Facing challenges positively – using framing interventions in your class

image of exam hall
Image 2007 by Jack Hynes https://www.flickr.com/photos/jackhynes /366958167/ CC BY-NC-SA

What are framing interventions?

In Tinto’s important article from 1975, anxiety and self efficacy were identified as two of the key barriers to students developing a sense of belonging and hence success when beginning at university. All students, but particularly those first-in-family and those from non-traditional or minority backgrounds, need to be provided with opportunities to build confidence and support around anxiety.

As detailed in the psychology literature (e.g. Harackiewicz and Prinski 2018), there is strong evidence that using “framing interventions” can help students improve their performance and lower their anxiety in summative assessments. Ramirez et al. (2011) found that getting students to write a brief expressive written assignment immediately before taking an important test significantly improved students’ exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test-taking. Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores. Research also shows that feeling anxious about a summative assessment can improve performance (Brady et al., 2017). Framing interventions can be conducted both before and after class.

The large size and diverse nature of our first-year cohort can be challenging for all of our students but it is particularly so for those without the family or friendship networks with the knowledge to support them. Students who perceive or have a background which is quite different to those around them can suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and doubt that this is a place where they are likely to succeed.

Framing interventions help students deal with academic challenges – such as those experienced when they encounter feedback on their first assignment. They help students realise that such challenges are common, improvable and part of the learning process. Whilst this is important for all students, it can be particularly significant for students who have not experienced this before. Alongside engaging students with feedback as a tool to improving, framing interventions could include using statistics, quotes and even letters from senior students on their experiences.

Ideas for using framing interventions in your classes

Before summative assessments, think about some trigger questions for your students to encourage them to consider the relevance and value of the assessment to their course-specific learning and to their individual drive. They should be encouraged to acknowledge any anxieties and whether they are overly concerned or even unconcerned by the assessment. Be prepared to:

  • explain that it’s quite common for grades to be low in a first assessment as it’s normal for first year students to need time to adapt to the demands of university, or
  • ask them to make some brief notes on how the unit relates to their interests, or
  • ask them to write down their thoughts about the particular assessment.

You could also use examples from your own experiences when you were a student and talk about struggles you faced and how you overcame them. This can be linked to an activity based on your own journey to university.

Transition units of study

Given the importance of developing a sense of belonging as part of the transition, the Student Experience Strategy recommends that “every undergraduate and postgraduate student encounters dedicated and context-appropriate support academic and social transition to the University” through the introduction of ‘transition units’. These would include use of appropriate interactive and collaborative learning designs and a supplementary social program to foster diverse peer interactions. In some degrees, such as those where core units taken by all students already run, these elements will be built into these existing units. In others, especially those where students have considerable freedom to choose, they will need to be built into a number of units or into new dedicated units.

The details of the academic and social transition program are being designed for the units to run in 2021 and are currently being trialled in existing units.

Tell me more!

Brady, S. T. et al. (2018) Reappraising Test Anxiety Increases Academic Performance of First-Year College Students. Journal of Educational Psychology. 110 (3), 395–406. (Brady et al, 2017)

Harackiewicz, J.M. and Priniski, S,J. 2018, ‘Improving Student Outcomes in Higher Education: The Science of Targeted Intervention. Annual Review of Psychology 69, 409-435. (see Harackiewicz and Prinski 2018).

Ramirez, G. & Beilock, S. L. (2011) Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science. 331(6014), 211–213. (see Ramirez et al 2011)

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