Using difference-education to make a difference

Stephens, N.M., Hamedani, M.G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition. Psychological Science, 25(4), 943-953.

How can difference-education make a difference in the success outcomes of first-generation university freshmen?  A recently published study, authored by Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani and Mesmin Destin (2014), sheds light on the matter.

Stephens, Hamedani, and Destin conducted a study to determine if an educational intervention that highlights difference and demonstrates why difference matters would reduce the achievement gap between first-generation students (those whose parents do not have a four-year college education) and continuing-generation students (whom have at least one parent who has obtained a four-year college degree).  Using a convenience sample to recruit first-year students and financial incentives to entice them to participate, the researchers organized two moderated panels of college seniors to share their personal stories of how they have succeeded at that university.  The same group of seniors spoke at each panel and shared the same stories; the only major difference between the panels was that one panel included difference-education in the form of the panelists identifying their social-class backgrounds and then linking their stories to those backgrounds, whereas the other panel did not include such mention of experience-based difference.  The group of freshmen participating in the study (which included first-generation and continuing-generation students) were randomly assigned to observe one panel or the other.

In addition to observing the panel, participating freshmen were asked immediately afterward to complete a brief survey about what they learned and how they would use that learning to advise future incoming students, and they also filmed a brief video testimonial that they were told would be used to educate the following year’s cohort of freshmen (the researchers added this wrinkle to produce the saying-is-believing effect articulated by Yeager and Walton (2011)).  At the end of the year, participants also completed a survey designed to gauge their understanding of difference, how much they utilized available student resources at the college, and the success of their college transition as determined by a range of psychosocial measures such as levels of stress and student engagement.

The results are encouraging.  After eliminating outliers and controlling for other factors such as SAT scores and high school GPA, the researchers found that the achievement gap (measured by year-end college GPA) between first-generation and continuing-generation students who observed the difference-education panel was virtually eliminated!  In contrast, a significant gap emerged between first-generation and continuing-generation students who observed the standard panel that did not contain difference-education.  The researchers also found that, although there was not a significant difference in year-end GPA between the groups of continuing-generation students who participated in the study, the group of first-generation students who observed the difference-education panel had a much higher mean GPA than the group of first-generation students who observed the standard panel.  Similar patterns emerged in relation to utilization of college resources.

This seems like a sound study.  The researchers’ survey design and statistical analysis controlled confounding variables, and results were statistically significant. Moreover, the researchers used multiple methods of obtaining data.

I am intrigued by this research because it relates directly to my area of inquiry.  It also confirms other research articles I’ve read, my own personal observations of students, and conversations I’ve had with colleagues that support the notion that, although interventions such as academic skill development programs and financial literacy education can clearly be beneficial for first-generation students, educators must also be attuned to psychological factors such as self-efficacy and feelings of belonging and hope that can impact student success outcomes.  Students can be exceptionally bright, but if they feel like they don’t belong in college, if they don’t recognize that their struggles and challenges might be related to difference in their backgrounds rather than who they are as individuals, or they don’t seek help, their chances for success are diminished.

This study also has major implications for issues of access and equity in education, which is a major national agenda.  As the authors of the study wrote, the achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students is well documented, and first-generation students are a large percentage of the student population.  Therefore, administrators who are seeking to improve their institutional graduation rates and promote student success should be aware of this study and consider how they might use the findings in their own context.

The researchers identified several areas for future study.  For example, they suggested studies on how similar interventions might affect other areas in which there are educational disparities.  This study has definitely given me ideas for my own research.  I would like to try a similar intervention at ASU.  The key will be finding a way to do it at scale.

Additional Reference

Yeager, D.S., & Walton, G.M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81, 267-301.


In retrospect: Growing up “wealthy”

Growing up in a small tight knit community in southwest Pennsylvania was the worst thing ever, so says that part of me growing up in that town.  Everyone in the town knew everyone else’s business, children had half a dozen parents, and there was a steady pace to life.  I often thought, “I cannot wait to get out of here.”  Eventually I did leave; I left the safety and comfort of my home of 18 years and moved across the country.  The culture shock hit me during my first weeks of college.

