The purpose of the research was to test the impact of college meaning (i.e., deriving a sense of meaning in life from educational pursuits in college) on students’ academic self-efficacy. In Study 1, 378 undergraduate students completed measures of college meaning and academic self-efficacy. The study revealed that college meaning was positively associated with academic self-efficacy. Study 2 tested the impact of college meaning on academic self-efficacy using an experiment. In Study 2, 308 undergraduate students completed a college meaning or control manipulation, followed by an assessment of academic self-efficacy. It was found that students who completed a writing prompt that had them reflect on how college gives their life meaning reported stronger academic self-efficacy when compared to students who completed a control writing prompt. Getting students to consider the existential importance of college appears to be one way of inspiring positive beliefs about their ability to succeed in college.
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Academic self-efficacy, defined as a student’s belief in their ability to successfully achieve their academic goals, is an important factor for predicting the success of college students. Academic self-efficacy has been associated with better academic performance (Honicke & Broadbent, 2016; Multon et al., 1991) as well as better adjustment in college (Chemers et al., 2001) through avenues such as help-seeking and counseling (Tirpak & Schlosser, 2015). Academic self-efficacy has also been found to be associated with persistence in academic tasks (Lent et al., 1984). Students with high academic self-efficacy are more likely to persist in college to achieve their academic goals, in part, because they are more likely to use adaptive learning strategies when faced with failures or difficult challenges (Honicke & Broadbent, 2016). Considering the positive implications of academic self-efficacy, it is important to identify psychological factors that can promote it. This research proposes that college meaning, defined as the extent to which students view college as contributing to the meaningfulness/purpose of their life, can inspire academic self-efficacy.
1 Meaning in Life
We define meaning in life as the extent to which an individual sees their lives as making sense, being important, and having purpose (George & Park, 2017; King & Hicks, 2021). Several theoretical perspectives consider meaning in life an important component of psychological well-being (Frankl, 1959; Zika & Chamberlain, 1992). Researchers have used self-report measures like the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006) as well as the closely related Purpose in Life Test (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964) to test associations between meaning and other indicators of psychological well-being. Indeed, this research indicates that meaning in life is linked to indicators of psychological well-being such as positive affect (e.g., King et al., 2006), self-esteem (e.g., Barnett et al., 2019), higher vitality (e.g., Hooker & Masters, 2018), happiness (e.g., Van Agteren et al., 2021), and greater satisfaction with life (e.g., Steger & Kashdan, 2007), to name a few. In contrast, a lack of meaning is associated with depression (e.g., Steger et al., 2009), anxiety (e.g., Miller & Rottinghaus, 2014; Steger et al., 2009), loneliness (e.g., Kang et al., 2021), substance abuse (e.g., Steger et al., 2009), and suicidality (Schnell et al., 2018).
In addition to being a component of psychological well-being, researchers have proposed that meaning in life plays an important role in the pursuit of personally important goals. McKnight and Kashdan (2009), for example, suggest that having a purpose stimulates and sustains goal-directed behaviors. Similarly, Hooker and colleagues (2018) propose that understanding the meaningfulness of one’s life helps people identify important life goals, encourages self-monitoring, stimulates understanding of success and failures, and generally inspires goal-related action. Hooker and Masters (2018) found that people were more likely to engage in physical activity and exercised more vigorously when they were more aware of what gives their life meaning. Additionally, studies have provided evidence that revisiting personally meaningful memories increases commitment to important goals (Abeyta et al., 2015; Sedikides et al., 2018). Taken together this research supports a proactive feature of meaning in life, suggesting that meaning in life helps people understand and direct action toward personally important goals which may be leveraged to energize college students’ educational goals.
