The Spectre of Class: Educating and Advising for Self-Efficacy

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur

I teach a number of courses that are a required part of the justice studies curriculum, especially those that are attractive to students considering a career in the law (law and society, comparative law and justice). These students sometimes come to my office to talk about law school. They know how desperately they want to get in, how a career in law will fulfill their hopes and dreams and those of their families-parents, children, siblings, significant others. We talk about the application process as they share their life stories. They tell me about tours of duty in Iraq, about coming back to school as an adult with two small children to find a future they never dreamed of, about being a refugee, about having parents who never graduated from high school, about families who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse or incarcerated relatives. They tell me all these things and I tell them to tell the law schools to which they will apply.

In 2007, the staff of the Harvard Crimson published a book entitled 55 Successful Harvard Law School Application Essays. They grouped these essays into 6 categories; two of which, "constructing your identity" and "climbing the mountain," are specifically targeted at groups less represented in the traditional law school student body. The editors argue that those essays that highlight your minority cultural background or show how you overcame adversity will be particularly useful to the law school admissions staff. I tell my students this-I tell them to write about their lives, their struggles, and the obstacles they have overcome. They look at me with wide eyes.

Why, I ask. Why not write this essay and tell the admissions staff that you are a young Latina who has worked on a cruise ship to pay your way through college? * Why not tell them that you have brought up three children while working full time and that it was not until took a required liberal arts course in community college that you realized your passion for the law? They look away. They tell me that other people don't want to hear about their struggles. They tell me it doesn't matter. I tell them that their competition-the rich golf-playing yacht-owning Yale student-will write that essay about climbing the mountain and so should they. Their eyes widen again.

* All personal stories have been fictionalized to protect the identity of current and former RIC students.

Another semester. I spend a class session in September defining some of those difficult terms with which students must struggle as they first encounter the law. Precedent. Stare decisis. Power. The state. Cloture. They scribble notes, despite the promise of an exam that will never ask for a definition. Then they scurry away.

All except one young woman. She hovers around the desk as her classmates leave. Her voice has only the faintest trace of an accent, but she tells me that she is a recent transfer student who has never before taken an entire semester's worth of coursework in English. She wants to come to my office to discuss study skills, as she has tried to do the reading and has given up. Inside my head, I think "here's a student with promise-one who cares." Outside my head I tell her when my office hours are and explain that many students struggle with learning legal language and that the defect is not with her. Instead, it is with the law-I have just explained to the class how the obtuse and Latin-heavy language of law serves as a barrier to entry to keep the rest of us plebeians firmly outside. She laughs. She says she is sure the fault lies with her. We'll see about that when she brings her books in the next week, but I'm pretty sure she's wrong.

Another classroom. A student needs to attend a funeral. She corners me in the hallway with bloodshot eyes, tightly gripping a cellphone in her hands. Can she go? Of course. She thanks me profusely. What right do I have to be the arbiter of her mourning process? She thinks it is fitting that I am.

The research tells us this is a common problem. Class background clearly shapes the way that students relate to their collegiate educations. Elizabeth Aries and Maynard Seider (2007) found, for instance, that while wealthy students are aware of the structural privileges from which they have benefited, students from lower-class backgrounds push aside the notion that class may explain the paths that their lives have taken and argue that structural factors are not important determinants of success in the United States today. This dynamic is particularly true for those lower-income students enrolled at the public college they studied; lower-class students at the private college, while still resistant to structural explanations, are more willing to consider the role that they may play. Perhaps this is because lower-income private college students are confronted with the limitations their class status creates for them every day. In contrast, Aries and Seider's public college students, like ours here at RIC, do not know a different world.

