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A Tool to Help Struggling Students with Academic Pressure

Academic pressure — particularly of the kind Indian high school students face — can be debilitating. But a growing body of research around the power of values affirmation, a psychological tool, suggests a short exercise can have dramatic effects on struggling students’ academic performance.

Values affirmation is rooted in self-affirmation theory, which holds that all humans have a need to feel adequate, and the threat of inadequacy can cause stress and defensive mechanisms that get in the way of growth and performance. In other words, thinking you’re not good enough — at life, at a particular subject in school — can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

David Sherman, PhD, a psychologist with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, a professor of education at Stanford University, theorized about a decade ago that actions or exercises that remind people of their values, beliefs and roles can bolster their identity to withstand the stress of inadequacy and actually help them become adequate — or even adept.

It’s a theory borne out, more so than less, in experiments over the past ten years, particularly those focused on students. Take this most recent iteration, published in PLOS ONE, which studied the effect of a values affirmation exercise on 221 students enrolled in a difficult undergraduate psychology statistics course at The Ohio State University.

“Many students are not huge fans of the class because of the math involved, but it is a requirement,” said Ellen Peters, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at the university.

Half of the students first completed the values affirmation exercise near the beginning of the course: They were given a list of six values (including relationships with family and friends, spiritual/religious values and science/pursuit of knowledge) and asked to rank them in terms of personal importance; then, they affirmed their values by spending 10 to 15 minutes writing why their most important value was meaningful to them.

The other half of the students, the control group, were given the same list of values, similarly asked to rank them, but then were asked to write about why their least important value might be meaningful for someone else. Both groups of students later repeated the exercises right before their first exam.

The researchers found, by comparing the results of a numeracy test administered at the beginning and end of the course, that students who participated in the values affirmation exercise significantly improved their objective numeracy skills. The students in the control group did not see improved scores.

Students also completed a questionnaire at the beginning and the end of the course that measured how good they thought they were at maths and how much they preferred numbers over words. Results showed that students who completed the values affirmation showed no change in this subjective numeracy measure from the beginning to the end. Researchers saw that stasis as a positive — students in the control group showed declining opinions of their personal maths skills, presumably because of the stress and difficulties they faced in the statistics class.

“It has a snowball effect. Values affirmation is thought to help students get some early wins in class. That leads them to try harder and get more achievements and it creates a cycle of success,” Peters said.

(The results also showed that students in the values affirmation group that demonstrated improved numeracy also scored higher on a financial literacy test and showed better health-related choices — such as avoiding cigarettes and practicing safe sex — over the course of the class; researchers are crediting it to improved numeracy skills being applied in the real world, but they’ve not explained how they controlled to rule out the effect of regular values affirmation on other areas of life.)

So, for students struggling with academic pressure to the point they feel like success is impossible, have them try writing about what really matters to them and why before embarking on the subject’s next big assignment or test. (Hint: It only works if you’ve not drilled into them the paramount need to be a class topper.) Because this study and others suggest that sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do to improve academic performance is to remind struggling students of all the things that matter more.

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