Having a clear picture of what their future will look like can motivate students to keep going despite the challenges of college life, according to a new study.
This strategy seems to be particularly effective for female students from relatively low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, said Mesmin Destin of Northwestern University, the lead author of the study published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion.
While college is a time of great opportunity for some, it can be stressful for others. It is often the first time that many students are away from their family and friends. Vulnerable students from lower SES backgrounds often encounter greater financial and psychological challenges than others, and this can lead to hesitation — and even withdrawal — from difficult situations, such as when interacting with their lecturers or taking tests and exams.
The researchers wanted to understand if students’ responses to academic challenges improve when they look forward to the future.
This idea is built around the theory of identity-based motivation, the researchers explain. It holds that people can take positive action during times of adversity when they imagine a successful future for themselves.
“The theory of identity-based motivation proposes that activating a focus on a successful future identity may be especially powerful in motivating students who are vulnerable during challenging academic situations to develop a sense of action readiness,” Destin said. “This involves feeling ready and able to take appropriate action when confronting difficulty.”
In two almost identical laboratory experiments — one involving 93 female students, the other 185 students (including 101 women) — participants were first asked either to write about their past or their future success.
The participants were then filmed during a mock interview with a so-called lecturer, and then had to complete a difficult academic test.
The research team noted whether participants’ body language was bold and confident, and measured the amount of effort participants put into the academic test.
The results were consistent with the theory of identity-based motivation, according to the research team.
They discovered that having a successful future identity can especially prevent female students from lower SES backgrounds from withdrawing during challenging academic situations. Specifically, lower SES women who wrote about their future identities displayed greater action readiness compared to those who contemplated their past. They showed more confident body language. It helped them to put more effort into tackling the test, and had an indirect effect on their performance, the researchers reported.
“Activating imagined successful future identities appears to provide a potential pathway to enable vulnerable students to effectively navigate everyday stressors,” Destin said. “The findings, therefore, suggest that certain students may benefit from strategies that remind them to visualize their successful futures prior to any difficult and important task that they might otherwise be likely to avoid.”