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Boost Grades by Reframing Failures

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A girl studying


Many promising students earn bad grades their first year of college.


Informing college freshmen that many first-years stumble, but then do better, helps them pull up their GPAs.


Social psychologists Tim Wilson and Patricia Linville randomly assigned college freshmen who were struggling academically to one of two conditions. Participants in the treatment group read survey results indicating that many students at their university did poorly at first, but then improved their grades. They also watched videotaped interviews with 3rd- and 4th-year students who, in the course of discussing other personal details, revealed that their GPAs had increased over time.

Participants randomly assigned to the control group did not read these encouraging survey results or view videos of upperclassmen who had improved their grades.

Wilson and Linville found that participants in the treatment condition, compared to participants in the control condition, showed greater improvements in their GPAs over the long term, as well as performed better on an academic test in the short term. In addition, fewer participants in the treatment group dropped out of college.

Why This Works

The theory behind this study was that when people attribute their problems to internal and stable causes (such as innate ability), they can get caught in "exacerbation cycles": Blaming themselves for their problems and viewing their problems as unchangeable causes worry and anxiety, which then makes it harder to cope effectively (e.g., by studying for exams), which then exacerbates the original problem. Attributional interventions such as this one are designed to bump people out of the exacerbation cycle by getting them to attribute their problems to controllable and unstable causes—things they can fix. The message that many people do poorly at first in college, but then improve, was designed to get students to reattribute their own problems to things they can change (e.g., “learning the ropes” of college, studying harder). As in many attribution studies of this type, however, there was no direct evidence for these hypothesized processes.

When This Works Best

Attributional interventions work best when people are worried that stable features of themselves may be causing their problems. 

Original Study

Wilson, T.D., & Linville, P.W. (1982). Improving the academic performance of college freshmen: Attribution therapy revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42 (2), 367-376.

See Also

Wilson, T. D., Damiani, M., & Shelton, N. (2002).  Improving the academic performance of college students with brief attributional interventions.  In J. Aronson (Eds.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 88-108). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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Submitted by Timothy D. Wilson, Sherrell H. Aston Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Image CC by College Degrees 360