I was suddenly very aware of how small town I was, and just how different my life was as compared to those of my new peers.  My entire school, K-12 could fit into my residence hall.  During the get to know you part of residence hall socialization was taking place with the year book perusing, I was asked if mine was an appendix, due to the fact that the almost two inch thick books were dwarfing what was my 120 pages.  Then began the stories of high school experiences; extensive travel opportunities (abroad, concerts, plays, etc.), advanced placement classes, internships, high profile speakers at graduation.  People talked about their first cars, second cars, all of which were made in the last 5 years.  My car was made shortly after I was born.  For the first time I was feeling self conscious about who I was, where I came from, and maybe even a little judged.  I did not feel as if I was an equal to my peers because I did not have the experience, or similarities that I was used to having.

While reading Yosso’s article about cultural capital it got me thinking of what my small town added to my own cultural wealth and how this wealth has played into my own successes, failures, and approach to my personal and professional life.

Yosso outlines six areas that add to one’s own capital: aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistant (77-81).  For my own case I have reflected on the importance that the community and teachers had on me, particularly in building aspirational capital.  Aspirational capital is the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even with the perceived and real barriers (Yasso, 2005).   Having grown up in the community that the minority was college educated and the majority farmers, coal miners, tool and die workers, and other blue collar jobs, I never had anyone tell me that college was not an option or did not support the idea.

Social capital is having the resources and networks of people to assist in navigating societal institutions (Yasso, 2005).  For those that were in my community that went off to college and returned, mostly as teachers, they assisted me in application processes, reviewing course catalogues, suggestions for class schedules, and helping make connections with other individuals on similar career paths.

Now while my own take on the article does not relate to race, as I grew up in a very homogenized community, I see the theory take shape in that I grew up in a small rural environment that may not necessarily have all the benefits of some of the financially well of communities of my college peers.  However because of the additional support and areas of capital afforded to me, I was able to leave my environment to better myself, and had great support.

By understanding how these area’s that contribute to cultural capital play into an individual’s own experience, one can better address the needs of the person to find the best ways to support and supplement services in order to promote success.  Or in the case of self reflection, being able to see how a small boring town can be instrumental in the development and eventual success of someone.


Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, (8)1,69-91.

Impact of Mentoring on Student Retention

Salas, R., Aragon, Aragon, A., Alandejani, J., & Timpson, W.M. (2014). Mentoring Experiences and Latina/o University Student Persistence. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 1-14.


In the article “Mentoring Experiences and Latina/o University Student Persistence” (Salas, et al), the authors examined the experiences of Latina/o students who participated in a college mentoring program. The study was designed to look at the overall experiences of students who participated in the program, and evaluate to what extent the experience contributed to their academic success and persistence.


Participants were chosen from a list of current or former mentors. Out of the initial 30 students that were identified as possible candidates, 17 agreed to participate. There were 9 female and 8 male participants. Two of the 17 reported health and family issues, and chose not to participate. Of the 15 remaining, 12 students were from in-state, and 3 were from out-of-state. All participants were either currently serving, or who had previously served as a mentor.

The study took place at a land grant institution in a mountain west state. The institutions minority make-up was as follows – Ethnic minority for all university (13.6%), Latina/o (6.9%), Asian American (3.1%), African American (2.3%), and Native American (1.5%).


Testing consisted interviews, conducted in two rounds with each participant, with a follow up interview 3 to 4 weeks later. The study explored the following questions:

  1. “What meanings did Latina/o students ascribe to their experience in the university mentoring program?”
  2. “How did these students experience their academic program at the university?”
  3. “What effect did participation in the mentoring program have on their persistence?”
  4. “Were there common experiences, stories told, and/or factors that these Latina/o students described as participants in the mentoring program?” (p. 4)

Analysis of the interview was done using an Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), which explored individual experiences of the participants and other factors that they identified as contributing to their success. More specifically, the study was to determine, to what extent, Latina/o students were able to transition to college successfully, get involved in leadership opportunities, engage with academic and cultural activities and resources, and persist.


