The Impact of Learned Helplessness on Grades in the College Student Population: A proposal for a study

A proposal

Anyone who has attended school or classes, from kindergarten to graduate school, understands the apprehension felt when beginning a new course of study. The goal of every student in class is to complete the course and demonstrate competency with the instruction learned. However, some students... struggle more than others in successfully accomplishing this goal. Learned helplessness is a condition in which an organism, human or animal, believes that their situation is hopeless and gives up even though they have the means to improve their situation (“Learned helplessness,” 2008). This proposal will explore and discuss whether college students who struggle in their coursework suffer from learned helplessness and what can be done to immunize them against this effect.

Strategies to succeed

In a study conducted by Elliott and Dweck (1988) they found that participants react differently depending on the goal pursued. The found that failure in performance goals caused some people to become vulnerable to negative affect and helpless responses, while failure in the learning goals caused others to formulate strategies to succeed. They concluded that “our experiment provides support to achievement behavior that emphasizes learning and performance achievement goals as the critical determinants of achievement patterns.” (p.11). Students who falter in their school work may associate it with performance goals and become susceptible to helplessness. If the student could rethink academic achievement as a learning goal, then they could respond to set backs with increased motivation to study, speak with a counselor or seek tutoring in order to succeed.

Events predictive of depressed mood

To what extent are negative events predictive of depressed mood in college students? Follette and Jacobson (1987) sought discover how attributions are a predictor of how people cope with failure. They wanted to know whether college students would feel depressed after a low test grade and whether this would result in a motivational deficit and cause the student to study less for the next one. They studied 110 students to monitor their mood after a low test score. They discovered “Students who did poorly on the exam indicated that they intend to study more and that they planned to exhibit new behaviors in preparation for the next examination.” (p.1210). A low test grade didn’t necessarily indicate that a student would become more depressed and begin to perform poorly. A proactive mentoring program could help reinforce these attributions, causing students to look be resilient when they experience a setback, and to foster a strategy to overcome their obstacles.

Attributional style

Attributional style may determine the type of response to unsolvable problems. Mikulincer, Bar-llan and Ramat (1988) conducted a study to determine how a person responds to unsolvable problems according to their internal/external attributional style. They found that “subjects who habitually attribute bad events to internal factors would exhibit both more reactance and more helplessness than subjects with an external attributional style.” (p.684). People who have an internal attributional style also become more hostile and frustrated when faced with unsolvable problems. These individuals are also more susceptible helplessness and depression. Some students may feel that they can’t overcome their failures when it comes to testing, grades, academic progress. Identifying these students and intervening early could help reverse their declining performance before they drop out of school.

Do attributions modulate immunizations?

Do attributions modulate immunizations against learned helplessness in humans? Experiments conducted by Ramírez, Maldonado and Martos (1992) investigated the effect of global and internal attributions on immunizations against learned helplessness. They discovered that “our results emphasize the difficulty of immunizing against helplessness (or of preventing depression) when individuals are only induced to make attributions about success, whereas the only way to immunize would be to prepare individuals for failure by making them attribute it to specific and external causes.” (p.145). If success in the classroom is seen as a performance goal, then setbacks could cause the student to attribute their failure to internal weaknesses, which contributes to feelings of hopelessness. When students associate bad grades and test scores to external events, like lack of study or focus, then they can begin to take steps towards rectifying these conditions. A student who’s struggled in their school work may not know what they need to do in order to overcome these issues. They would need assistance from an individual who could detect these patterns and help give the student direction, like an academic advisor. The intervention of faculty advisors could help immunize the students against feelings of hopelessness associated with failing test grades and coursework.

My proposal for an experiment

The purpose of this study is to determine whether students who falter in the academic progress suffer from learned helplessness and whether active intervention from campus faculty (department advisors) could reverse the decline and improve academic progress. I hypothesize that students who are faltering in their academic progress may exhibit signs of helplessness and hopelessness. Likewise their grades should suffer as a result of their affective state. If identified early these students could raise their scores and grades with mandatory bi-weekly counseling sessions with a faculty advisor. Students taking Research and Design Statistical Lab will be asked to answer a self-report questionnaire with questions asking how the student feels about their progress. They will take the self-report questionnaire after they have taken their first major exam. Out of the surveys answered, 20 students will be randomly selected. In the study conducted by Mikulincer, Bar-llan and Ramat (1988), they used a questionnaire that included “six positive events and six negative events, including three interpersonal successes, three achievement successes, three interpersonal failures, and three achievement failures.” (p.680). The questionnaire will have a 12 questions in a similar format, but the questions will be pertaining to the affective state towards their academic performance. One question could ask “How do you feel about your progress in class? Answers would be rated on a 5 point scale; with “Very Good” rated a five and “Very Poor” rated as a one. The lower the score, the more hopeless and helpless that student will feel. 10 students will be randomly assigned to the control group, the other 10 to the experimental group. The experimental group will be scheduled to have bi-weekly sessions with an academic advisor. The advisor will counsel the student and help them utilize resources available at the campus, such as tutoring, methods for studying and or a referral to see a mental health counselor at the campus clinic if necessary. Their grade point average will be monitored during the bi-weekly advisement. After the students take the midterm and final, their GPA will be recorded and they will be asked to take self-report questionnaire again on SONA. The grade point average will be the measure to determine whether there’s a variance between the two groups in academic progress. The questionnaire answers and GPA averages will be compared between the group with no advisement and the group who had advisement. I hypothesize that the students with the bi-weekly advisement will have better GPA scores than the students without and will score higher on the self-report questionnaire

