Flashback: On Affirmations

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An important New York Times article circulated a couple of years ago that focused on questions of persistence in college. The lessons of the new lines of research as represented in this article are important for those of us who teach writing to first year students (and the link still works).

Many years back, Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher identified what he called “the imposter syndrome,” the belief held by many students that they don’t belong, that others are smarter or better suited to a particular school or program. I used the imposter book chapter to great effect with new grad students at New Mexico State U when I was teaching in the PhD program in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. Everyone related to the feeling that others were better prepared and more likely to be successful. Crassly, others were just naturally smarter. The reading allowed us to talk together about such concerns, to focus on what was under our own control, and to develop both the self-confidence and scholarly habits that would lead to excellent performance. I’ve seen the imposter syndrome invoked in many settings; it garners continuing attention in psychology, learning theory, and elsewhere. It’s obviously a concept with resonance.

The news as represented in the studies cited in the Times piece suggest that feelings of inadequacy strongly affect performance and persistence, and such feelings disproportionately affect lower-income students. Students may fit the institution’s admissions profile—they are smart enough and sufficiently prepared to do well. But they are often confused about how to be successful and afflicted with self-doubt.

The good news is that schools can take action to improve persistence and success for low-income students. The Times article details University of Texas programs that treat the target group of students as high achievers and leaders, providing challenging intellectual enrichment experiences. The program has had great success.

But we don’t need to think only about big programs and initiatives. The article also calls attention to the research of David Yeager. From the abstract of his article on interventions, we learn that “Seemingly ‘small’ social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later.”

I don’t think there is a better place for such interventions—where students begin to affirm their identities as successful college students—than introductory composition. We have the interpersonal closeness, the small class setting, and the focus on writing that make our classrooms a natural fit for such brief interventions. Peer interaction and class discussion can bring out the shared feelings—the fears, uncertainties, and doubts—that affect many college students, allowing them to see that what they feel is widely shared. Yeager’s work is exciting in part because he demonstrates that very brief exercises of 25 minutes or so can have lasting effects on performance.

What might some brief writings or activities focus on? I’d suggest such topics as these:

  • Can you improve your thinking? Can you become smarter? How?
  • Talk to a successful junior or senior. What have they done to be successful at college?
  • Suppose you get a bad grade on a writing assignment. What’s your next step?
  • Write an email to a friend who is still in high school. Based on what you’ve learned since coming to college, offer your friend advice on how to be successful.
  • What are some common stereotypes that might affect how you or your classmates perform in college?
  • Are you smart? Write about a situation where you behaved in a really intelligent way.

I would not make these huge assignments, just brief writings. Depending on the class climate, students might post in the class forum or exchange writings in small groups. Yeager’s findings suggest it is simply the process of engaging in these types of thinking that leads to changes in behavior, so it is not necessary to spend a lot of time drawing out all the complications.

Some of these writings might lead to more extended pieces, perhaps drawing on primary or secondary research. If real interest surfaces, for instance, on getting smarter through brain training, there are plenty of recent articles out there in brain science that show just how malleable an organ it is. But that is not essential. What’s essential is helping students develop the self-confidence and sense of identity that lead to success in college.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.