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When seeing is believing

Study shows vividness of imagining future goals improves success in college


College graduates celebrate as confetti swirls.

The ability to vividly imagine graduating college can predict grade point average and whether a student continues in a STEM or business degree program, according to a longitudinal study recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Photo by Keith Luke/Unsplash.

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May 25, 2021

More than 40% of college students do not graduate after six years. And, though women are more likely to graduate college than men, they remain underrepresented in STEM and business careers.  

A new study from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University has found that achieving academic or career goals is linked to how vividly men and women can visualize future events.

First-year college students who could imagine graduating college in great detail had higher grade point averages in the second year of college and were more likely to continue in STEM and business degree programs. During the first two years of college, men and women diverged in how they visualized postcollege career goals. Men increased the level of detail, but women remained stagnant. The work was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“We found that how vividly students imagined their future initially, and how that visualization changed over time, were both important for academic success,” said Samantha McMichael, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and first author on the paper. “The differences in how men and women imagined their postgraduation life might help us understand the sex differences we see in STEM and business field. When people vividly imagine the future, they can connect better with their goals and make decisions that benefit their future self rather than their present self.”  

The study followed nearly 900 undergraduate students through their first two years of college. 

Students completed questionnaires that measured how vividly they imagined themselves graduating from college and five years after graduation. They were surveyed five times: from their first week of freshman year to the fall semester of sophomore year. 

The research team also tracked the grade point averages of the students and whether they left a STEM or business program of study.

Students who vividly imagined themselves graduating college at the beginning of their freshman year had higher grades and were less likely to change majors away from STEM and business fields. 

“People report higher self-efficacy, or the belief in their ability to do something, for achieving their future goals when they can vividly imagine the outcome of those goals,” said Virginia Kwan, professor of psychology and senior author on the paper. “Imagining the outcome of goals is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

The research team expected that college students completing their first year or beginning of their second year would gain clarity in visualizing their postgraduation goals. But this was only the case for men. 

“On average, women did not see their postgraduation selves more clearly as they went through college. Why women are losing their focus is an important question that could have implications for them being underrepresented in leaky pipeline fields like STEM and business,” Kwan said.

The research team is currently working on ways to increase how vividly students imagine future academic and career goals.

This study was supported by a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (R305 A160023). 

Morris Okun, Cameron Bunker, Oliver Graudejus and Kevin Grimm of ASU also contributed to the study. Michael Baxter of Montclair State University, a former postdoctoral researcher at ASU, was also part of the research team.

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