Using Self-Affirmation to Support Struggling Students

Students’ core values can be a refuge from threats to their self-worth.

Posted Feb 08, 2018

Let’s try a quick exercise. The table below lists 15 values that most people find important. Select the two values that are most important in your life and think about why they’re important to you. It might even be useful to take a few minutes to write down your ideas.

Ross O'Hara
Source: Ross O'Hara

What you just did is known as a value affirmation. This intervention traces back to Dr. Claude Steele’s pioneering work in the early 1980s on threats to the self. He and his colleagues demonstrated that challenges to one’s self-worth, which normally result in psychological distress and maladaptive behavior, could be ameliorated by giving people the chance to reaffirm important values like those listed above.

In the past decade, this intervention has been leveraged extensively in the world of education. Given that academic performance is evaluative, comparative, and high-stakes, poor grades can be extremely threatening to a student’s self-worth. A natural response is for a student to withdraw from school, physically or psychologically, in order to preserve their ego. However, providing students with the opportunity to reaffirm their important values can not only prevent withdrawal but also help students react to future threats in more adaptive ways.

National Park Service
Source: National Park Service

Helping Underrepresented College Students

Research on value affirmation is vast and growing, so I’ve chosen to focus on recent studies that demonstrate the effects of value affirmation on college students’ real-life academic performance. A main goal of this work has been to reduce performance deficits among underrepresented students—deficits due, at least in part, to stereotype threat. For example, Latino students who completed value affirmation exercises significantly improved their GPAs over the next two years, thereby reducing the gap between Latino and White students’ GPAs by over 90 percent.

But the utility of value affirmations is not circumscribed to certain demographic groups. Generally, students who feel like they do not belong in college experience a steady decline in their GPA. However, in a study of intro psych students—over 85 percent of whom identified as white—students who felt like they did not belong in college but who completed a value affirmation exercise showed a positive trajectory in their GPAs similar to that seen among students who felt they did belong. Together, these studies demonstrate that when students encounter a threat to their self-worth, no matter the source of that threat, the opportunity to reaffirm their most important values can lead to a significant and long-term improvement in their academic outcomes.

Applications in STEM

Another group of college students who often experience threat is those who aspire to STEM majors and careers. These threats are especially salient for students who are stereotyped as underperformers in math and science. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, first-generation students, and students from low-income households, therefore, may benefit most from the opportunity to self-affirm within the context of their STEM courses. In an early demonstration led by Dr. Akira Miyake, Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, undergraduates completed either a value affirmation intervention or a control writing task during the first and fourth weeks of their introductory physics course. When women wrote about their values, they significantly reduced the gender gap in performance on the midterm, final, and a national standardized test of physics knowledge. The benefits of the intervention were especially pronounced for women who endorsed gender stereotypes related to math and science; in other words, those women who would be most susceptible to stereotype threat.

Dr. Judith Harackiewicz, the University of Wisconsin Professor of Psychology famed for her research on utility-value interventions in STEM, has also shown that value affirmation improves STEM performance for first-generation students. In her research, 798 undergraduates completed a value affirmation exercise or a control task during weeks three and eight of their gateway biology course. First-generation students, on average, moved from earning C’s in biology to B’s, thereby reducing the gap in performance with continuing-generation students by 50 percent. But the effects of value affirmation were more far-reaching than just this one class. 20 percent more first-generation students who completed the intervention signed up for the second semester of biology, and these students earned higher overall GPAs (not just in biology or STEM) over the next three years, reducing performance gaps by over 50 percent. This brief intervention appeared to create a ripple that impacted first-generation students’ entire college experience.

How does value affirmation work?

Researchers are still exploring the psychological process that leads from this brief writing exercise to improvements in academic performance years down the line. To date, however, two elements of value affirmation interventions seem particularly important: the nature of these affirmations, and the triggering of long-term changes in how students respond to academic threats.

If students want to boost their academic performance, paradoxically, they need to self-affirm in domains unrelated to academics. For example, middle-schoolers who reaffirmed their own sense of belonging showed an improvement in their grades. This finding seems counterintuitive; it plays into the idea that students threatened by academics will invest in their relationships instead of their schoolwork. However, the purpose of self-affirmation is to reduce threat, and an affirmation that focuses a student on the source of that threat (i.e. school) could increase anxiety and be quickly undermined by negative feedback. On the contrary, value affirmations that bolster self-worth and direct attention away from threat have been shown to increase self-confidence, reduce dread, and mitigate concerns that one’s background will limit one’s ability to succeed in college.

Second, value affirmation appears to be a perfect example of what Dr. Gregory Walton, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford, calls a wise intervention. This type of intervention changes behavior by targeting its underlying psychology—in this case, how a student perceives threat. Doing so can then kick start a recursive process, meaning that the student continues to be influenced by the intervention long after it’s over. In the study mentioned earlier, Latino college students were brought into the laboratory two years after the original value affirmation intervention. First, the researchers made them feel threatened by having them write down all of the exams and assignments they had to complete before the semester ended. Afterward, students wrote freely about whatever was on their mind. Naturally, most wrote about how much they had to do, given they were just asked about it. However, students who completed the value affirmation exercise two years prior self-affirmed across an array of domains without any prompting. In other words, these students kept self-affirming at some level whenever they faced a stressful moment in college.

That is quite a powerful response to a short exercise and shows why value affirmation can have such a profound effect on students’ performance years later. Given the low cost of such an intervention—less than 30 minutes of class time or as an independent assignment—it seems a no-brainer to try this technique out with more students to help those who are struggling to get back on track.


Brady, S. T., Reeves, S. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E….Cohen, G. L. (2016). The psychology of the affirmed learner: Spontaneous self-affirmation in the face of stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 353-373.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C. J., Blair, S. S., Rouse, D. I., & Hyde, J. S. (2014). Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 375-389.

Layous, K., Davis, E. M., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2016). Feeling left out, but affirmed: Protecting against the negative effects of low belonging in college. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 227-231.

Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L. E., Finkelstein, N. D., Pollock, S. J., Cohen, G. L., & Ito, T. A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science, 330, 1234-1237.

Shnabel, N., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Demystifying values-affirmation interventions: Writing about social belonging is a key to buffering against identity threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(5), 663-676.

Steele, C. M., & Liu, T. J. (1983). Dissonance processes as self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 5-19.

Tibbetts, Y., Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Boston, J. S., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Affirming independence: Exploring mechanisms underlying a values affirmation intervention for first-generation students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(5), 635-659.