In a broader sense, class status affects individuals' self esteem. Twenge and Campbell (2002) find that socioeconomic status (SES, a composite measure considering a combination of income, occupational prestige, and education, that is often used by social scientists to represent class) has a small but significant effect on individuals' self esteem; this effect grows through childhood and young adulthood but drops for college-aged individuals before sharply rising again. Twenge and Campbell argue that the increased effects of class on self-esteem in adulthood may be due to the stigmatizing of class as due to individuals' own failings. Just as contemporary Americans in our zeal for avoiding structural analyses often argue that obesity is an individual failing, we blame lower-class individuals for their own fate. In fact, this relationship between class and self-esteem may be further mediated by an individual's sense of self-efficacy (Staples, Schwalbe, and Gecas 1984).

A summary: individuals from lower SES backgrounds blame themselves rather than structural factors for the constraints on their lives. They do so because their self esteem is lower and because they have less of a sense of self-efficacy. However, the stigmatization process they thus undergo further reduces their sense of self-efficacy and their self-esteem. When they live in communities or attend colleges with many others much like themselves, their further separation from the worlds of privilege only confirms to them that they must be responsible for where they have found themselves. And thus they end up in our classrooms and in our offices, telling us that they cannot do it, that they will not succeed, that they will never deserve what we know they are capable of.

It's worth noting that self-efficacy is highly correlated with many of the behaviors and attitudes that we would like to see in our students. Students with lower self-efficacy are more likely to withdraw from courses and programs (Davenport and Lane 2006). They are also more likely to procrastinate in completing their academic work (Seo 2008). Seo argues, in fact, that interventions aimed at reducing procrastination would make a much greater impact if they were transformed into interventions aimed at increasing self-efficacy.

In the sociology of education, we talk about the hidden curriculum, the set of norms and ideas and behaviors that are highly important for educational success but that are distributed unequally among students. For instance, students at expensive private colleges know that if they cannot turn in an assignment on time due to circumstances beyond their control, they can ask in advance for an extension. My students at Rhode Island College have often been reluctant to ask for an extension, instead coming to me after class to turn in a late paper along with a tale of woe about a kidnapped cousin or a work emergency. They tell me they understand that I will take off points. Private college students would not understand this, nor would they accept it.

Some elements of the hidden curriculum do percolate to almost all students. They tend to understand that when you enter a classroom, you should choose a seat and face the front of the room. Most come with notebooks. But perhaps the similarities end there. How many students have we had who do not know how to take notes on a reading, or study for a test, or keep track of due dates on a syllabus, or drop the class by the deadline and thus avoid earning the F? How many drop out because they have earned that F? It is actually the presence of the hidden curriculum, a curriculum that their peers at Moses Brown and at Brown University picked up easily but which has remained closed off to our students here at RIC, that is responsible for their struggles. That, of course, and the 50-hour work weeks, the money struggles, the child care, the parents' medical appointments, and the cars that barely run.

We have an opportunity to short-circuit this process. Of course, that is what we do here every day in every classroom by opening up new horizons to the students sitting in front of us, by giving them challenging assignments and proving to them that they can succeed. But we can more systematically infuse our teaching and advising with interventions designed to increase our students' self-efficacy. So how do we do this? How do we take the steps to show our students that there are structural forces haunting their lives but yet that they are good enough and smart enough and, doggone it, effective enough to grab this college education by the horns and make a new life for themselves and their families?

Beliefs about self-efficacy can be broken down into three main components (Bandura 1977):

  1. Strength, or the degree to which individuals are able to maintain their perceptions of self-efficacy even despite the presence of disconfirming events;
  2. Generality, or whether perceptions of self-efficacy extend to a more broad swath of life experiences and skills are rather than being limited to specific situations or tasks; and
  3. Magnitude, or whether the sense self-efficacy extends to difficult tasks or is limited to more basic ones.
We can aid students in strengthening all three beliefs through the way that we manage our courses and our advising interactions. Bandura suggests four sources of growth in self-efficacy: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. So let us consider each of these tactics in turn.

