uncertainty” pipeline and fix the leaks!


By Paul Schantz

CSUN Director of Web & Technology Services, Student Affairs. husband, father, gamer, part time aviator, fitness enthusiast, Apple fan, and iguana wrangler.

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