Using Self-Persuasion to Improve Educational Equity

Inspirational stories often omit a key piece: A moment of self-reflection.

Posted Nov 12, 2020

Kyle Gregory Devaras/Unsplash
Source: Kyle Gregory Devaras/Unsplash

As of 2019, Black and Latino adults were approximately 35%-50% less likely to hold a bachelor's degree compared to White, non-Latino adults. Similarly, a 2011 report showed that students whose parents hold a bachelor’s degree are over twice as likely to earn their own bachelor’s degree as compared to first-generation students. U.S. colleges and universities have long been concerned by these equity gaps, but this issue is now under greater scrutiny given our nationwide calls for social justice. One strategy colleges have used to bridge this divide is to normalize and celebrate the accomplishments of underrepresented students through stories and videos (check out examples here, here, and here). While these are wonderful to read or to watch, colleges hoping that these vignettes drive recruitment and retention are often missing a key ingredient: self-persuasion.

Three Interventions That Improved Equity

Many colleges have been inspired to showcase vignettes like these because of rigorously evaluated interventions. Most recently, a social-belonging intervention significantly increased second- and third-year retention among African American, Native American, Latino, and first-generation students at a broad-access, Hispanic-Serving Institution. These students read nine stories from upper-year students that “highlighted common academic and social challenges to belonging and represented these challenges as normal and temporary” (p. 5). They then wrote a letter to assuage a future student’s concerns about belonging when transitioning to college. This brief exercise improved retention for all students, but especially so among the socially disadvantaged groups mentioned above: +9-10 percentage points for retention, and +0.19 points in first-year GPA.

This intervention was informed by several earlier studies, but two, in particular, stand out. First-year students at an elite university reviewed findings from an upper-year student survey, which also conveyed that belonging concerns are common and lessen over time. Targeted students then recorded a speech for next year’s incoming class about overcoming belonging challenges in college. This intervention improved the GPAs of all student groups—differences were still evident during senior year!—but African Americans especially benefitted.

Second, a “difference-education intervention” had first-year students attend a panel in which upper-year students emphasized how their social-class background, no matter what it was, contributed to their success. For example, first-generation panelists talked about seeking help on campus because their parents weren’t a resource for them, whereas other panelists talked about receiving great college prep at their elite, private high schools. After the panel, targeted students recorded a video to pass along the lessons of difference education to future students. This exercise seemed to completely eliminate the generational performance gap, raising first-generation students’ first-year GPAs by an average of 0.24 points.

The Power of Self-Persuasion

Although all of these interventions leveraged stories from successful, upper-year students, note another common thread: Targeted students translating lessons learned into advice for future students. Why is this step so important? One reason is the power of self-persuasion, also called the “saying-is-believing effect.” Essentially, some of these students may be concerned about whether they belong in college, perhaps even considering whether to drop out. But when they advise future students that they’ll get through these same challenges, it forces their attitude to change ever so slightly to conform to their public behavior. In other words, when students convince others that things will get better, they may actually be convincing themselves.

Another reason why self-reflection may be essential to achieving the desired effect is that aspirational targets can sometimes backfire, known as discouragement by peer excellence. If students fail to see themselves in these vignettes, they may believe they’re incapable of the same level of success and fail to internalize those lessons as relevant to them. Advising future students prompts reflection on how those stories apply to their own lives, thereby facilitating self-persuasion.

Moreover, giving advice to others is empowering. People feel more motivated to improve their lives (e.g., saving more money, losing weight, or finding a job) when they give advice to others rather than receive advice themselves. This same principle applies in the classroom: High school students earned significantly higher grades after giving advice on studying to middle school students, as opposed to receiving advice from their teachers. By positioning college students as benefactors who are helping next year’s class, we can boost their own confidence and motivation.

Finally, crafting these messages may serve as an act of expressive writing. Decades of research have shown that detailed writing about one’s negative emotions alleviates those feelings and leads to better mental and physical health. These lessons have been successfully applied to improving college students’ health and academic performance, so it may be that these interventions function similarly. When students write speeches or letters to future students about their social belonging challenges, the associated negative emotions may be dampened, thereby helping those students experience a better fit as they continue on with college.

Applying Self-Persuasion

Lessons from these interventions can be leveraged whenever you use peer stories to influence students’ behavior. You must allow students to reflect on how those inspiring vignettes relate to their own journey, and better yet, provide opportunities to pass along that inspiration to others. At the most formal level, you can mimic these researchers and ask students to record a speech or write a letter about how social belonging in college improves over time. But we know most students won’t make time for that, so be creative. Perhaps students can respond to a vignette with a tweet, Instagram, or TikTok. Or you can build these exercises into a process students are already motivated to complete, like an application for a scholarship or an on-campus job. No matter what you come up with, the important thing is to make sure you pair inspiration with self-persuasion, or students may not embrace the message.

Want to learn more about using behavioral science to help college students succeed? Join me for a free, educational webinar on Wednesday, November 18 at 2:00 pm EST.


Murphy, M. C., Gopalan, M., Carter, E. R., Emerson, K. T. U., Bottoms, B. L., & Walton, G. M. (2020). A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university. Science Advances, 6(29), eaba4677.

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(4), 943-953.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.