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IES Grant

Title: Strengthening Present-Future Self-Continuity Improves College Persistence
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: Kwan, Virginia S. Y. Awardee: Arizona State University
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (8/1/2016-7/31/2020) Award Amount: $1,300,030
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A160023

Purpose: Psychological factors, such as college students' ability to imagine themselves as future graduates or to draw upon memories of role models, may act as buffers that help them stay motivated and to persist during difficult times in college. This study explored whether such psychological factors are malleable and predict students' decisions to stay in or leave college and whether they are particularly important for at-risk students. Specifically, this study investigated (a) the relationship between students' perceptions of their future college-graduate selves (e.g., ability to visualize their future, connection to their future, and positivity toward their future) and their motivation, persistence, and academic outcomes (e.g., progress toward degree); (b) the malleability of students' perceptions of their future selves (e.g., whether increasing their vividness correlates with higher levels of motivation); and (c) whether some subgroups (e.g., first-generation students and minority students) benefit more from the psychological buffers than others.

Project Activities: Through two studies that combined longitudinal, observational, and experimental designs, the researchers explored the relationship between students' ability to visualize their future college-graduate selves and their motivation, persistence, and academic outcomes (e.g., progress toward degree). They explored the malleability of students' visualizations (e.g., whether increasing their vividness correlates with higher levels of motivation) and whether some subgroups benefited more from the psychological buffers than others.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this exploratory study are as follows:

  • Connection to the future self was associated with future focus, less present focus, and self-control toward goal-oriented behavior and in turn increased subsequent academic performance (Adelman et al., 2017).
  • Both initial vividness and increases in vividness over time predicted greater academic self-efficacy and in turn higher Cumulative GPA and fewer academic-major changes (McMichael et al., 2022).
  • Compared to men, women reported greater initial vividness in both domains. In vividness of graduation, women maintained their advantage with no sex differences in how vividness changed. However, men grew in vividness of life after graduation while women remained stagnant. (McMichael et al., 2022).

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study took place in a large, diverse, urban university in Arizona.

Sample: A total of 1,848 first-time first-year students from two consecutive cohorts who were enrolled in introductory chemistry and psychology courses participated in this study at Arizona State University (ASU).

Malleable Factor: When postsecondary students visualize their goals and imagine themselves succeeding (e.g., becoming college graduates), they are more likely feel motivated and to persist in difficult tasks and to delay gratification. This increase in motivation may lead to better grades, improved academic progress, and higher persistence rates. However, the quality of these visualizations depends on how vivid they are, how similar the future and current self are, and how positive the image is. And this overall quality may determine whether the visualization actually benefits the student. For example, college students with more vivid, similar, and positive images of their future selves may have higher motivation than those with poorer quality visualizations. Thus, although strong visualizations of one's future self may buffer all college students facing difficulties, the effects may be different for students in certain risk groups (e.g., low socio-economic status, first-generation, or minority students).

Research Design and Methods: Through two longitudinal studies, the researchers explored whether students' visualizations of their future selves correlated with their academic motivation, persistence, and performance and whether changes in these visualizations correlated with changes in these outcomes. In Study 1, students filled out online surveys at 7 time points over the course of 4 years, with baseline data collection during the first 2 weeks of students' first semester. The researchers also collected administrative data at the end of each semester. In Study 2, a second cohort of students also filled in online surveys at the 6 time points over the course of 3 years, and the researchers also collected administrative data at the end of each semester during this period of time. In addition, at the start of the second survey wave, students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: Experimental Manipulation 1, Experimental Manipulation 2, and Control (i.e., no manipulations). Experimental Manipulation 1 included three future-self manipulations designed to manipulate three components of future self-perception (vividness, positivity, and connectedness). Experimental Manipulation 2 used two manipulations (vividness and positivity) and a previously validated manipulation for connectedness. Students in the Control condition did not take part in any of the manipulations. In these experimental manipulations, students created fictional, social media profiles for their future selves using pictures from a library and writing posts to demonstrate how they envision their future (vividness), what is similar between now and then (similarity), or what a college degree can afford them (positivity). The control condition included one group that received no manipulation (informational control).

Key Measures: The research team used measures such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to look at vividness, positivity, and similarity. They also collected information about students' role models, level of familism, and academic perceptions (e.g., academic self-efficacy and level of engagement and their beliefs about the relevance of academic work). Key academic outcome measures included grades, progress toward degree, persistence in chosen major, and enrollment.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers used exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses to establish the construct validity of their measures. They conducted growth analyses to identify patterns of individual changes over time and cross-lag analyses to assess the way in which students' visualizations of their future selves interact with the difficulties they experience as college students.

Project Website:


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Adelman, R. M., Herrmann, S. D., Bodford, J. E., Barbour, J. E., Graudejus, O., Okun, M. A., & Kwan, V. S. (2017). Feeling closer to the future self and doing better: Temporal psychological mechanisms underlying academic performance. Journal of personality, 85(3), 398–408. Full Text

Bixter, M. T., McMichael, S. L., Bunker, C. J., Adelman, R. M., Okun, M. A., Grimm, K. J., Graudejus, O., & Kwan, V. S. Y. (2020). A test of a triadic conceptualization of future self-identification. PLoS ONE, 15(11): e0242504.

Herrmann, S.D., Adelman, R.M., Bodford, J.B., Graudejus, O., Okun, M.A., and Kwan, V.S.Y. (2016). The Effects of a Female Role Model on Academic Performance and Persistence of Women in STEM Courses. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 38(5): 258–268. Full Text

McMichael, S. L., Bixter, M. T., Okun, M. A., Bunker, C. J., Graudejus, O., Grimm, K. J., & Kwan, V. S. Y. (2022). Is seeing believing? A longitudinal study of vividness of the future and its effect on academic self-efficacy and success in college. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 48(3), 478–492.