Evidence-Based (Simple but Effective) Advice for College Students: Microaction and Macrochange
Sung Hee Kim, University of Kentucky
Excellent advice for college students abounds. A simple Amazon search for “advice for college students” yields more than a thousand results, including book titles that range from How to Become a Straight-A Student, 6 Days to Better Grades, and A Guide for Academic Success to Becoming a Master Student. Most of these resources offer outstanding, practical advice. In addition to a wide array of advice books, college students can also receive valuable advice from many people, including parents, senior students, professional advisers, and faculty members.
Despite access to plentiful and excellent advice and intentions to make use of this advice, many students still struggle academically and often drop out of college. Needless to say, multiple factors contribute to this suboptimal academic outcome (Addus, Chen, & Kahn, 2007; Dill, Gilbert, Hill, Minchew, & Sempier, 2010–2011; Kuh, 2008). But one thing that is clear is that poor outcomes are not due to a lack of readily available advice—particularly in cases of academic failure (Gino, 2013). Rather, a reason for poor scholarship seems more to do with the likelihood that students fail to follow through on such advice. Indeed, even when we clearly know that advice would result in better outcomes for ourselves, we often fail to heed it, whether it concerns our health, finance, career, relationships, or academic performance (Gino, 2013). Just imagine the positive outcomes if most of our advisees actually implemented our advice in their academic lives.
This tendency to ignore advice may stem from a variety of reasons, such as lack of sufficient motivation to follow through, inertia (tendency to maintain status-quo), difficulty in breaking (bad) habits, lack of self-efficacy, and psychological reactance (instinctive rejection of being told what to do) (Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Gino, 2013; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). In sum, for a variety of reasons, the advice fails to stick.
What can be done? One key may be to recognize that many students (or anyone who needs advice) are unlikely to take advice that requires actions needing a lot of initial effort, time, and resources (macroactions). Such advice is likely to fail very early on, thus undermining any real chance of successful change. In this sense, it is not surprising that many New Year resolutions tend to fail; in fact one study shows a failure rate of 92 percent (McDonough, 2013). Often we set the goal too high, e.g., I will lose twenty pounds by the end of this month, I will get on Facebook only once in a month, or I will eat only raw vegetables. To achieve the goal, we typically start a macroaction (e.g., getting up at 5:00 a.m. to go to the gym to do one hour of swimming) that requires considerable effort, time, or resources. Even if we are able to carry out the macroaction for a while, sustaining such macroactions over time is difficult, and the end result is at best microchanges or no change at all. Even worse, a failure confirms our inability to keep resolutions (here I go again; I failed just as I did with last year’s resolutions).
Because macroactions often fail, it may be that advice should focus on smaller actions or microactions (actions that require little effort, time, and resources) that are not only more likely to occur in the first place but also lead to macroachanges in the longer term. Psychological research on compliance (Cialdini, 2008) suggests certain types of small actions are best suited for bringing about lasting change; however, this research has not been applied to the particular challenges associated with student advising. This article addresses a study that fills this empirical gap by directly asking students about experiences in which a microaction brought about macrochanges in their lives.
Participants and Procedure
Undergraduates (twenty-eight female and twelve male students) at the University of Kentucky participated in the study to fulfill a course requirement. They attended a group session with nine–ten persons.
At the start of the study, participants received an informed consent form that explained the goal and procedure of study and asked for their consent. They had sufficient time to thoroughly read the form and sign it, if they agreed to participate. At this point, the experimenter approached each person individually, asking if he or she had any questions about the content of the form and ascertained whether or not the informed consent form had been properly filled out and signed.
Following the informed consent process, participants completed a questionnaire requesting a description of one action each had been doing for some time—an action requiring little time, effort, or resources, and one that had brought about positive changes in their lives. Next, participants answered several questions about the action (e.g., how long they had been doing it and why they began). At the end of the experiment, participants were fully debriefed and thanked.
Participants’ descriptions of microactions were easily classified into five broad categories: (1) Getting up a bit early (10–20 minutes) in the morning; (2) engaging in productive classroom behavior (putting the phone away; sitting in the front row); (3) exercising; (4) writing down plans and assignments in a planner; and (5) briefly reviewing the course material. The microaction most frequently reported was “writing down plans and assignments in a planner” (42.5 percent), followed by “engaging in productive classroom behavior” (22.5 percent), “getting up a bit early” (17.5 percent), “briefly reviewing the course material” (10 percent), and finally “exercising” (7.5 percent), χ2 (4, N = 40) = 15.50, p < .05.
The chi-square for goodness-of-fit (χ2) test compares observed data with theoretical or expected data according to a specific hypothesis. Data from this study revealed that the deviations between experimental and expected results had a low probability (less than .05, p < .05) of occurring by chance.
Most participants whose chosen miacroaction was using a planner reported similar positive changes in their lives: greater sense of being organized, less stressed, better time management, and best of all, improved academic performance. One participant’s response summed up the changes, which were echoed by many other participants: “I have become a lot more organized than I used to be. I keep my planner up-to-date so that I never forget anything important. My grades have been better since I’ve made this change.” Also, most of them indicated that poor grades motivated them to initiate this action.
