Support students with a values affirmation exercise

Image by Andry Richardson from Pixabay

The start of semester can be an exciting and stressful time for students. For those from under-represented groups, a place like The University of Sydney, with its sandstone, traditions, and diverse mix of students, can be very confronting. For students starting in semester 1, the sheer size of the new cohort and the complexity of navigating our systems can be a challenge for those lacking the family or friendship networks with the knowledge to support them. ‘Imposter syndrome‘ – the feeling of doubting one’s own accomplishments and fearing being exposed as a fraud – can be especially difficult to shift if you perceive your background is quite different to those around you.

Semester 2 can be similarly be a challenging time. For students whose semester 1 marks didn’t match their expectations, a response of withdrawing physically through reduced attendance, or emotionally, is common. This might be the first time in their academic career that they have struggled, reinforcing their perception of being in the wrong place. For students starting in semester 2, there may be little emphasis in class on transition and many friendship groups may already have formed. It is not uncommon for those starting in semester 2 to be transferring from other universities. This may bring with it a lot of perceptions and misconceptions particularly if the institutions are quite different in character and student mix.

Active learning and relationship-rich experiences

Use of strategies to encourage collaboration and interaction in class have been shown to disproportionately benefit students who are, or feel that they are, less prepared for university. Alongside increasing self-efficacy for study and scaffolding students to contribute equally, these approaches help to provide a more social and less isolating environment for all. As discussed elsewhere on Teaching@Sydney, our teaching approaches can enhance student mental health and wellbeing. Similarly, deliberately building personal connections in class through simple low cost techniques to communicate, or tricks to learn student names, can make positive impacts on each student’s sense of belonging.

Values affirmation

These approaches to improving learning and the classroom climate benefit all students but do not completely remove achievement gaps. However, studies suggest that a simple “values affirmation” exercise, requiring little cost, student or staff effort or class time, can help in a variety of disciplines. In the exercise, the students are asked to identify values that are important to them from a short, pre-prepared list and then to write about how they build them into their lives. The results are not “marked” or commented on: the simple process of thinking about and self-affirming values in areas unrelated to their studies appears to boost students’ confidence and reduce the fear of failure. Unlike the approaches to enhancing the learning environment outlined above, the values are deliberately chosen to not to focus on the academic tasks since this could increase anxiety.

the simple process of thinking about and self-affirming values in areas unrelated to their studies appears to boost students’ confidence and reduce the fear of failure

It appears to have be particularly effective for students who are concerned that they are unlikely to succeed because of their background. Remarkably, the effect seems to be long lasting especially if the exercise is repeated at particularly stressful times such as prior to high-stakes assessments.

Students are typically given 15 minutes to complete the task either in a face-to-face class or online. In the first part, they are asked to choose two or three values from a list chosen by the educator to reflect the disciplinary context. The lists below shows some typical values that could be used.

  • Confidence
  • Learning
  • Status
  • Cultural identity
  • Helping society
  • Relationships with family and friends
  • Religion
  • Connection with the environment
  • Having fun
  • Future job satisfaction
  • Political views
  • Independence
  • Empathy
  • Music
  • Perseverance

Next, students are asked to consider times when the values they selected would be most important, and then write a few paragraphs detailing why.

By combining the benefits of active learning and relationship-rich classrooms with such a task, most studies have shown that it may be possible to reduce hurdles to success for students, particularly those from under-represented backgrounds. To maximise the benefits, it would clearly be important to ensure that students are not asked to repeat the exercise across multiple units. Repeating the task over the course of a degree could be beneficial, but again this would not want to be overdone. That such a short exercise could have such powerful effects on performance across many disciplines seems remarkable. Given its low cost, it could be worth trying to either set students from all backgrounds up for success or to help more keep on track.

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