Our learners—like ourselves—navigate a wide range of stressors in their daily lives. Northeastern offers a number of campus resources that we can help our learners connect with, including We Care and the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service. In addition to these resources, how can we shape our classrooms as supportive spaces that help our learners navigate their stressors more positively and constructively?
What’s the evidence?
A self-affirmation is any act that “reassure[s] people that they have integrity,” even under stressful or challenging circumstances (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Self-affirmations might include spending time in ways that are personally meaningful—for example, interacting with friends and family or as a volunteer or even posting to Facebook (Cohen & Sherman, 2014; Toma & Hancock, 2013). It can also take the form of a values affirmation—that is, a short writing activity in which a person reflects on the values that are most personally meaningful to them and how they incorporate these values into their lives.
A values affirmation is one of the most studied self-affirmation interventions because it is through the lens of personal values that the self is evaluated (McQueen & Klein, 2006; Rokeach, 1973). Incorporating a values affirmation activity into a class has demonstrated a variety of benefits, including increasing open-mindedness (Correll, Spencer, & Zanna, 2003) and decreasing general stress (Creswell et al., 2005). A values affirmation can also reduce stress arising from social identity threat, in which someone may be devalued because of a particular identity or group membership that they have.
In the context of higher education, values affirmation activities have been shown to improve the performance of female learners in a physics course (Miyake et al., 2010), underrepresented minority learners in a biology course (Jordt et al., 2017), and first-generation college learners (Harackiewicz et al., 2014), among others. In most studies, this activity was found to have a significant, positive impact on learners’ performance even when incorporated into a course only once or twice during a semester.
Values affirmation activities are easily implemented and take at most 15 minutes for each writing activity. They can also be administered online. They are scalable in large classes because they are not graded and do not have to be read by the educator (Jordt et al., 2017).
- Ask your learners to write about one or two values that they find most personally meaningful and why. This activity can be completed in 10 minutes. Mention that this activity is not evaluated and that only they will see what they write, and consider ways that you can frame this activity in relation to your learning opportunity (e.g., developing communication skills, supporting well-being).
Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333-371.
Correll, J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2004). An affirmed self and an open mind: Self-affirmation and sensitivity to argument strength. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(3), 350-356.
Creswell. J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851.
Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2014). Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology. Psychological Science, 25(4), 943-953.
Jordt, H., Eddy, S. L., Brazil, R., Lau, I., Mann, C., Brownell, S. E., King, K., & Freeman, S. (2017). Values affirmation intervention reduces achievement gap between underrepresented minority and white students in introductory biology classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16(3), 1-10.
McQueen, A., & Klein, W. M. (2006). Experimental manipulations of self-affirmation: A systematic review. Self and Identity, 5(4), 289-354.
Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L. E, Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S. J., Cohen, G. L., & Ito, T. A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237.
Rokeach, M. (1973). The Nature of Human Values. New York, NY: Free Press.
Toma, C. L., & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Self-affirmation underlies Facebook use. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(3), 321-331.