Self-efficacy also plays a central role in directing action toward personally important goals. Bandura (1977) defines self-efficacy as a person’s belief in their ability to do what it takes to pursue and accomplish personally important goals and posits that this belief is a powerful determinant of goal execution, persistence, and success. Indeed, research indicates that self-efficacy is a robust predictor of goal-related outcomes in a variety of applied areas including work/career success (Sadri & Robertson, 1993), health behavior change (Holden, 1992), and effective coping with traumatic life events (Luszczynska et al., 2009), to name a few. When it comes to higher education, Lent et al. (1984) found that self-efficacy was associated with retention and re-enrollment rates in vocational schools, and Multon et al. (1991) found that self-efficacy explained 14% of the variance in college students’ academic performance and 12% in college student retention.
Bandura’s theory on self-efficacy (1977) posits that, rather than being a stable trait, self-efficacy can change depending on the domain and can be altered by contextual factors. In higher education, for example, a student can have high self-efficacy when it comes to socially adjusting to college but low self-efficacy when it comes to getting good grades. When it comes to altering self-efficacy, one of the most robust strategies for improving self-efficacy is via goal-related successes, which Bandura referred to as mastery experiences. That is, students’ belief in their ability to accomplish their academic goals will grow as they accumulate successes like earning high marks on assignments or receiving praise from respected instructors. However, it is still possible to promote self-efficacy without direct success. Self-efficacy theory suggests that people may also derive self-efficacy by watching those whom they identify with succeed, by reassuring themselves that one has desired attributes crucial for success, and/or by visualizing themselves accomplishing their goals. These types of experiences work to alter self-efficacy by encouraging positive beliefs about one’s potential to accomplish goals.
1.2 Wise Interventions
Consistent with self-efficacy theory’s proposal that how people make sense of their goal progress/potential influences action, applied research on wise interventions has provided evidence that simple strategies aimed at altering how students make sense of their academic experiences, competencies, and potentials have a profound effect on their persistence and success in college (for a review see Walton, 2014; Walton & Wilson, 2018). For example, Walton and Cohen’s (2011) college belonging intervention is one of the most researched wise interventions for college students. Students who feel like they do not belong or fit in college are at greater risk of dropping out of college (e.g., Freeman et al., 2007; Hausmann et al., 2007) and this is, in part, because they view their concerns about fitting in and being accepted as unique and because they interpret academic struggles as confirming their fears of not being fit for college (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011). Walton and Cohen’s (2011) belonging intervention attempts to change these beliefs by exposing students to peer testimonials that worries about being accepted in college are normal and are overcome with experiences, and by encouraging students to brainstorm ways that they too can overcome worries about belonging. This exercise has been found to promote academic achievement and retention in a variety of college student populations because it reduces the tendency for students to see academic struggles as confirming their belonging fears (e.g., Murphy et al., 2020; Walton & Cohen, 2007, Walton & Cohen, 2011; Yeager et al., 2016). However, the wise intervention most relevant to the current research is Yeager and colleagues’ (2014) Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention. This intervention looks to promote academic engagement by encouraging students to focus on a reason for becoming educated that goes beyond self-interest (e.g., to have a career that helps other people). High school students who completed the intervention earned higher math grades over several months compared to students who did not, though the impact of the one-time intervention on grades was small (Cohen’s d = 0.11). However, the researchers found that the positive impact of the Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention on time spent on tedious academic tasks was larger (e.g., Cohen’s d = 0.56 in Study 3). The authors reasoned that the Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention promotes academic achievement by encouraging students to persist in boring academic tasks.
1.3 Meaning in Life and Self-Efficacy
Taken together, self-efficacy is a central factor for goal realization that can be altered by experiences that encourage positive appraisals of goal success and potential. Research in the educational domain indicates that academic self-efficacy is a robust predictor of college student retention and academic success (Honicke & Broadbent, 2016; Lent, 1984; Multon et al., 1991). In the current research, we propose that meaning in life may positively encourage self-efficacy. This proposal is guided by the aforementioned research that making sense of the purpose or meaning of one’s actions can provide people with direction and motivation to engage in and persist in goal-related action (e.g., Hooker & Masters, 2018; Sedikides et al., 2018). In providing people with clarity about their goals and direction for goal-related actions, meaning should encourage positive beliefs about goal attainment. Of course, we are not the first to examine the link between meaning in life and self-efficacy. For example, a study conducted by Rush et al. (2021) found that meaning in life was associated with self-efficacy in improving physical fitness. In another study, Yuen and Datu (2021) found that the presence of meaning in life was associated with stronger academic self-efficacy in a sample of secondary school students. Both prior studies assessed meaning in life generally, whereas, in the current research, we assessed college meaning specifically to gain insight into whether making sense of college as a meaningful endeavor is positively linked with college students’ academic self-efficacy. In Study 1, we assessed college meaning and academic self-efficacy. We hypothesized that college meaning would correspond with stronger academic self-efficacy.