For the most part, participants consistently reported that their participation in the mentoring program helped them to be successful. Participants were better able to navigate the collegiate experience, increase knowledge and appreciation for other cultures, improve time management and time management skills, build relationships, and learn about the various resources available at the college. There were three main themes that were identified as a result of the interviews, (1) common challenges (i.e., being a first-generation student), (2) culture shock, and (3) financial issues. Some other common themes included:

  • Lack of diversity at the university (47%)
  • Financial and time management issues (88%)
  • Feeling a lack of belonging (94%)
  • Out of state issues (18%)
  • Multicultural / biracial issues (18%)

Almost 41% of the participants indicated that the program provided them “with a sense of family and, community, which encouraged them to do better.” (p.8). A very small percentage of students expressed that they felt college was easy ( 6%).

Other common factors included

  • Feeling overwhelmed as they transitioned to the college environment
  • Concerns regarding campus climate
  • Discrimination / perceived discrimination

One of the participants reported the following experience:

“My overall experiences in the mentoring program were very, very positive. It was great to establish relationships with like-minded people, people who had the same values, people who were often academically focused, people who were also involved on campus…it got to give me some positive role models to look up [to]…” (p.8)

Limitations / Recommendations:

  • Study participants were the mentors. Would the results have been any different had the participants not been the mentors? Were they successful because they were mentors, or were they mentors because they were successful?
  • Limited sample size of 15
  • Sample focused exclusively on Latina/o students
  • How might this research be applied to other populations (i.e., students with disabilities, other ethnic / racial groups)?
  • How might a mentor program benefit low-income students?
  • What were the mentors doing that was so effective?

Application to my own Action Research:

A couple of years ago, we created a program at the ASU Downtown campus in which staff, within Educational Outreach and Student Services, were each assigned a freshman floor at our residence hall, Taylor Place. The goal of the initiative was to develop a meaningful connection / relationship with each student as a way of fostering personal and academic growth, and helping students be successful by connecting them to critical academic support services and resources.

More recently, we have considered a more targeted approach with freshman who have challenges beyond just being first-time freshman. These challenges include being a first-generation, low-income, and/or student with a disability. We are also looking at students that enter the university with a low confidence interval (CI) score.

Over the past two semesters, we have seen some good results and have been able to build meaningful relationships with students that we believe will help students be successful and persist throughout their academic careers. Other than academic success (i.e., grades and whether or not students persist from one year to the next), we do not currently have a more effective way of measuring whether our efforts are impacting students. More specifically, we do not have an effective way to measure which factors are most effective (i.e., 1:1 meetings, encouraging participation in activities and events, connecting students to resources and other services, time and financial management, etc.).

An area which I feel we are lacking in our current approach, and in which I shall explore through action research, is the viability of a freshman mentorship program at ASU. Over the past two semesters, we have seen some success, students are persisting, yet concerns about fully engaging students in a meaningful way remain.

Every student that comes into higher education is unique. They each bring their own values, identities, academic foundation for learning, as well as their own limitations. Mentoring has been shown to effective in bridging the gap. By exploring the viability and effectiveness of a mentoring program at ASU, we will be able to determine not only the general impact, but more specifically, which factors most effectively impact the students we will be focusing on.


Salas, R., Aragon, A., Alandejani, J., & Timpson, W.M. (2014). Mentoring Experiences and Latina/o University Student Persistence. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 1-14.