Participants and materials

Participants
For the research project I plan to gather data from the student population at the University of Texas at Arlington. Specifically, I plan to take my sample from students enrolled in PSYCH 2443-001 class. The sample size will be 20 students. No monetary compensation will be offered.

Materials
The materials used will be a spreadsheet to collect the data from the students. The questionnaire will be taken on SONA.

Procedure

I will to coordinate the with the psychology department to have an online questionnaire available for psychology students to answer on SONA right after their first exam. The questionnaire will have 12 questions with a 5 point answer scale. In the study conducted by Mikulincer, Bar-llan and Ramat (1988), they used a questionnaire that included “six positive events and six negative events, including three interpersonal successes, three achievement successes, three interpersonal failures, and three achievement failures.” (p.680). One question could ask “How do you feel about your progress in class? Answers would be rated on a 5 point scale; with “Very Good” rated a five and “Very Poor” rated as a one. 20 students will be randomly selected from the sample of questionnaires answered. 10 students will be randomly assigned to the control group, the other 10 to the experimental group. The experimental group will be scheduled to have bi-weekly sessions with an academic advisor. The advisor will counsel the student and help them utilize resources available at the campus, such as tutoring, methods for studying and or a referral to see a mental health counselor at the on campus clinic if necessary. The remaining 10 students will be assigned to the control group and will not be scheduled to see an advisor. After the students takes the midterm and final, then their GPA’s will be compared and they will be asked to take self-report questionnaire again on SONA. The questionnaire answers and GPA averages will be compared between the group with no advisement and the group who had advisement.

Anticipated Results

A t statistical test will be used to measure the difference in grade point average before and after bi-weekly advisement. Another t test will also be used to measure the difference between the affect state of the student before mid-terms and final and after using score from questionnaire. The independent variables in the GPA experiment are students without advisement and students with advisement. The dependent variable is grade point average. The independent variable in the self-report questionnaire is the student affect state and the dependent variable is the score in the self-report questionnaire. I expect that that the students with the bi-weekly advisement will have better GPA scores than the students without and will score higher on the self-report questionnaire

Future Directions

Learned helplessness is a condition in which an organism, human or animal, believes that their situation is hopeless and gives up even though they have the means to improve their situation (“Learned helplessness,” 2008). Students susceptible to learned helplessness may have an increased likelihood to fail their classes. By identifying these students, programs could be developed to more proactive and intervene in these students progress. Changing the way students view academic progress is important to changing the way they feel about setbacks. As noted by Mikulincer, Bar-llan and Ramat (1988), changing the student’s attributions from internal to external will allow the student to formulate strategies to progress in the coursework.
Most campuses have programs that help students become more successful in the academic studies. However, a student suffering from learned helplessness may feel that nothing may help them. By intervening in the student’s progress and helping them refocus their effort, this should help students perform better in their college coursework. Maybe a cohort program could be developed that would pair the student with someone who can an offer an additional layer of support. The cohort would have the same major, would offer encouragement and could coach the student.

There are a few confounds to contend with. The wording of the questions would need to be carefully designed so that students aren’t susceptible to participant effects confound. I would eliminate any loaded questions. I would keep the experimental group and control group from each other in order to reduce the diffusion of treatment effect. A limitation could be the population studied. Instead of obtaining my sample from a psychological statistics class, another sample could be collected from a class that has a more varied population, like an Intro to Literature class or another core curriculum class.

References
Elliott, E.S., & Dweck, C.S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1), 5-12.
Follette V.M., & Jacobson, N.S. (1987). Importance of attributions as a predictor of how
people cope with failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52(6), 1205-1211.
Mikulincer, M., Bar-llan, U., & Ramat, G. (1988). Reactance and helplessness following
exposure to unsolvable problems: The effects of attributional style. Journal of Personality
and Psychology 54 (4), 679-686.
Perry, R.P., & Dickens, W.J. (1984). Perceived control in the college classroom: Response-
outcome contingency training and instructor expressiveness effects on student achievement
and causal attributions. Journal of Educational Psychology 76 (5), 966-981.
RamÃrez, E., Maldanado, A., & Martos, R. (1992). Attributions modulate immunization
against learned helplessness in humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62
(1), 139-146.
Learned helplessness. (2008, April 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:04,

© 2008 Augustine A. Zavala

Have you ever given up on a task that you eventually accomplished?

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Personal control (locus of control, learned helplessness, and the tyranny of choice)

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