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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. This study explores whether such psychological factors predict students' decisions to stay in or leave college, if they are malleable, and whether they are particularly important for at-risk students (e.g., minorities, low-income, or first-generation college students).

Project Activities: Through two studies that combine longitudinal, observational, and experimental designs, the researchers will explore 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 will also explore whether the availability of role models or their sense of familial/community obligation moderates these relations. They will explore the malleability of students' visualizations (e.g., whether increasing their vividness correlates with higher levels of motivation) and whether some subgroups benefit more from the psychological buffers than others.

Products: The researchers will produce preliminary evidence of potential malleable psychological factors that affect postsecondary student persistence to help inform the development of future interventions. They will also produce peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

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

Sample: A total of 1,800 first-time first-year college students in introductory chemistry and psychology courses will participate in this study.

Intervention: When postsecondary students visualize their goals and imagine themselves succeeding (i.e., 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. The researchers also contend that two other factors may moderate the relation and that these may be associated with student demographics: whether a student can draw upon memories of role models from their families or communities and the extent to which he or she prioritizes family needs and obligations (familism) above his or her own. Students from some communities may be less likely to have college graduate role models (e.g., first-generation students) or more likely to prioritize family obligations (e.g., students from Latino cultures). 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 will explore whether students' visualizations of their future selves correlate with their academic motivation, persistence, and performance and whether changes in these visualizations correlate with changes in these outcomes. In Study 1, students will fill out online surveys at 6 time points over the course of 2 years, with baseline data collection during the first 2 weeks of students' first semester. The researchers will also collect administrative data at the end of each semester. In Study 2, a second cohort of students will also fill in online surveys at the six time points, but they will also receive experimental manipulations that aim to affect an aspect of their self-visualizations. Participants will receive one of five conditions: three experimental conditions (vividness, similarity, positivity) and two control conditions. The first manipulation will occur after the first set of exams, the second manipulation during week 13 of the fall semester in their freshman year, and the third manipulation in week 6 of their sophomore year. In these manipulations, students create fictional Facebook 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).

Control Condition: The two control conditions include one group that receives information about the effects of visualizations on motivation and persistence but no manipulation (informational control) and one that does not receive information or manipulation.

Key Measures: The research team will use measures such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to look at vividness, positivity, and similarity and will also collect 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 include grades, progress toward degree, persistence in chosen major, and enrollment.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will use exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses to establish the construct validity of their measures. They will conduct 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.


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. (in press). 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.