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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3
Research Matters

Getting Their Hopes Up

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Self-directed learners need good goals, good plans . . . and hope.

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Social-emotional learningInstructional StrategiesEngagement
Getting Their Hopes Up - Header
Credit: NUTHAWUT SOMSUK / SHUTTERSTOCK
In my conversations with educators, I hear a common refrain: many students have returned to school physically, but not mentally. During the prolonged wave of online learning, the tide seemingly went out on students' motivation, leaving them struggling to engage in self-directed learning.
What can we do to help students develop the habits of mind they need for this type of learning? Moreover, given that one in three students who enroll in college never graduate (NCES, 2022), how can we help students develop the mental habits they need to succeed in post-secondary education, which is all about self-direction?
As I've shared previously in this column (Goodwin & Hein, 2016), academic preparation (as measured by high school GPA and college entrance exams) predicts only about 20 to 25 percent of students' success in college. Considering the anonymity of large lecture classes, life distractions, and lack of parental guidance, it's not surprising that most of college students' success flows from a mix of mental and personal habits that help them stay on track as self-directed learners.
These mental habits don't emerge overnight, however. They take years to develop, which suggests teachers at all grade levels can help students develop the habits of mind they need to succeed. But how?

Goals: The Obvious Key

Decades of research show that setting and tracking one's progress toward goals helps students stay on task and persist through challenges. For example, a meta-analysis of 109 studies (Robbins et al., 2004) found that students having clear goals for themselves is strongly linked to college graduation. McREL International's recent analysis of studies about learning in K–12 classrooms (Goodwin et al., 2022) similarly identified strong positive effects for engaging students in setting personal goals.

To be self-directed, it seems, means that students need to be goal-directed. But where exactly do students get the desire to set and achieve goals?

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To be self-directed, it seems, means that students need to be goal-directed. We can recall times when having goals for our own learning propelled our success—whether our goals were short-term ("I'll study until 10 p.m. and take a break"), linked to external rewards ("I must get an A on this test!") or internally driven ("I want to master this because I find it interesting").
But where exactly do students get the desire to set and achieve goals?

Waypower and Willpower

First, let's acknowledge that goals don't always translate into success. We've all known people who set lofty goals for themselves but have no plan for achieving them. The late C.R. Snyder, a child psychologist who studied the mental habits that support students' success, identified two critical elements of goal attainment. The first was something he called waypower, or "the mental plans or road maps that guide hopeful thought" (1994, p. 8). Simply having a goal is meaningless if we don't chart a course to achieve it and find additional supports or resources when we encounter obstacles such as a difficult professor, a textbook chapter we do not understand, or the realization we're on the wrong track.
In a three-year longitudinal study involving 129 college students, Day and colleagues (2010) found a strong link between students' ability to chart a pathway to their goals and their final grades (r=0.31), an effect size that predicts roughly 10 percent of their success in school. This same study, though, also demonstrated the benefits of the second important mental habit Snyder identified, "a reservoir of determination and commitment that we can call on to help move us" toward our goals (1994, p. 6). In a word, it's willpower—the reservoir of stored energy that flows into the channels we set through waypower.
Willpower reflects the belief that we have it within ourselves to achieve our goals. It leads to such positive self-talk as "I can do this," "I'll find a way to get this done!", "I am not going to be stopped" (Snyder, 2002). Some studies of college students find the combination of willpower and waypower significantly predicts student outcomes in college—accounting for anywhere from 20 percent (Richardson et al., 2012) to 47 percent of their college GPA (Feldman & Kubota, 2015).

The Power of Hope

Ultimately, though, what makes these two dispositions possible is a sense of hope, which according to Snyder is not strictly an emotion, but a cognitive state. Unlike mere optimism or goal setting, hope reflects the ability to set ambitious goals with the drive and direction to achieve them. In a book (1994) and article (2002), Snyder synthesized the findings of numerous studies that show that people with high levels of hope demonstrate better mental health, greater life satisfaction, and life success. He also identified several ways that teachers and schools can encourage a sense of hope among students:
  • Help students set small, doable goals. Break larger tasks into smaller ones and encourage students to celebrate their successes along the way.
  • Help students stretch their goals. Once students see they're capable of achieving small goals, help them set stretch goals that are slightly more difficult than previous ones.
  • Help students set their own goals. Snyder notes that a "hope killer" is trying to achieve a goal someone else has set for us, not our own. Ask students to cultivate their own interests and set personal goals for pursuing those interests more fully.
  • Help students develop hopeful self-talk. Model how hopeful people think—replacing doubtful "I can't" messages with positive messages.

Hope Springs Eternal

For students to become better learners, we cannot cajole or browbeat them to be more self-directed or goal-oriented. We must help them develop the habit of mind that's vital to their success: Hope. Research, in fact, bears out the old adage that hope springs eternal. A wellspring of positive emotions flow from hope that can help students not only achieve their goals but lead happier and more productive lives.
References

Day, L., Hanson, K., Maltby, J., Proctor, C., & Wood, A. (2010). Hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement. Journal of Research in Personality44(4), 550–553.

Feldman, D. B., & Kubota, M. (2015). Hope, self-efficacy, optimism, and academic achievement: Distinguishing constructs and levels of specificity in predicting college grade-point average. Learning and Individual Differences, 37, 210–216.

Goodwin, B., & Hein, H. (2016). Research says/The X factor in college success. Educational Leadership73(6), 77–78.

Goodwin, B., Rouleau, K., Baptiste, K., Gibson, T., & Kimball, M. (2022). The new classroom instruction that works: The best research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. ASCD.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Undergraduate retention and graduation rates. Condition of education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students' academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin138(2), 353–387.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin130(2), 261.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope. Simon and Schuster.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry13(4), 249–275.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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