How Aspirational Targets Can Backfire

Asking to live up to the best of us might not be as inspiring as we think.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

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Visit most college websites today and you’ll find video profiles of exemplary students. Take this one, featuring a student named Arianna, which highlights opportunities available at Oregon State, such as student leadership, scientific research, and overseas internships. Arianna is described in exceptional terms:

“Absolutely remarkable young woman; that was quite clear from day one…She’s an example of what I think of as the renaissance student: she’s involved in everything, she does everything, and she does it at the very highest level.”

“I don’t know very many other universities where you can jump into research your second month in school, and because I had two years under my belt, I was able to go do an internship in Italy.”

Videos like this one are meant, in part, to create aspirations among students. Their intended message is “This is the kind of person you can become at [insert university name here].” But does this kind of messaging work?

Recent research suggests that using exemplary students as aspirational targets may backfire due to a process called discouragement by peer excellence.

Evidence for Discouragement by Peer Excellence

I play in a rec basketball league in which players are ranked based on their performance. This season I finished at the 23rd percentile, a position I would like to improve. According to social comparison theory, I could boost my performance by taking guidance and inspiration from better players… but not too much better. If I compare myself only to the best of the best, I most likely will:

  1. De-identify from the domain (i.e., care less about basketball)
  2. Reduce my effort
  3. Quit

This same process can occur in the classroom when students are exposed to exemplary peers. Drs. Todd Rogers (Harvard) and Avi Feller (Berkeley) studied an online course (MOOC) in which students were randomly assigned peers’ essays to evaluate. Within this naturally occurring experiment, students who graded excellent essays showed discouragement: only 45% of these students earned a course certificate compared to 68% of students who read average essays. By comparison, the negative impact of evaluating excellent essays on completion was roughly equivalent to the positive impact of actually being an excellent essay writer!

Drs. Rogers and Feller next paid individuals on Amazon Mechanical Turk to write an essay, and then randomly assigned them to read either very poor or exemplary essays. The behavior under study was whether participants wrote a second essay, which would only earn them money if it were ranked as one of the best. Reading excellent essays deflated people’s confidence—only 27% of those participants attempted the second essay. However, 43% of people who read poor essays wrote the second essay. Dr. Kit Cho (Houston) replicated these results with undergraduates: 48% of students wrote the second essay after reading peers’ excellent essays, compared to 62% of students who read poor essays.

One response to these outcomes may come from a growth mindset perspective: You should refocus students on the effort that went into writing these essays, not just the quality of the final product. But discouragement may stem not just from peers’ excellent performance, but also from their exemplary effort. Researchers at the University of Toronto attempted to “nudge” intro economics students to study more by norming the expectation that earning an ‘A’ requires 4-6 hours of studying per week. Contrary to their intentions, students studying less than the recommendation showed discouragement by lowering their expectation that they would earn an ‘A’ and correspondingly reducing their study time.

Does Peer Excellence Encourage or Discourage Nontraditional Students?

Some of the motivation behind using exemplary students as aspirational targets comes from the good intentions to recruit and retain a more diverse student body. Seeing a Hispanic student excel in college, for example, might inspire other Hispanic students to enroll. I’m First, a national network to support first-generation college-goers, features numerous videos and stories chronicling these students’ accomplishments. But could the use of exemplars undermine the very motivation we’re trying to cultivate? The answer is complicated.

In a series of studies conducted in French classrooms, youth who were engaged in cognitive tasks were directed to raise their hands every time they completed a problem. This procedure made every student’s performance quite visible to everyone else. Students from upper-middle-class backgrounds were not impacted by the hand raising, but working-class students performed significantly worse under these conditions. These students, presumably, felt discouraged by their peers’ excellence and reduced their effort. Translated to college, upper-middle-class students may have the cultural capital to tolerate comparisons to exemplary students, whereas that situation may be more distressing for working-class students for whom that excellence may seem more unattainable.

Dr. Cho, however, looked at discouragement specifically among nontraditional college students (defined as at least one of the following: enrolled part-time, working full-time, financially independent, having dependents, or being a single parent.) He found that the impact of discouragement by peer excellence was 6.5x larger among traditional versus nontraditional students. Dr. Cho argues that nontraditional students may be more driven by learning goals versus performance goals, rendering moot the impact of social comparison. Their lived experience may also make them more capable of coping with comparison to exemplary peers in ways that prevent discouragement.

Don’t Delete Those Videos Just Yet

We still have much to understand about how students respond to aspirational targets. The conditions under which we’ve studied discouragement by peer excellence are not a perfect analogue for college decision-making, and other studies provide evidence that, under some circumstances, exemplars do provide the inspiration students need. But in light of the studies described here, how do we avoid harming students’ motivation?

  • Reframe “disadvantage.” Dr. Nicole Stephens’ (Northwestern) showed that first-generation students were more likely to seek help and, subsequently, earned better first-year grades after a difference education program. In brief, first-generation near-peers framed their success in college as a result of—not in spite of—being first-generation. Making explicit the ties between exemplary students’ social identities and their success may make them more relatable and inspirational.
  • Make privilege apparent. When working-class French students were given an alternative explanation for their disadvantage—that they were given fewer opportunities to practice than other students—discouragement vanished. Pointing out privileges enjoyed by exemplary students may dispel the narrative that academia is an equal playing field, and help to negate discouragement experienced by other students.
  • Tell students that these are aspirations. One issue with colleges’ aspirational videos is that they may give the impression that this exemplary person is just a normal, run-of-the-mill student. Other students, therefore, may experience imposter syndrome and believe that they need to do things like biomedical research in their first semester, be a peer mentor, and study overseas just to be average. Clearly framing exemplary students as aspirational targets meant to inspire may help them to do just that.

References

Cho, K. W. (2019). Exploring the dark side of exposure to peer excellence among traditional and nontraditional college students. Learning and Individual Differences, 73, 52-58.

Goudeau, S., & Croizet, J.-C. (2016). Hidden advantages and disadvantages of social class: How classroom settings reproduce social inequality by staging unfair comparison. Psychological Science, 28(2), 162-170.

Oreopoulos, P., & Petronijevic, U. (2019). The remarkable unresponsiveness of college students to nudging and what we can learn from it (No. w26059). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Rogers, T., & Feller, A. (2016). Discouraged by peer excellence: Exposure to exemplary peer performance causes quitting. Psychological Science, 27(3), 365-374.

Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943-953.