Narrowing achievement gap: Lay theories about the challenges of college

Dear Colleagues:

First of all, I want to thank Mike Cruse for sending me the link to a recent Washington Post article:   A telling experiment…College student don’t know how to study.”  Tucked away in the story was a study of a small, simple, effective “transition to college” intervention that really knocked my socks off (I am probably the only person still using this expression).

It is a psychological approach that provides a lay theory of transition to college, a starting hypothesis that many challenges in the transition are common and not cause to doubt one’s prospects of belonging and success.  Here it is:  Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale.

Just a little more info and then you’ll need to read the study for details.

  • Lay theories are informal, common-sense explanations people give for particular social behaviors.  The term was new to me.
  • It is designed to address students that are ready for college – e.g., lay theories won't remedy inadequate preparation
  • Intervention is specifically for use before or at the very start of college.

Take a look at the article and study.  What do you think?  What lay theories about transition to postsecondary education do your students bring with them?  How do you respond to them?

Cynthia Zafft


These references were helpful - thank you, Cynthia! I have also read about "attribution theory" and the significance of the stories students tell themselves about why they are not succeeding in school (and elsewhere).

Hi Janet:

Like you, I am interested in attribution theory (see strategies for adult education in this Research to Practice Brief on the NCTN website).  Adult learners are with us for such a short time, every learning activity and strategy needs to be scrutinized carefully -- Will this build strong basic skills?  Will this help the student remain strong in the face of new learning and working environments?  These findings point to a simple practice of reframing the challenges ahead in a way that helps students persist.