Checking your attitude: Interpersonal interactions and the Turning Points they cause

Tiffany R. Wang (2014) Formational Turning Points in the Transition to College: Understanding How Communication Events Shape First-Generation Students’ Pedagogical and Interpersonal Relationships With Their College Teachers, Communication Education, 63:1, 63-2,DOI:10.1080/03634523.2013.841970


Tiffany Wang sets the scene for helping us understand how the simple interactions educators have with students, in particular first generation students, can have a lasting effect on their perception of college, their transition, and ultimately their success rates. Mainly focusing on the transition period in first generation student’s college career, Wang looks to explore and find the “Turning Points” that occur in a student’s career path caused by interpersonal communication between educator and student.  Turning points being the interactions that help a student and make them feel successful and continue on an upward path, or those that are not helpful and become areas for divergence.  She also poses that knowing your audience and understanding them will go a long way in helping both student and teacher achieve success.  Wang utilizes several theories as a basis for research, citing many articles on the topics of interpersonal communication, retention, success and transition.  Perhaps the quote that helps surmise the overall theme is “results in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world thus requires a corresponding change in one’s behavior and relationships” (Wang, 2014).


Over the course of the research Wang used a mixed methods approach to answer the proposed research questions.  The methods taken were that of interview, resulting in 480 pages of transcription, and of graphing of experiences on an x,y axis chart and plotting points self identified as turning points.  The interesting point about the qualitative data received, is that from having a discussion about what the turning points were, and why they were ranked high or low on the chart.  This method provided participants the ability to tell their story, which in turn helped develop a sense of shared points of reference.  The researcher was then able to pull together common themes from the population.

The sample for this study consisted of 30 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, at least 19 years of age, and qualified as first generation as defined by the US Department of Education.


Interactions with students that resulted in a “Turning Point” pedagogical

  • Helped students with course-related problems
  • Failed to help students with course-related problems
  • Engaged students
  • Misbehaved
  • o   Incompetence
  • o   Offensiveness
  • o   Indolent

Interactions with students that resulted in a “Turning Point” interpersonal

  • Empowered students
  • Minimization of power and distance
  • Helped with personal problems

Through the research it can be inferred that personality of each individual can and will be a factor in the perception of interactions.  Much of this can be found in the direct quotes and vivid information pulled from the qualitative data. It is also filled with rich story telling that gives much insight into the expectations and mind set of these first generation and students and what could be seen as a regular interaction with a student, can be taken as being rude, incompetent, or even failing to help, based on their contextual knowledge of navigating the collegiate environment.


  • Student population demographics of the study
  • Sample size
  • Classes/subjects of participants
  • First generation students lack of preparedness for rigor and types of interactions at college level
  • Access to students supplemental resources to assist in transition

Usage for myself:

I personally see great benefit from this study, both from the topic of inquiry to the actual design method.  Gathering information through mixed methods gives me the sense that I am getting more of the full picture.  In this research the participants had the opportunity to actually tell their story, to help give shared meaning and understanding of who they are and what their experience is.  Personally I like the idea of the turning point, as it worked with existing theory, but also accounted for student experience not being linear, or there being defined areas of progress through a stage.

The topic was very interesting as my undergraduate degree in organizational/interpersonal communication paired with my masters in higher education; this research was a great intersection of my passions.  Not only did it bring my education together, it hit on area of interest, in bridging the gap between academic and student affairs in the approach of working with each student as an individual.

This research also sheds light on the concept of students perception is their reality.  Although it was not explicitly stated in the article, one can infer that checking your attitude when working with a student can have a lasting effect on their overall experience.  I think to myself of how many times I was tired, frustrated, or not 100% invested in the conversation with a student, did that cause a turning point downward.  Has a meeting that ran late, resulting in missing an appointment that I did not follow up on result in a turning point.  Wang’s research has given me some things to think about in my own work and in future research.


Tiffany R. Wang (2014) Formational Turning Points in the Transition to College: Understanding How Communication Events Shape First-Generation Students’ Pedagogical and Interpersonal Relationships With Their College Teachers, Communication Education, 63:1, 63-2,DOI:10.1080/03634523.2013.841970

Improving Access for Success


Engle, J., & Tinto, Vincent. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first generation students. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, 1-30.

