Access to a quality postsecondary education continues to be one of the most effective vehicles to improve one’s socioeconomic standing and quality of life. Still, gaps in achievement and opportunity for underserved groups have long been an area of concern. Even partial remediation of this gap would be consequential. In this article, we identify the role that psychological barriers play in undermining performance and persistence, especially among those from underrepresented groups. At the same time, research has shown promise for psychological interventions that offer more adaptive attributions in the face of common challenges and setbacks. Tailored, targeted, and timely psychological interventions can significantly improve performance and well-being. However, it is critical to avoid the temptation to believe that any solution is a one-size-fits-all approach to student success. Implementing a continuous, iterative cycle of assessment and intervention will keep the interventions updated and relevant for the target population.  



Currently, one of the best vehicles for upward social mobility and well-being is a person’s education level. College graduates have higher job satisfaction, career opportunities, and earnings than those with only a high school diploma. (Gallup, 2014; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quartiles and Selected Deciles of Usual Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment, 2022). In addition to these economic benefits, college graduates also tend to live longer and happier lives. They have higher self-esteem and confidence and are more likely to be involved in their communities. College graduates are also more likely to vote and be civically engaged (Gallup, 2014).

Despite being one of the most effective vehicles to improve one’s circumstances and quality of life, long-standing achievement gaps in post-secondary education exist among traditionally underserved groups, and these gaps have long concerned the educational community (Jencks & Phillips, 1998).  In a society where economic success depends heavily on scholastic accomplishment, even partial remediation of this gap would be consequential. This is especially true for traditionally underserved student groups (e.g., low-income, racial minority, or first-generation), given the societal, institutional, and personal costs that arise when access to quality education is stunted.

However, the pathway into a traditional institution of higher education is fraught with challenges and uncertainties for many students. During this critical time of transition, students must navigate countless social and academic challenges as they attempt to make sense of their new world and their place in it. While there are numerous sources for these real and perceived difficulties, invisible psychological factors often play a crucial role in how well students are able to adapt to the new academic and social demands placed on them. Importantly, as students navigate these common struggles and setbacks, they must resolve three key questions in their minds: “Can I do it,” “Do I belong?” and “Does it matter?” How they resolve these common questions can determine their approach to and outcomes in school. 

Research from social psychology consistently suggests that when a student is convinced that they can’t do it, they don’t belong, or it doesn’t matter, these perceptions can ignite a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, which impacts their ability to effectively use their cognitive and environmental resources to perform and grow optimally. For example, students who are uncertain about their potential for learning and growth in college may perceive challenge and difficulty as evidence for their own deficiencies, as opposed to attributing that difficulty to the nature of the task at hand (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). Alternatively, they may doubt whether they are accepted, valued, or cared for in this new context (i.e., that they don’t belong). Thus, they may avoid situations that could confirm these fears, which in turn only serves to limit their social connections with others and consequently validate their concerns that they aren’t integrating well in college (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Consequently, such negative attributional mindsets stand to harm students at critical moments through predictable and downward recursive processes along their academic journeys (Yeager et al. et al., 2016, PNAS).  

Psychological Interventions

Fortunately, research based in social psychology has also found that if we lessen these psychological barriers with scientifically informed interventions, we can improve students’ social relationships, well-being, and academic outcomes. 

Psychological interventions are designed to change attributions about how students view their social and learning experiences, especially pertaining to negative affective experiences with anxiety and mistakes, reframing these experiences as normal and common instead of fixed personal deficits. For example, does a bad grade mean you are not smart enough, or does it simply mean you must incorporate a wider variety of study strategies? Does an awkward interaction with a peer or professor mean that they don’t value or respect you, or perhaps that the larger class sizes of college courses limit the amount of time that professors have to chat at the end of class? The attributions that students make to understand the causes of these common scenarios can play out in important — and deterministic — ways. Fortunately, those attributions can be influenced to also consider the positive array of possibilities. 

For example, well-constructed psychological interventions, such as Growth Mindset, Grit and Resilience, Stress Reappraisal, Wise Feedback, or Social-Belonging interventions, all operate to redirect the internal attributions that students make in the face of such challenges and ambiguities. 