Drawing inspiration from the wise intervention literature generally (Walton, 2014; Walton & Wilson, 2018; Yeager et al., 2014) Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention specifically, we also tested whether encouraging students to view college as a goal that provides meaning/purpose increases their academic self-efficacy. In Study 2, we manipulated college meaning and assessed academic self-efficacy. We hypothesized that having college students consider how their effort in school gives their life meaning/purpose would strengthen academic self-efficacy.
2 Study 1
In Study 1, we evaluated the relationship between college meaning and academic self-efficacy using a correlational method. Specifically, a sample of undergraduate students completed self-report measures of college meaning and academic self-efficacy. We used a modified version of the Work and Meaning Inventory (Steger et al., 2012), a measure intended to assess the extent to which working adults derive meaning/purpose from their jobs/careers and view their work as a way to make a positive impact on the greater good, to measure college meaning. In this modified version we replaced the words “job” and “career” with “college” and “education”. We used two measures of academic self-efficacy to explore whether the association between college meaning and academic self-efficacy was general or specific, focusing on areas we deemed important for college success, managing college-related stress, and achievement in classes.
In addition, we assessed several student characteristics to explore moderation. First, we had students self-report their grade point average (GPA) to assess academic achievement, because we wanted to explore whether the association between college meaning and academic self-efficacy varied as a function of student achievement. Because this research was conducted at a broad-access, public, and Minority Serving Institution, we also wanted to explore whether the college meaning and academic self-efficacy association was impacted by whether a student comes from a group that is traditionally underrepresented in higher education. To this end, we also assessed age, race/ethnicity, income, and whether students are first-generation college students (i.e., parents did not earn a 4-year college degree). Consistent with past research (e.g., Yuen & Datu, 2021), we hypothesized that college meaning would be positively associated with academic self-efficacy. We did not have firm hypotheses regarding whether demographic characteristics would moderate the relation between college meaning and academic self-efficacy.
2.1.1 Transparency and Openness
This study was not preregistered. We wanted to recruit a large enough sample of undergraduate students to (1) test the association between college meaning and academic self-efficacy, as well as the association between each of the five demographic characteristics (i.e., GPA, age, income, race/ethnicity, and college generation status) and academic self-efficacy, and to (2) explore whether each of the five demographics moderated the association between college meaning and academic self-efficacy. Specifically, we planned on conducting a hierarchical linear regression. In Step 1 of the regression, we regressed academic self-efficacy on college meaning and the five demographic characteristics. In Step 2, we added the five college meaning by demographic interaction terms (i.e., college meaning x GPA, college meaning x age, college meaning x income, college meaning x race/ethnicity, college meaning x college generation status). We used G*power (version 184.108.40.206, Faul et al., 2007) software to determine adequate sample size to test whether the interaction terms in Step 2 of the regression (5 predictors) explained additional variance (R2 increase) in academic self-efficacy scores beyond the 6 individual predictors in Step 1 of the regression (11 total predictors). G*power computes the required sample size based on given alpha, power, and effect size. Based on previous research on the relationship between meaning in life and self-efficacy (Yuen & Datu, 2021), we planned for small-to-medium effect sizes. We specified power of 0.80 and an alpha level of 0.05. The G*power analysis revealed a required sample size of 263. We recruited participants from our university’s psychology participant pool and collected data over a single semester. We aimed to recruit as many participants as possible, with the stipulation that we recruit at least 263. No data were excluded from analyses. Data were analyzed using IBM SPSS statistics (Version 28) (IBM Corp., 2021). Data, analysis code, and research materials are available at: https://osf.io/3ed6q/.
