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Can Imagining the Future Help Students Tackle Challenges?

Disadvantaged students might gain from thinking ahead.

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by Ashley Lyles

Weeks deep into the semester, many students are no doubt stressed about meeting all the demands coming their way. In a paper published last month in the journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers present a simple strategy—thinking vividly about future success—that might help students at risk of faltering academically to push harder in the months ahead.

In two studies, college students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds were randomly asked to think about their future, their past, or (in a control condition in one of the studies) the setup of a grocery store. In the future condition, the students were asked to imagine and write about themselves as successful college graduates. Specifically, they were asked to envision their lives as middle- or upper-class professionals and how their finances, status, and the way they are perceived might be different. Those assigned to the past condition were asked to think about themselves before they began making plans for college, their family’s money and status, and how that influenced the way others thought of them.

After this exercise, the researchers assessed the students’ demeanor as they navigated a mock student-faculty interaction—their body posture was rated by a research assistant unaware of their demographics or condition—as well as their effort on a challenging set of GRE questions. Female students from poorer backgrounds (reporting household incomes of $70,000 or less) tended to carry themselves with greater confidence in the faculty conversations if they had gone through the future-thinking condition rather than one of the others, the researchers found. They also attempted a greater number of GRE questions, on average, in the future-focused condition.

That the apparent benefits were observed among less-advantaged female students, but not relatively wealthy students or male students, is in keeping with the researchers' thinking: Some research suggests that these students may tend to engage with academic challenges less readily than their classmates. “This research shows that (they) can draw from vivid and motivating images of their own futures to help support their motivation and persistence during challenging and uncomfortable tasks,” says Mesmin Destin, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “It also suggests that faculty members should welcome students into their offices and engage with them about their goals as a potential way to help mitigate the power imbalance that many students experience.”

Dale H. Schunk, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, acknowledges that the results are “thought provoking and are consistent with what current motivation theories predicted about the energizing role of goals.” However, he notes that the paper does not directly explore the mechanism by which a vision of future identity might lead to positive academic outcomes. Also, the results might differ if a student’s vision of a future identity does not align with her actual interests, Schunk adds. “I would suspect that a lot depends on one's sense of self-efficacy, (the sense that one is) able to successfully implement a plan for attaining that identity. It also should depend on the realism of the identity.”

Despite these limitations and a need for confirmatory research, the studies hold tentative promise for many young women for whom a profitable post-college career would represent a major shift in status. “We found it encouraging,” Destin says, “that the benefits of thinking about a successful future were strongest for students who tend to be most threatened and uncomfortable during interactions with faculty—and who might otherwise avoid them all together.”

Ashley Lyles is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.

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