College Transition Collaborative (CTC)
Achievement gaps continue to persist among minority students from racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups in post-secondary institutions across the nation. Recent research has identified important psychological factors that perpetuate these achievement gaps, which may be partly attributable to students' concerns about fitting in at college. Fortunately, recent developments of brief and targeted psychological interventions have been shown to mitigate these concerns and improve academic performance. As a consequence of its initial success in 2013, the College Transition Collaborative—a group of researchers based in Stanford—have been working with post-secondary institutions to scale and replicate the findings of these initial trials. The University of Pittsburgh is among the 23 schools that are collaborating on this trial. Should the effect prove promising, the belonging intervention materials will be made available to the University of Pittsburgh to use in perpetuity at its discretion.
In-Class Belonging Intervention in Introductory Biology Recitation
Experience with discrimination and knowledge of social stereotypes can lead first-generation college students and students from negatively stereotyped ethnic groups to feel that they may not belong in college (Steele, 2010). The specter of being stereotyped or devalued based on one’s group can create chronic stress (i.e., stereotype or identity threat; Steele, 2010). This can impede performance, discourage students from asking for help from professors or TAs, attending office hours, and taking social risks, such as those required to make new friends. These behaviors can deprive students of key social and academic supports needed to succeed in college (Coleman, 1988). Past intervention research has demonstrated that these negative psychological barriers can be minimized by addressing students’ nearly universal uncertainty about whether they belong when they first transition into college (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011). In this line of research, students were given what could be called a “psychological roadmap” for the transition to college. Incoming students were exposed to the stories of sophomore, junior, and senior year classmates who describe the challenges common to the transition to college they had experienced and how they had overcome them. This helps new students to anticipate the challenges that face them, to see that such challenges are not unique to them, and to view credible evidence that the challenges can be met. When delivered before students begin the transition into college, earlier belonging intervention trials typically have the greatest impact among students who tend to be most at risk of poor college outcomes, namely, underrepresented minorities and first generation college students. However, research suggests that belonging concerns are common among all college students, regardless of their background. In an important extension of this past work, Kevin Binning (Department of Psychology and LRDC) and his colleagues have demonstrated that these interventions can benefit all students by more effectively leveraging the social context. Dr. Binning’s and his team have tested an embedded social belonging intervention in Introductory Biology that uses small groups and social interaction with classmates to instantiate the intervention. Findings to date suggest the intervention significantly improved classroom engagement (i.e., attendance and homework completion), course grades, and college retention among all students who received the intervention, including but not limited to students from at-risk backgrounds.
Moderating Stress and Self-Control Through Mindfulness and Effective Habits
Beyond financial difficulties, emotional and social stress is the most common reason students give for early withdrawal from the University of Pittsburgh. Learning to effectively manage stress during this major life transition may be a key process in helping students succeed in college. Yet, post-secondary institutions provide little support that trains students to effectively navigate the social and academic stress they encounter throughout their college experience.
Dr. Brian Galla, working in the School of Education and the LRDC, partnering with leading motivational and educational psychologists across the nation, have identified a series of interventions that help to foster greater studying strategies, cultivate greater resilience and grit, and help students reduce their stress. As part of this work, these researchers have found increasing awareness for, and adoption of mindfulness meditation strategies among young adults to cope with stress in school. Mindfulness is defined as a nonjudgmental awareness of present moment experience. Numerous studies with adults show mindfulness training is effective in reducing both emotional and social stress, including loneliness. Yet, few mindfulness training programs have been adapted for use with college-age freshman. Dr. Galla is working to provide students with an established training program, offered through a national non-profit organization (www.ibme.info), to specifically meet the psychological and social needs of middle adolescents (14-18) and emerging adults (19-23). And unlike most mindfulness training programs that span months, the current training program is relatively short (usually five days long). In two different studies, this standardized program has been shown to be effective at boosting mental resilience (e.g., mindfulness skills, self-regulation), and reducing maladaptive coping strategies, stress, and symptoms of depression, in adolescents aged 14 to 19 (Galla, Baelen, Duckworth, & Baime, 2016; Galla & Duckworth, 2015). By incorporating training during students’ first-year experience, students can elect to learn about effective mindfulness and study habits, which promises to help reduce how they respond to stress and employ effective studying strategies and habits.