Growth Mindset

These interventions, based on the work of Carol Dweck (Dweck & Leggett, 1988), encourage students to view intelligence and abilities as malleable and developable rather than fixed. Students are taught that effort and perseverance can lead to improvement.

Grit and Resilience

Popularized by Angela Duckworth (Duckworth et al., 2007), these interventions focus on developing perseverance and passion for long-term goals. They emphasize the importance of resilience in overcoming setbacks.

Stress Reappraisal

This intervention approach involves changing how people think about stressful events and their relationship to themselves (Crum et al., 2013). Stress reappraisal can help people understand the functional benefits of stress (stress as enhancing) and may reduce threat appraisals, compared to the more negative view of stress (stress as debilitating). Research has shown that finding benefits from adversity is associated with improved health outcomes.

Wise Feedback

The wise feedback intervention (Cohen et al., 1999; Yeager et al., 2014) focuses on clearly communicating to the student that the instructor holds high standards of performance while offering assurances that they believe in the student’s ability to reach these high standards. These explicit assurances work to guard against any negative perceptions among students about their teachers’ perceived regard that the feedback might arouse, for example, that getting feedback is evidence that the teacher doesn’t recognize their potential to succeed.  The term "wise" denotes feedback that is psychologically aware, considering how individuals perceive themselves, others, and the social dynamics that influence their learning process.


The interventions introduced by Walton & Cohen, 2007, address issues like social exclusion, stereotype threat, and feelings of isolation. They aim to counteract the negative psychological effects of feeling like an outsider or believing one does not belong in a certain environment.

In turn, these redirected attributions to common challenges initiate an adaptive recursive process that plays out over time, rippling into more proactive engagement and utilization of effective strategies. This process ultimately yields more positive outcomes, which then reinforce that initial attribution (see below for an example of recursive processes for belonging interventions). 

Researchers Gregory Walton and Timothy Wilson (2018) refer to these as “wise interventions” because they are precisely targeted and often brief yet can lead to enduring changes in an individual's behavior, attitudes, and well-being. These interventions are grounded in a deep understanding of the psychological processes that underlie human behavior and how these processes interact with the social environment. As such, the design and customization process of such interventions is critical to their success. 

The 3 T’S of Intervention Design

Of note, not all interventions are built the same, nor do they work in all circumstances — there’s no magic bullet (Yeager & Walton, 2011). That being said, small, cost-effective interventions can have surprisingly large effects, when targeted, tailored, and timely (3 Ts) (Cohen et al., 2017).

  1. Targeted: The Right Person

Effective interventions in psychology, like medical treatments, should be targeted to those in need rather than broadly applied to everyone. Research shows that the benefits of such interventions, including belonging and growth mindset strategies, are often specific to certain groups, like those under psychological threat or low-performing students. Indiscriminate application can be inefficient, wasteful, and potentially harmful.

  1. Tailored: The Right Support

Similarly, interventions must be customized to address specific motivational mechanisms. Overgeneralized approaches, like incentive programs in education, often fail because they don't consider individual differences. For instance, historically underserved groups who have faced social adversity, underrepresentation in higher education, and negative stereotypes often interpret the new set of challenges in college as familiar signs of not belonging due to racial prejudice or as signals confirming the negative stereotypes. Social-belonging interventions address these specific concerns by normalizing feelings of uncertainty about belonging, thereby improving the GPA and well-being of African American students (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011).

  1. Timely: The Right Time and Place

The effectiveness of an intervention is heavily dependent on its timing and its placement. Just like a timely push on a swing or a word of encouragement can have significant positive effects, poorly timed interventions might be ineffective or even harmful. For instance, interventions can be particularly impactful during key transitional moments, such as starting a new job or school. Alternatively, interventions, such as the Stress Reappraisal, can be most effective when delivered shortly before a critical test or assessment, allowing the student to reattribute the test anxiety as adaptive. These are times when people are more receptive and vulnerable to influence, and interventions can set a positive or negative course. These 'gateway moments' are critical in propelling individuals in a positive direction when the time and place have been calibrated correctly. 