Participants consisted of 378 college students from a medium-sized, broad-access, public, and Minority-Serving Institution located in the Northeastern United States (113 men, 265 women)Footnote 1. Student’s ages ranged from 18 to 46 (M = 19.44, SD = 2.60). We collected demographic info such as GPA, ethnicity/race, first-generation status, and household income.
2.1.3 Procedure and Materials
Participants completed an online survey consisting of, and in the following order, a college meaning measure, and two measures of academic self-efficacy.
College meaning. We used a modified version of Steger and colleagues’ (2012) Work and Meaning Inventory to assess college meaning. The Work and Meaning Inventory contains items that focus on the extent to which a person views their job as contributing to their sense of meaning, items that focus on the extent to which a person views their career as an opportunity to grow, and items that focus on the extent to which a person views their career as giving them a greater purpose beyond the self. We modified the scale to focus on “college” and “education” instead of “career” and “work” (e.g., “I understand how my education contributes to my life’s meaning”). Participants responded to the items with a 5-point response scale (1 = not true at all, 5 = completely true).
Academic Self-Efficacy measures. We included two academic self-efficacy measures in the online survey. First, we used a modified version of Benight and colleagues’ (2015) 9-item Trauma Coping Self-Efficacy scale. Specifically, we altered the wording of the items to focus on coping with college-related stress (e.g., “How capable am I to manage distressing thoughts about challenges in my classes?). Participants rated their capability to cope with college stress with a 7-point response scale (1 = not very capable, 7 = very capable).
Second, we used 3-items created for this research meant to assess efficacy related to academic achievement in courses. This measure was modeled after similar domain-specific self-efficacy scales (Bandura, 2006). Specifically, participants responded to the following three items: “I feel confident that I can master the course content”, “I feel confident that I can live up to what my professors expect of me”, and “I feel confident that I can get the grades I want,” using a 10-point response scale (1 = cannot do at all, 10 = highly certain can do).
2.2 Results and Discussion
2.2.1 Descriptive Statistics
Descriptive statistics for the demographic characteristics are summarized in Table 1. We dichotomized and dummy-coded Race/Ethnicity into White participants which were assigned the value of 0 (n = 136, 36%), and Participants of Color assigned the value of 1 (n = 242, 64%). We also dummy coded the generational status variable such that first-generation students were assigned the value of 1, whereas continuing-generation students were assigned the value of 0. GPA, Income, and age were kept as continuous variables.
We conducted a confirmatory factor analysis to help determine whether the adapted Work and Meaning Inventory should be scored as a multi-dimensional measure or a unidimensional measure. Past research supports scoring it as three related dimensions labeled Greater Good Motivation, Positive Meaning, and Contributions to Meaning-Making, respectively (Steger et al., 2012). We tested the fit of the multi-dimensional model and a unidimensional model using the LAVAAN version 0.6-9 package in R version 4.1.0 (Rosseel, 2012). The diagonally weighted least squares (DWLS) estimator was specified. We evaluated model fit with the following indices and criteria: the Tucker Lewis index (TLI) and comparative fit index (CFI) values from 0.90 to 0.95 were considered good to excellent, and root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) and standardized root mean square (SRMR) values less than 0.08 were considered good fit (Hu & Bentler, 1999). Overall, both models indicated acceptable but not good model fit on most of the fit indices. The multi-dimensional model did not fit the data better than the unidimensional model. We reported model fit statistics in Table 2. Therefore, we averaged across the adapted Work and Meaning Inventory items to create a single college meaning score for each participant (α = .92; M = 3.47, SD = 0.78). We also averaged responses on the adapted version of the 9-item Trauma Coping Self-Efficacy scale and the 3 academic self-efficacy items to create self-efficacy for coping with academic stress scores (α = 0.89; M = 4.89, SD = 1.12) and self-efficacy for academic achievement scores (α = 0.91, M = 7.05, SD = 1.80), respectively.
