Succeed at Pitt Toolkit: Sharpening Non-Cognitive Skills and Combatting Under-Performance

By JON SHAIKEN

What does it take to succeed in college?

That is the question that Omid Fotuhi, a social psychologist and research associate for the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) is trying to answer with his Personalized Education Grant project, “Non-Cognitive Skills and Psychological Resilience Training for Students and Faculty.”

The goal of the project is to help students recognize and sharpen their non-cognitive skills, which Fotuhi broadly defines as “the set of skills and strategies that predict whether you will stay engaged with your work and, consequently, how well you do in school and in your career. These skills, however, are rarely taught in traditional courses,” he added, “leaving a significant gap in the skillset required for success in school and the professional world.”

While non-cognitive skills can include a broad range of strategies, such as fostering more effective communication skills or better time management, Fotuhi’s work more specifically focuses on the set of mindset skills that affect the way students make meaning of the events in their lives. For instance, what does it mean when you get a bad grade, or studying takes too long, or you don’t “feel” passionate about a particular class? Fotuhi believes you can train students how to adapt in the face of these important questions.

Skills like these can help to sustain a clearer sense of competence, motivation, focus, and resilience in the face of challenge or adversity. Training in these non-cognitive skills has the potential to minimize the chances that students will experience significant moments of discouragement or be tempted to quit. These experiences have been linked in past research to underperformance—which is to say, performing below your potential—which is exactly what Fotuhi is trying to combat.

“When you are able to target these psychological uncertainties through certain activities that help to reframe those narratives in a more positive way, you actually are able to reduce achievement gaps,” Fotuhi said. He has started doing this through the creation of the Succeed at Pitt Toolkit.

The Succeed at Pitt Toolkit and accompanying workshops use five main themes to help students combat these psychological uncertainties and enhance their non-cognitive skills:

  • Mindset & Frontiers of Ability,
  • Master Your Myopia,
  • The Powerful Secret of Self-Control,
  • Devotion over Emotion, and
  • Activate Optimal States.

Each one of these is directly informed by proven research from psychology and geared toward improving your mindset, thus enhancing your ability to do well in school.

Fotuhi, however, recognizes that these strategies are not perfect and it’s still a work in progress. “Because it is the first attempt to share this directly with students at Pitt, what we’re hoping to do is really rely on the input of the participants in these sessions to tell us how that resonated with them, whether they found the training effective,” Fotuhi said.

Why do students need to improve these skills? Because college can fly by. “We know that we have four to six years, on average, to complete a degree,” Fotuhi said. “Now, you might feel at the beginning like that’s an eternity, but it’s not.”

In fall 2019, as part of Pitt’s First-Year Students resources, students were able to sign up for the first Succeed at Pitt session, offered in October 2019. Hundreds of students signed up, but only 50 seats were available for this first session. Starting in 2020, more students will be able to access this training during one of two sessions, one in the fall semester or one in the spring.

The development of this program is a reflection of the University’s commitment to stay ahead of the curve in terms of offering the resources that students need to thrive at Pitt and beyond. For instance, students looking for assistance with tutoring or other study skills can access a wide range of programs through the Study Lab. The Succeed at Pitt program strives to complement well-established programs like this by also showing students how they ignite and sustain their motivational drive through some unconventional strategies.

“After completing the program, students learn to see things differently,” Fotuhi said. “They leave feeling refreshed, recharged, and energized to take on their academic challenges. To do this, we dive into a hidden curriculum, which consists of a set of unspoken, yet highly powerful skills and mindsets that students can take and apply to their own lives.” Indeed, students who attended the inaugural session last fall have shared some powerful testimonials about the training’s impact.

The thing Fotuhi wants to avoid is something like a lecture, with him standing in front of a room telling people what they need to know. “That may work in  a mandated context where you have to take a course to get a particular grade, but it’s not optimal for an internalization of an idea,” he said. “And that’s really the main goal of these workshops—to help students internalize a core set of ideas that can help keep them stay motivated and ignite a clear sense of purpose.”

Fotuhi’s own sense of purpose is what is pushing him to pursue this topic. “We all too often forego or neglect the recognition that these individuals already come to college pre-equipped with a set of skills, with motivation, with a set of desires, that can be activated and potentiated,” he said, “that they do want to excel and exceed, and that they do have a sense of direction and a sense of interest. But it's being able to identify and ignite those elements in an empirically proven way that is effective in enabling them to thrive in college and beyond.”

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To find out more, you can contact Omid Fotuhi at omidf@pitt.edu.

To learn more about the Succeed at Pitt Toolkit and to register for the workshops, please visit: studentaffairs.pitt.edu/fye/succeedatpitt.

To learn more about the Personalized Education Grants, please visit: personalized.pitt.edu/projects.