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Raise Grades by Mapping Your Future Self

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Low-income students and students of color often earn worse grades than do wealthier and White students.


Plotting a path from who you are now to who you want to be in the future helps students identify with school and earn better grades.

The Details

Social psychologist Daphna Oyserman and her colleagues developed a seven-week program to improve the grades of disadvantaged middle-school students. The intervention works by helping students see that doing well in school aligns with their identities — that is, their unique qualities and their social memberships (e.g., their ethnicity, social class, gender, etc.), including their desired future identities.

In the original study, 264 low-income students at three Detroit middle-schools were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The 141 students in the treatment condition participated twice weekly in a one-hour School-to-Jobs session, which helped students connect who they are now to who they want to be in the future. In groups of about 12 students, treatment-condition participants:

  • Session 1: Paired up and presented the other's person's academically relevant strengths
  • Session 2: Chose photographs that represented the adults they wanted to become
  • Session 3: Drew pictures of positive and negative role models who might help or hurt their pursuit of the adult they want to become in the future
  • Session 4: Sketched timelines from their current identities to their future desired identities, including forks in the road and obstacles
  • Session 5: Chose a particular desired identity and developed specific strategies to become that kind of person
  • Sessions 6-7: Decorated a poster board that connected their feared and positive near-term identities to their desired adult identities via strategies for attaining the desired identities
  • Session 8: Discussed social problems, reinforcing the idea that all students struggle with these issues
  • Session 9: Discussed academic problems, reinforcing the idea that all students struggle with these issues
  • Session 10: Discussed the journey to high school graduation, reinforcing the idea that all students struggle with these issues
  • Session 11: Reviewed and critiqued the previous sessions, reinforcing the idea that all students struggle with these issues

Meanwhile, the 123 students in the control condition took their standard elective courses.

Results showed that, at the end of the year, treatment-condition students earned higher grades, spent more time on homework, behaved better in class, took more initiative, had fewer absences, and experienced less depression than did control-group students. The benefits of the School-to-Job program persisted through the first year of high school.

Why This Works

People prefer doing things that feel "like me" to doing things that feel "not like me." By connecting their current identities to their desired adult identities, students begin to see that doing well in school is something people "like me" do. Thinking about their strengths, role models, and strategies for overcoming obstacles further helps students make their desired future identities become a reality. Finally, learning that everyone struggles with setting and reaching their academic goals shows students that setbacks don't mean they aren't cut out for school. Instead, struggles and setbacks are just part of learning.

When This Works Best

This intervention works best for students who doubt whether school is for people like them—a doubt that is common among low-income students and students of color. In addition, Oyserman and colleagues found that their School-to-Jobs program was especially effective for students whose parents were not very involved with their schooling. Over time, students with less-involved parents earn lower and lower grades than do students with more-involved parents. But the School-to-Jobs program prevented students with less-involved parents from losing academic ground.

Try It Yourself

SPARQTools Plot the Me You Want to Be

Original Study

Oyserman, D., Bybee, D., & Terry, K. (2006). Possible selves and academic outcomes: How and when possible selves impel action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(1), 188-204.

In the Media

The New York Times: Education Is All in Your Mind

Related Topics

Economic Development Education


Photo via BLUR LIFE 1975 / Shutterstock