2.2.2 Self-Efficacy for Coping with College Stress
We conducted a hierarchical linear regression to (1) test the relation between college meaning and self-efficacy for coping with college-related stress and (2) to explore whether any of the demographic variables (i.e., GPA, income, first-generation status, race/ethnicity, and age) moderated the association between college meaning and self-efficacy for coping with college-related stress. We report regression statistics in Table 3.
In the first step of the regression, we entered college meaning, age, GPA, income, dummy-coded college generation status, and dummy-coded race/ethnicity as predictors of self-efficacy for coping with college stress. The overall model was significant, R2 = 0.098, F(6, 371) = 6.75, p < .001, f2 = 0.11. As predicted, college meaning was significantly and positively associated with self-efficacy for coping with college-related stress, b = 0.35, SE = 0.07, t = 4.83, p < .001, f2 = 0.06, 95% CI [0.21, 0.49]. Income was also significantly and positively associated with efficacy for coping with college stress, b = 0.09, SE = 0.03, t = 2.60, p = .010, f2 = 0.02, 95% CI [0.02, 0.15]. All other demographic variables were not significantly associated with efficacy for coping with college stress (ps > 0.101).
In the second step of the regression, we added all possible college meaning x demographic two-way interactions. The interaction terms were added to explore whether any of the demographics moderated the association between college meaning and self-efficacy for coping with academic stress. Adding the college meaning x demographic two-way interactions did not explain additional variance in self-efficacy for coping with college stress, ΔR2 = 0.010, F(5, 366) = 0.86, p = .508, f2 = 0.01. None of the demographic variables moderated the relation between college meaning and self-efficacy for coping with college stress (ps > 0.137).
2.2.3 Self-Efficacy for Academic Achievement
We also used a hierarchical linear regression analysis to (1) test the relation between college meaning and self-efficacy for academic achievement and (2) explore whether any of the demographic variables moderated the relation between college meaning and self-efficacy for academic achievement. We report regression statistics in Table 3.
In the first step of the regression, we entered college meaning, age, GPA, income, dummy-coded college generation status, and dummy-coded race/ethnicity as predictors of self-efficacy for academic achievement. The first step of the regression was statistically significant, R2 = 0.174, F(6, 371) = 13.04, p < .001, f2 = 0.21. College meaning was significantly and positively associated with self-efficacy for academic achievement, b = 0.71, SE = 0.11, t = 6.45, p < .001, f2 = 0.10, 95% CI [0.49, 0.93]. GPA was also significantly and positively associated with self-efficacy for academic achievement, b = 0.22, SE = 0.05, t = 4.20, p < .001, f2 = 0.04, 95% CI [0.12, 0.32]. All other demographic variables were not significantly associated with efficacy for academic achievement (ps > 0.069).
In the second step of the regression, we added all possible college meaning x demographic two-way interactions. The interaction terms were added to explore whether any of the demographics moderated the association between college meaning and self-efficacy for academic achievement. Adding the college meaning x demographic two-way interactions in the second step of the hierarchical regression did not explain additional variance in self-efficacy for academic achievement, ΔR2 = 0.007, F(5, 366) = 0.58, p = .712, f2 = 0.007. None of the demographic variables moderated the relation between college meaning and self-efficacy for academic achievement (ps > 0.151).
Taken together, college meaning was positively and similarly associated with two different measures of academic self-efficacy, suggesting that college meaning may be generally predictive of academic self-efficacy, rather than differentially predictive of student beliefs about coping with academic stress or student beliefs about academic achievement. Additionally, the association was not moderated by any of the student characteristics assessed. In other words, we found that college meaning appears to be an important factor for explaining academic self-efficacy regardless of students’ GPA, their age, their socioeconomic background, whether they are White or a member of an ethnic/racial minority group, or whether they are a first-generation or continuing-generation college student. This research suggests that viewing college as meaningful may inspire academic self-efficacy because students who reported a stronger sense of college meaning also tended to report high academic self-efficacy. However, this study was correlational and therefore we cannot be sure that college meaning precipitates academic self-efficacy. Study 2 was designed to correct this limitation by manipulating rather than measuring college meaning.
