Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Gap Between College Bound Identities & School Focused Behavior


A 2010 study written by psychologists Mesmin Destin and Daphna Oyserman at the University of Michigan  found that while most students plan to attend at least a 2 year university, the goal of attending college does not necessarily lead to increased school focused behavior (i.e. completing homework, studying more). This finding refutes the logical assumption that because one has a specific goal in mind, that he or she would complete associated tasks in order to achieve said goal. In this case, one would assume that a student who wants to attend college would study more and complete homework in an effort to earn the best grades possible and gain acceptance to college. This study by Destin and Oyserman (2010), however, found that there is not always a link between one's stated goals and actual behaviors.   

In the first study, increased school focused behaviors were largely associated with having a career goal that was school dependent. In other words, students who wanted to become doctors, lawyers or teachers (careers that require advanced degrees) invested more time in homework and received better grades over time than students whose career aspirations were education independent (Destin & Oyserman, 2010). Education independent career goals included athlete, actor and musician. Thus, while 88.8% of the students sampled expected to attend college, less than half (46%) had an education dependent identity and engaged in increased school focused behavior.

For the second study which sought to establish causality, Destin and Oyserman (2010) completed a randomized trial in order to see how education dependent versus education independent identities affected planned and actual academic effort in a real world context. When students were shown a graph relating median salaries to level of educational attainment, they planned to invest more time in school and were eight times more likely to complete an extra credit assignment. Conversely, students who were shown information comparing the median salaries of "regular" citizens against those of the most popular actors, athletes and musicians planned to invest less time in homework and were less likely to complete extra credit work. The researchers concluded that students are more likely to engage in current school focused effort when adult wage-earning identities feel education dependent (i.e."who I want to be is dependent on how well I do in school") (Destin & Oyserman, 2010). For these students a link is drawn between adult identities and current effort. Destin and Oyserman's study (2010) indicates that a student failing to see the connection between adult identities and current action puts him or her at risk for low school focused effort. More importantly, this study indicate that simply saying that one wants to attend college is not enough to propel him or her to exert the amount of effort needed to achieve this goal; the student also needs to understand how current effort is associated with that goal in order to produce the required school focused behaviors.

For parents, teachers and others who work with young people on a daily basis, this important study reveals the connections that sometimes need to be pointed out to young people in order for them to see how current effort is related to their future goals. Reiterating the importance of higher education may not be enough to ensure that specific groups of students reach that plateau.

**Destin, M. and Oyserman, D. (2010). Incentivizing education: seeing schoolwork as an investment, not a chore. Journal of Experimental Psychology

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