In looking at a variety of scholarly readings this week, I discovered Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students. This reading was focused on college attainment rates in the United States for underrepresented populations. The authors focused on providing a well defined report that, “examines the current status of low-income, first-generation college students” (Engle & Tinto, 2008). The information presented was supported by data from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, Beginning Postsecondary Students Study, and Baccalaureate and Beyond Study. Included in the report were metrics on degree attainment rates and persistence. The report also provided details on barrier’s that are being faced by the students in the selected research community.

The writers in this case introduced their research with an executive summary that focused on the four following topics.

• Why does college success matter?

• How do low-income, first-generation students fair in college?

• What are the constraints on college success for low-income, first-generation students?

• How can we promote college access and success for low-income, first-generation students?

Each of these topics was represented with supporting material that helped to frame the problem. The introduction of the study then continued to outline the issues at hand with degree completion numbers with the fore mentioned student populations. Graphical charts and information were presented throughout to show data and statistics on first to second year persistence, six-year outcomes by types of institutions first attended, transfer rates, student retention rates by major, degree completions rates, and many more.  Essentially the article was inundated with materials to help support the position being presented. Engle and Tinto (2008) feel that large gaps persist in terms of access  to and success in higher education in this country.

As an individual who is looking to develop my own research skills, I have put lots of thought into the best way to present my research to ensure it will be able to have an impact in the future. After reading this article by Engle and Tinto, it helped me to see that it is important on how you organize and present your research information and data, to engage and capture your intended audience. In presenting information and supporting data in a coherent manner that flows smoothly for the reader, it can make a difference on capturing a wider audience. For those who are interested in looking at research on educational attainment rates and college completion rates, I would recommend this reading. The strength of the argument was good, and the supporting material helped support the argument of the authors.

Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students grabbed my attention not only for the subject matter being discussed, but also because the smooth format, flow, and clear presentation of data within the report. It read as a very well put together writing with both clean, clear, and concise information while also showing support for key topics. The use of research data and statistics, to help support the final recommendations was a sound approach for this reading. Each area of the article was well defined, sections were strategically placed to capture the reader’s attention. The visual aids of charts and graphs were well placed, and  helped me see the result of what the writers were intending for readers to gain from their study. The reading certainly helped me see, “that while college access has increased for low-income, first-generation students, the opportunity to successfully earn a college degree has not” (Engle & Tinto, 2008). I will also note that the data and information were presented in methods that I understood and could see myself duplicating a similar style in my own research, in the future.

The findings that were presented in this report were significant and presented with a logical approach. Engle and Tinto did a good job at presenting appropriate materials by use of their research data, to support their theory. The examples presented throughout the writing engaged me as a reader and the authors choice to use visual aids helped to grasp my attention as a reader. Because they offered such a wide variety of data and material, the visual aids were well placed in were key to the supporting metrics not get lost in the writing. Although my preconceived knowledge agreed with their position, the study findings did help to reinforce my position that there is a problem with low-income, first-generation college students and the various barriers that are continuing to hinder college completion rates for this student population.

The conclusions to the reading were determined to provide insight and data to support efforts for educators and policy makers to improve college access and success. (Engle & Tinto, 2008) There was  a connection made to materials being presented and the theoretical position of the authors. The authors had a well stated position from the initial summary and introductory pieces; that continued to flow through their concluding words. I felt this article did a nice job of summing it all up in the end by making  sure readers understood the problem presented, and the recommendations to help combat the issue moving forward.

After reading Why College Retention Matters, I noticed its relation to the study Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection by Tyrone C. Howard. Although they are not directly linked, both articles crossed paths with their communities of practice, in focusing on low-income, first-generation college students, their access, and the educational attainment rates of these populations. I think further study in the combined areas of critical reflection, educational attainment rates, and research looking at success rates for minorities might help me build on this research. In looking at both readings that I blogged about this week, they have helped me as a reader come up with new ideas for research as my action research cycle swings into motion.