Since it is not possible to fully understand other people’s psychological states, it is crucial to employ a portfolio of diverse and relevant measures to try to better approximate those internal states — and the impact that any possible intervention might have. For instance, to directly target the cause of academic underperformance, it is crucial to assess the root psychological cause that undermines optimal performance. To assess how best to implement the intervention, it should capture participation rates. To assess whether the intervention had the predicted positive effects, it must measure relevant psychological, behavioral, and performance metrics. To assess the generalizability of the intervention, it must be tested among different samples and in different contexts. To assess the relevance of the intervention, it must be implemented at different times and in relation to various relevant life events. This is what Pawson & Tilley (1997) refer to as a Realist Evaluation, which can be summed by attempting to understand “what works in which circumstances and for whom?” rather than “does it work?” Taken together, these assessment efforts allow for a continuous cycle of improved design and evaluation, leading to a well-informed and data-driven approach to fostering student success.  

Continuous Evaluation

At the heart of human psychology is “the idea that people are storytellers continually authoring and revising narratives about themselves, their groups, and their place in the world” (Sherman et al., 2023). As such, people’s views of themselves are constantly changing, with direct impact from their social context. In the same vein, psychological interventions are intended to be part of the tapestry of contextual experiences that feed into and direct the trajectory of human experience and self-regard. Consequently, the impact of such interventions will necessarily look different immediately after being implemented than longer-term downstream effects because they shape how the individual navigates and experiences their social world and, in turn, how they author their own role within that ever-changing environment. For instance, an effective intervention will serve to introduce a more adaptive self-view — which not only feeds into a recursive process of unfolding behavior, outcomes, and altered attributions — but also changes the feedback loops that garner a greater level of trust with others in one’s environment. This renewed trust, in turn, changes the direction of the recursive processes, for which the original intervention may no longer impact or improve in the same way. 

To illustrate the need for continuous evaluation, it may be useful to see how even the most well-intended programs have the potential to either lead to ineffective results or perhaps even backfire. For example, borne out of the desire to avoid discouraging students, the self-esteem movement attempted to blanket everyone with praise, whether deserved or not. However, as research now shows, the kind of praise we give matters (Brummelman et al., 2017; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). When praised for their intelligence (as the self-esteem movement might espouse) or for their performance, students come to view intelligence as an individual trait and believe that grades can reveal just how much intelligence a person has. This view about intelligence, called a Fixed Mindset (Dweck & Leggett, 1998), is now recognized to be maladaptive and can dampen motivation and persistence. Instead, praising students for their effort helps to show that what is valued is the learning process and not just the outcomes. In turn, this process of praise fosters more of a growth mindset, which encourages students to persist more and perform better (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

Thus, a careful and well-established assessment program will help to ensure that any intervention is targeting the intended psychological mechanism for the right group, in the right context, and, importantly, isn’t having unintended or negative consequences. 

Performance Differences vs. Underperformance

Often, the primary outcome that is used as a measure of intervention impact is academic performance. While an important outcome, it is relevant here to discuss the differing meanings between underperformance and low performance. Low academic performance typically refers to achieving below the expected or standard level in educational outcomes, such as grades, test scores, or other assessments. It's a straightforward measurement against a set standard or benchmark. For example, if the average score in a math test is 75%, students scoring significantly below this might be considered as having low academic performance. In contrast, underperformance is more nuanced. It refers to performing below one's potential or capabilities, rather than just below a set standard. This can happen even if a student is meeting or exceeding average benchmarks. For instance, a student capable of scoring 95% but consistently scoring 80% is underperforming relative to their potential. Underperformance is particularly significant in the context of students from underrepresented backgrounds for several reasons, including the disproportionate financial, personal, and health burdens that some groups are exposed to, inadequate and ineffective contextual and structural forces, and psychological factors. 


In preparing individuals for success both academically and in their post-academic lives, those with psychological barriers and beliefs about their own education can be helped through non-cognitive psychological interventions. Many institutions would be tempted to intervene without assessing, or assess only once without taking into account the dynamic nature of sophisticated psychological experiences. In this article, we offer a strategy for design and evaluation that is both cyclical and iterative. It is naïve and simplistic to believe that only a single assessment and single intervention will work in all instances. Without careful design and a multi-pronged assessment program, we may fail to improve the lives of those who most need the intervention, in the moments when they need it most.