Participants who engaged in “productive classroom behavior” mentioned such positive changes as more focus in class, greater understanding, increased confidence, and better grades. The positive changes related to “getting up a bit early” included finding time to eat breakfast, attending class on time (thus not stressed about being late), feeling good about oneself, and earning better grades. The positive changes associated with “briefly reviewing the course material” included improved grades and a better understanding of course content. Finally, “exercising” included such changes as greater energy, better mood, and weight loss.
The average length of time (days) it took for the participants to notice changes in their lives was 21 days (M = 21.48, SD = 3.42). The average length of time (day) they performed the microaction was 274 days (M = 274.33, SD = 304.35). Finally, in response to the question, “How likely are you going to keep doing that one action” on the 8-point scale (0 = very unlikely to 7 = very likely), the average likelihood was M = 6.68 (SD = 0.57). In fact, regardless of the microaction the participants performed, their commitment to it was equally high. For example, the commitment to “writing down plans and assignments on a planner” was M = 6.76, almost creating a ceiling effect.
Faculty and professional advisers play many roles beyond assisting advisees with course selection (Barnes-Gregory, 2010; Habley & Bloom, 2007). One important role is that of offering advice aimed at inducing positive changes in advisees’ lives. Much has been written about such topics as advising models (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008), the link between advising and student success (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, and Associates, 2010), advisers’ roles and responsibilities (Barnes-Gregory, 2010), adviser training and development (Brown, 2008), and characteristics of effective advisers (Fox, 2008). Yet much less empirical attention addresses advice that would likely stick and bring about considerable, positive changes in advisees’ lives. The study discussed here aimed at filling this empirical gap by directly asking college students about experiences in which a microaction brought about macrochanges in their lives.
The current study discussed here showed that several microactions brought about positive macrochanges in participants’ lives, including improvements in academic performance. Results suggest these microactions created a spillover effect on other domains of the participants’ lives. In this sense, a microaction is like keystone habit, a habit that starts “a process that, over time, transforms everything” (Duhigg, 2012, p. 100). Duhigg used a microaction of making the bed each morning as an example of a keystone habit. This particular microaction, which requires little effort and fewer than two minutes, could bring about far-reaching, positive effects in people’s lives, if they perform the action consistently. Duhigg (2012) cited one survey showing that this small action correlates with positive outcomes, including more advancement in career, higher home ownership, and better productivity. Rubin (2009), who wrote several books on happiness, asked people what happiness-project resolution had most affected their happiness: making the bed each morning. Similarly, the current study showed that miacroactions, in particular writing down things-to-do in a planner, have made a big difference in students’ lives.
Given that the microaction “making a to-do-list in a planner” was most frequently mentioned, it is worthwhile to examine it further. One interesting finding was that among the participants who described this microaction, only one made a list using a smartphone, while all other participants indicated reported using a paper planner. At first glance, it is puzzling considering almost all students have smartphones and are savvy with using various apps. In fact, numerous apps (e.g., iProcrastinate, iStudiez Pro) are geared toward college students. Despite abundant technology resources, the participants of this study showed a clear preference for “old-fashioned” planners. Why?
The current study did not directly explore why a majority of participants preferred paper planners; however, it is plausible these students realized advantages of using paper planners over using electronic planners. One important advantage may involve the psychological benefits of writing things down, even if one writes about a negative event (e.g., a traumatic experience)—an effect well supported by empirical research (Nagurney, 2013). A participant aptly captured the benefit by remarking, “Taking the time to write down important dates and reminders shows that I take them seriously. The little effort that this small task takes proves to have a great positive impact in my life.” Another advantage is that students can always use their paper planners in class though are often prohibited from using electronic devices. Those relying on smartphones often must enter assignments or other things into their phones after class. Because of this delay, in some cases, students may simply forget to do so. A third advantage could be that paper planners are not as distracting as smartphones are. Imagine a student who intends to spend just three–four minutes entering her daily to-do-list into her phone (or into her Google calendar) and then to study for an exam. As happens frequently with smartphone (and computer) users, she soon finds herself checking Facebook, twittering, watching trending YouTube posts, and so on. A few-minute task is likely to result in several hours of “wasted” time.
As noted earlier, an important role of advisers is to provide guidance that helps students bring about positive changes in their lives. Given the prevailing tendency to ignore most advice, academic advisers may want to develop and offer recommendations that overcome this tendency, thus enhancing the likelihood that students implement their suggestions. The current study demonstrated that advisers who advocate microactions more successfully engage with students and guide them toward positive actions. Examples of microactions that advisers can recommend, depending on challenges advisees face, include “sitting in the front row in class,” “jotting down important dates (e.g., the last day for adding/dropping classes); and “creating one ‘exam’ question right after a class (rather than immediately checking their phone).” As these microactions require little time, effort, and resources, students are likely to consistently commit to them, which the current study found. These action or keystone habits are likely to bring about big, positive changes in other domains of students’ lives, as this study demonstrated.
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About the Author(s)
Sung Hee Kim, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies of psychology at University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.