‘Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become’: how can we encourage students to work towards a positive vision of their future selves?

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Astronaut” by J M is licensed under CC Public Domain Mark 1.0

I recently read the biography of Chris Hadfield, the retired Canadian astronaut. In it, he tells readers, ‘don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become’, referencing his childhood vision of being an astronaut and how he refocused all of his daily activities including diet, school work and free time in the direction of that goal until he reached it.

On 28th November Alex Forsythe, an Occupational Psychologist at the University of Liverpool, led an Education Excellence seminar, Thanks But No Thanks for the Feedback, in the Wills Memorial Building. Alex Forsythe unwittingly channelled Chris Hadfield in her idea that students need to have an awareness of their future selves in order to accept feedback and set goals, touching also upon Carol Dweck’s theory of ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. She recognised the theory’s obvious problems in terms of generalisation but used it as a useful way to understand basic student thinking:

  • A fixed mindset student is more likely to see their skills and talents as fixed and will work very hard to protect their self esteem, perhaps rejecting negative feedback where it needs to be taken
  • A student with a growth mindset is all about learning; nothing is set in stone and they’re open to being challenged and growing in areas they don’t believe to be their expertise

As staff at the University of Bristol, it’s our job to help encourage growth mindsets in students and support them in developing an awareness of their future selves. This doesn’t mean that each student has to be aware of the specific career path they will take, but rather that they are aware of the skills they’ll need for any workplace so that they can work towards becoming an employable, well rounded individual. Through Bristol Futures, we’re encouraging students to develop and recognise specific graduate skills so that they can set goals and react to feedback as positive steps towards developing these skills, rather than thinking of feedback as a negative thing. Most of us have heard about the ‘feedback sandwich’, where negative feedback is framed by positive feedback so that the student doesn’t self-reflect destructively. But framing things in positive language doesn’t challenge students to move forward; they need to be able to receive criticisms constructively and have difficult conversations in future, so why wrap them in cotton wool during education?

The main topic of discussion after the seminar was that, due to the increase in tuition fees, students tend to think of Universities as institutions of teaching rather than institutions of learning. They want more resources given to them upfront as well as tangible, easily evidenced results, with learning outcomes that are directly relevant to something they do or intend to do in their lives. Forsythe also told the seminar that ‘you’re more likely to make an effort towards applying for a job if you believe you’ll get it’. This leaves us with two main questions:

  • Do we need to make the learning of graduate skills explicit throughout the Bristol Futures courses in order to:
    • make the benefits clear to students concerned with dedicating time to something they’re not paying for?
    • allow students to recognise the skills they’re developing and improve their self confidence, encouraging them to set higher goals for themselves in future?

I went into the seminar expecting to get ideas on how we can provide feedback to students taking the Bristol Futures courses, but left thinking that the Bristol Futures courses should develop students’ ability to receive feedback in other areas. It seems to me as though the true measure of Bristol Futures’ success is to go back to the students in ten years time; if they are happy, well adjusted adults, we’ve succeeded.

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