Performance Accomplishments
While some of our students were high school superstars, many others have never thought of themselves as capable students. In fact, according to the RIC Factbook, 29% of first-year students entering in 2008 were in the top quintile of their high school graduating class, while 34% were in the third, fourth, and bottom quintiles combined. Many of this latter 34% have never had performance accomplishments in the classroom, and thus it should not be a surprise that they believe themselves to be incapable of such accomplishments. By providing students with the opportunity to succeed where they may not have before, we can thus enable the development of a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy.

This is not to say that grade inflation and the "dumbing down" of the curriculum is called for. Indeed, students are smart enough to know when they are being patronized, and such activity can go a long way toward further undermining a fragile sense of academic ability. Instead, a curriculum that provides students frequent opportunities to demonstrate mastery over small chunks of content that offers them the opportunity to see improvement in their skills and knowledge, and that provides pathways into the course for students with various learning styles (see Gabriel 2008, 57-72) will go a long way. In addition, providing feedback in the "sandwich" format (where comments on a paper or assignment begin with a positive statement, then move towards criticism, and conclude again with something positive) can remind students that there are skills they have already mastered. Again, this does not mean one must lower one's standards-almost all papers have some positive attributes, whether they are careful proofreading, attention to directions, or creative thought.

Vicarious Experience
Researchers who study learning styles have found that faculty members tend to have very different preferred learning styles than their students. The majority of faculty prefer working alone; they begin with abstract concepts and only later move to specific practical applications. In contrast, students typically prefer working in groups and beginning with problems or examples, only later moving toward abstractions (Montgomery and Groat 1998). Student preference is, however, not the only reason to incorporate substantial group activities into courses. Group activities also provide the opportunity for students to develop a sense of self-efficacy through vicarious experience.

In group work, students model for one another their study skills, habits of thought, and ways of communicating. Rather than having an authoritarian presence at the front of the room telling them what to do, they show each other. For weaker students, this can provide an access point to new ways of doing and thinking. For stronger ones, especially those lacking in self-efficacy, the group work process can provide an opportunity for them to demonstrate to themselves their own skills. Faculty who participated in group work as students may recall the feeling that they did all the work and had to share the limited rewards; in contrast, our skilled but typical student enjoys experiencing the feeling that they have made an essential and useful contribution to the classroom and to the learning process of their peers.

Verbal Persuasion
Perhaps the most obvious element of verbal persuasion is the practice of telling students when they have succeeded and reminding them that they are smart and capable. Furthermore, we can use verbal persuasion to explain to students that certain academic tasks are difficult, and that the difficulties they experience do not mean they lack crucial skills for success but rather that they are struggling the same way that most people struggle with certain material. For example, I teach the methods sequence in sociology; the second semester of this sequence requires students to gain competency in statistical research methodology. We actually teach our students statistical skills that many students do not encounter until graduate school. While our students are successful in learning these skills, they often begin the semester hesitant about any activity involving numbers and skeptical that they can handle the course. I have found that telling them that it is supposed to be hard and relaying my own struggles with learning quantitative skills can persuade them to keep an open mind long enough to gain mastery.

However, I would argue as well that making the hidden curriculum explicit would be of great utility as a form of verbal persuasion. Gabriel (2008) explains that underprepared students especially benefit from making our expectations clear, whether for the quality of completed work or for the behaviors we expect from students. In other words, our students may not enter our classrooms with even the most basic knowledge of the hidden curriculum. They may not understand how to use the syllabus to prepare for class; when and why to come to office hours; how to create a proper bibliography; or how to study effectively for the types of exams we give. These expectations could be covered as part of expanded orientation or freshman seminar programs; however, since each faculty member has his or her own expectations, they should be a part of the introduction to each and every course. Because many faculty members were successful high school and college students, we may not remember being taught these skills explicitly. Many of our students do need such skills and expectations laid out clearly for them.