3 Study 2
The purpose of Study 2 was to examine the causal relation between college meaning and academic self-efficacy. We accomplished this by having college student participants engage in a college meaning or control writing task, and then complete a measure of academic self-efficacy. We used a single measure of academic self-efficacy in Study 2, compared to the two measures used in Study 1, for two reasons. First, we did not find strong evidence in Study 1 that the college meaning and academic self-efficacy relation was specific to either self-efficacy for coping with college stress or self-efficacy for academic achievement. Second, we chose only one of the two measures from Study 1 for time efficiency. We also had students self-report their GPA, age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and whether students are first-generation college students, to once again explore whether any of these demographics moderated the effect of college meaning on academic self-efficacy. We hypothesized that students who completed the college-meaning writing task would report higher academic self-efficacy compared to students who completed the control writing task. We did not have specific moderation hypotheses.
3.1.1 Transparency and Openness
This study was not preregistered. Sample-size determination and participant recruitment were identical to Study 1. No data were excluded from analyses. Data were analyzed using IBM SPSS statistics (Version 28). Data, analysis code, and research materials are available at: https://osf.io/3ed6q/.
Participants in this study consisted of 305 college students from a medium-sized, broad-access, Minority-Serving Institution located in the Northeastern United States (73 men, 232 women) with ages ranging from 18 to 48 (M = 20.04, SD = 3.84)Footnote 2. We collected the same demographic factors in Study 1, which include GPA, race/ethnicity, first-generation status, and household income. These participant characteristics are summarized in Table 1.
3.1.3 Procedure and Materials
Participants completed an online survey consisting of, and in the following order, a college meaning or control manipulation, a positive affect measure, an academic-efficacy scale, and a meaning in life questionnaire.
College Meaning Manipulation. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two writing prompt conditions. This writing exercise was inspired by Yeager and colleagues’ (2014) Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention. The control group (n = 154) was tasked with writing about how high school and college are different. Specifically, the participants responded to the following writing prompts (1) “How is college different than high school?”, (2) “How is your life different now compared to when you were in high school?” The college meaning group (n = 152) was tasked with writing about how their college education is meaningful and serves a greater purpose for their lives/ambitions. Specifically, the participants responded to the following writing prompts (1) “How does your education contribute to your sense of personal importance?”, (2) “How will learning in school help you to be the person you want to be or help you make the kind of impact you want to on the people around you or in society in general?”.
Positive Affect. Next participants completed a 4-item positive affect scale (Hepper et al., 2012). This positive affect measure was included to rule out the possibility that positivity, rather than meaning in life, explained differences between the college meaning and control conditions. Specifically, the participants were asked to indicate their agreement on a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree) to the following items: (1) “I am in a great mood.” (2) “I feel good.” (3) “I have positive feelings.” (4) “I feel happy.”.
Academic self-efficacy. The 3-item scale from Study 1 was used to measure participants’ self-efficacy for academic success.
Meaning in life. The meaning in life measure consisted of Steger and colleagues’ (2003) 10-item Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ). The MLQ is split into two different meaning dimensions: presence of meaning which contains items on whether respondents believe their lives have meaning/purpose (e.g., “My life has a clear sense of purpose”; 1 = absolutely untrue, 7 = absolutely true), and search for meaning with items on the participants sense that they are actively looking for meaning/purpose (e.g., “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life.”). The meaning life questionnaire was included as a manipulation check.
