Student Experience Research Network Blog

Is it possible to improve a difficult life transition in advance? Mindset Scholars David Yeager, Greg Walton, Dave Paunesku, Angela Duckworth, Geoff Cohen, Carol Dweck and colleagues explored this question by examining whether online exercises provided to incoming college students before they arrived on campus could help them navigate challenges they might face during the transition to college.

For many new college students, difficult academic and social situations cause them to question whether they belong or have the ability to succeed. These worries can increase the likelihood of negative outcomes, such as diminished well-being, poor grades or – in the worst cases – dropping out of college. This risk is higher for students of color and first-generation college students who arrive on campus aware of negative stereotypes that exist about the intellectual ability of people from their background.

To assess different methods for combatting these concerns, David Yeager, Greg Walton and their colleagues conducted three studies that provided online exercises to more than 9,500 new college students. The exercises provided incoming students with stories from older students describing social and academic challenges they faced in coming to college. The stories represented the challenges as normal and improving with time. Incoming students then reflected on why early challenges are normal in the transition to college, and what they expected to experience.

What were the most important effects of the exercises?

  • They improved retention, academic and social integration, and first-year grades for students of color and first-generation college students
  • The programs reduced achievement gaps between students of color and first-generation college students and their peers

The findings suggest that online exercises that prepare students mentally and emotionally for the transition to college could be one pathway toward achieving greater equity in educational outcomes. But the researchers stressed that such exercises are not a one-step solution and they cannot eliminate the structural barriers and bias that students experience. Instead, these exercises equip students to take advantage of the opportunities that are present by reducing certain concerns in the transition to college, and are intended to complement systemic efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion on college campuses.

More broadly, this research suggests the ability to preemptively intervene before difficult life transitions in ways that improve individuals’ well-being and outcomes. Future research will continue to explore how, where, and when these programs can have the greatest effect, and the complementary changes to practice and policy that institutions can make to ease difficult transitions.

For further reading on these findings check out our brief and the full paper.

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