One way to go about laying out such expectations for students is through the use of rubrics (standardized documents linked to learning objectives used to evaluate student work on assignments). There are many types of rubrics; different disciplines, different types of assignments, and different teaching styles lead us to make different choices about which type to use. When using a rubric, students can clearly see what is expected of them and are thus able to produce results that align with those expectations without the degree of fear or anxiety that might accompany a less clearly specified assignment. Rubrics have additional benefits as well that are less related to verbal persuasion and the development of self-efficacy. They can dramatically reduce grading time and increase the degree to which students read and consider professors' comments on their work.

Students may additionally benefit from explanations about why we are doing things. To many students, the activities and expectations of the college classroom are foreign and unintelligible. If we ask them to read, it seems unnecessary as they believe our class sessions will digest and recite the relevant material for them. If we ask them to engage in active learning, they may wonder if we are abdicating our responsibilities to teach them. Instead, we can explain that research has shown that students learn material better if they encounter it in both written and auditory form, and that while the content of our classes and our readings overlap, they are not synonymous. We can explain that when students engage in active learning, they develop a better understanding of the material than if we had simply lectured.

Finally, we can use verbal persuasion to increase students' understandings of social stratification and its effects on their lives. As noted above, despite the obstacles of class that have constrained and shaped our students' choices and possibilities, many are unable to name the hidden injuries of class (Sennet and Cobb 1993) and thus blame themselves for failures that might best be explained by their poor high schools or overwhelming work hours. These students have grown up in a culture that values individualism and places responsibility for success and blame for failure squarely on the shoulders of each person. By teaching our students about social stratification, we can show them not only how they have been disadvantaged, but also how they can succeed in spite of these obstacles. In other words, learning about constraints can provide opportunities and possibilities for the development of self-efficacy.

Emotional Arousal
Bandura's final modality for increasing self-efficacy is emotional arousal. Here, I think, the key is to reduce fear, but never by deception. Our classrooms and advising sessions are filled with students who not only lack self-efficacy but in fact have a strong sense that some academic skills are simply beyond their capacities. We have students who skip class when an oral presentation is scheduled, or who ask how they might possibly avoid taking math because they are convinced that it will ruin their GPA. If we tell them that the oral presentation is nothing to worry about or that math is easy, they will not believe us; and even if they did, they would shortly uncover our deception and thus have even less faith in the educational process.

However, we can reduce their fear in other ways. We can structure assignments so that they introduce something new and scary without doing so in an entirely alienating fashion-such as requiring the oral presentation, but allowing the student to complete it from his or her typical classroom seat rather than in front of the entire room. We can tell students about our own struggles with math (or car repair, or basketball) and how we overcame them to show that it is possible, even if it is hard. We can recommend ways to tackle the difficult without feeling overwhelmed.

Fear can also be reduced by building a more general rapport with our students. This is hard to imagine in Septembers when we are faced with 120 bodies whom we cannot yet distinguish from one another. But we can be people and not just professors. We can share just a bit of our own lives and our own histories, and provide students with the opportunity to get to know us and share the complex circumstances shaping their lives as well. When a student becomes comfortable enough to name the fear in our presence, he or she is taking the first step towards reducing fear and ultimately towards building a sense of self-efficacy.

This morning, as I was finishing up my work on this article, a student stopped by my office. She came back to college last year after a long absence; stopping out (Belzer 1998) of a college career disrupted by family problems and an early marriage and low grades so that she could raise several children. When she entered my classroom last fall she was skeptical of her abilities and unclear if she would ever be able to finish her degree. Today, she is earning As and considering a career as a lawyer. Today, she is an example of what is possible for her large refugee family. She has learned how her position as a woman and an immigrant shaped the choices that she made. She has learned how to study and how to meet the expectations of the hidden curriculum. She has learned to conquer her fear and jump into difficult projects with both feet so as to expand her mind and her possibilities. She has learned self-efficacy.


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Staples, Clifford L., Michael L. Schwalbe, and Viktor Gecas. 1984. "Social Class, Occupational Conditions, and Efficacy-Based Self-Esteem." Sociological Perspectives 27:1, 85-109.

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