3.2 Results and Discussion
3.2.1 Descriptive Statistics
Descriptive statistics for the demographic characteristics are summarized in Table 1. We dichotomized and dummy-coded Race/Ethnicity into White participants which were assigned the value of 0 (n = 136, 36%), and Participants of Color assigned the value of 1 (n = 242, 64%). We also dummy coded the generational status variable such that first-generation students were assigned the value of 1, whereas continuing-generation students were assigned the value of 0. GPA, Income, and age were kept as continuous variables. We averaged responses on the 4-item positive affect scale (α = 0.91; M = 5.19, SD = 1.20), the 3-item self-efficacy for academic achievement scores (α = 0.91, M = 7.50, SD = 1.64), the 5-item presence of meaning subscale of the MLQ (α = 0.84, M = 4.72, SD = 1.19), and the 5-item search for meaning subscales of the MLQ (α = 0.86; M = 4.91, SD = 1.22), respectively.
3.2.2 Preliminary Analyses
First, we conducted independent samples t-tests to test for differences between the college meaning and control condition on search for meaning and presence of meaning, respectively. Regarding search for meaning, the college meaning condition (M = 4.91, SD = 1.25) and the control condition (M = 4.92, SD = 1.20) reported similar levels of search for meaning and this difference did not reach statistical significance t(303) = -0.08, p = .94, Hedges’ g = − 0.009, 95% CI [-0.29, 0.27]. In contrast, participants in the college meaning condition reported a greater presence of meaning (M = 4.87, SD = 1.17) than participants in the control condition (M = 4.56, SD = 1.18), with the difference reaching statistical significance t(303) = 2.46, p = .014, Hedges’ g = 0.28, 95% CI [0.07, 0.60]. The college meaning condition was successful in promoting a sense of meaning in life but did not instigate search for meaning. This is not surprising since searching for meaning is most often, but not always, a response to a lack of meaning (Steger et al., 2008).
We then conducted an independent t-test to test for differences between the conditions on positive affect. The college meaning condition (M = 5.30, SD = 1.19) reported greater positive affect than the control condition (M = 5.10, SD = 1.21), but this difference did not reach statistical significance, t(303) = 1.52, p = .13, Hedges’ g = 0.17, 95% CI [-0.06, 0.48]. From this, we can deduce that positive affect was not significantly impacted by the college meaning condition.
3.2.3 Primary Analysis
We used hierarchical linear regression to (1) test the impact of the college meaning manipulation on academic self-efficacy and (2) explore whether any of the demographic variables (i.e., GPA, income, first-generation status, race/ethnicity, and age) moderated the impact of the college meaning manipulation. We report regression statistics in Table 4.
In the first step of the hierarchical regression, we entered the dummy coded conditions (college meaning condition = 1, control condition = 0), age, income, GPA, dummy coded college generation status (first-generation = 1, continuing generation = 0), and dummy coded race/ethnicity (White students = 1, non-White students = 0) as predictors of academic self-efficacy. The overall model was significant R2 = 0.065, F(6, 298) = 3.46, p = .003, f2 = 0.07. As predicted, the college meaning manipulation significantly increased academic self-efficacy, b = 0.45, SE = 0.19, t = 2.43, p = .016, f2 = 0.02, 95% CI [0.09, 0.82]. First-generation students reported significantly lower academic self-efficacy compared to continuing-generation students, b = − 0.42, SE = 0.20, t = -2.12, p = .034, f2 = 0.01, 95% CI [-0.82, -0.03], and GPA was once again significantly and positively associated with academic self-efficacy, b = 0.10, SE = 0.05, t = 2.04, p = .042, f2 = 0.01, 95% CI [0.003, 0.19]. All other demographic variables were not significantly associated with academic self-efficacy (ps > 0.323).
In the second step of the hierarchical regression, we added all possible condition x demographic two-way interactions. The interaction terms were added to explore whether any of the demographics moderated the effect of the college meaning manipulation. Adding these two-way interactions did not explain additional variance in academic self-efficacy, ΔR2 = 0.010, F(5, 293) = 0.66, p = .656, f2 = 0.01. None of the demographic variables moderated the relation between the meaning in life condition and academic self-efficacy (p’s > 0.16).
Taken together, the results of Study 2 provide evidence that college meaning promotes academic self-efficacy. College students who wrote about how their college education gives their life meaning/purpose reported greater academic self-efficacy compared to students who did not. There was no strong evidence that this difference could be explained by positivity because the college meaning condition did not significantly increase positive affect. We did not find evidence that any of the student demographics we considered moderated the impact of college meaning on Academic Self-efficacy.
4 General Discussion
The purpose of our research was to explore the relationship between college meaning and academic self-efficacy. We hypothesized that viewing college as a source of meaning/purpose in life would be associated with stronger academic self-efficacy. We explored this idea in two studies. In Study 1, we tested for the connection between college meaning and academic self-efficacy at the trait level, finding that college meaning is positively associated with self-efficacy for managing college stress and self-efficacy for academic achievement. In Study 2, we examined the link between college meaning and academic self-efficacy experimentally. Having students consider how college gives their life meaning/purpose increased self-efficacy for academic achievement. Taken together, this research provides evidence that meaning in life supports and helps build academic self-efficacy.
The present studies add to a growing body of research that suggests that meaning in life facilitates the pursuit of personal goals (Hooker et al., 2018). As previously mentioned, this research has provided evidence that meaning inspires commitment to personally important goals, goal-related action, and goal persistence (Abeyta et al., 2015; Sedikides et al., 2018; Yeager et al., 2014). Our study builds on these by providing causal evidence that meaning in life promotes self-efficacy. According to self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), self-efficacy is a central determinant for goal execution and success. Research on examining self-efficacy in the academic domain, for example, indicates that academic self-efficacy is a robust predictor for academic persistence and achievement (Honicke & Broadbent, 2016; Lent et al., 1984). Thus, college meaning may promote college success by strengthening academic self-efficacy. However, an important limitation of our research is that we did not assess goal commitment, goal action, or goal persistence, so we do not know for sure to what extent academic self-efficacy generated from college meaning contributes to student success. Future research should look to verify that self-efficacy mediates college meaning’s impact on academic goal commitment, goal action, and goal persistence.
Our research also cannot speak to the lasting impact of college meaning on academic self-efficacy. In other words, we assessed academic self-efficacy after the college meaning writing task and did not measure it again, so we do not know whether reflecting on the meaningfulness of college once inspires lasting academic self-efficacy or if reflecting on the meaningfulness of college repeatedly would be necessary to produce lasting effects. Yeager and colleagues (2014) found that their Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention, which was adapted for the college meaning manipulation, had long-term effects on increasing GPA, which suggests that perhaps a one-time college meaning exercise could be sufficient. Perhaps once students have made sense of their college experience as meaningful/providing them a purpose they can naturally return to these thoughts later to keep academic self-efficacy high. Self-efficacy theory suggests that self-efficacy can be altered by situational factors. Students may encounter academic challenges that threaten academic self-efficacy. Reminding themselves why their education is meaningful may give students a temporary self-efficacy boost to weather the storm. Future research should investigate these possibilities.
The current research also adds to the literature on the impact of psychological factors on student success. Researchers have identified several wise interventions that look to promote desired behaviors in applied settings by promoting adaptive mindsets (for a review see, Walton & Wilson, 2018). In the academic domain, psychological interventions that help students make sense of college and the challenges they face have been found to promote academic retention and achievement (e.g., Harackiewicz & Priniski, 2018; Murphy et al., 2020; Walton & Cohen, 2011; Yeager et al., 2014). Yeager and colleagues’ (2014) Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Intervention is the most closely related to the current research. As previously mentioned, this intervention gets students to consider a purpose for their college education that is beyond self-interest and inspired the college meaning manipulation in Study 2. However, a notable difference is that we did not constrain students to focus on purpose beyond self-interest, but also instructed them to reflect on how college contributes to personal importance and self-growth/understanding. This was because we were guided by theory that conceptualizes meaning in life as personal importance and self-understanding, as well as purpose (e.g., George & Park, 2017; King & Hicks, 2021). The Work and Meaning Inventory (Steger et al., 2012) we adapted to assess college meaning in Study 1 also reflects this broader definition of college meaning. Taken together, this research complements Yeager and colleagues’ (2014) findings by suggesting that a broader definition of college meaning/purpose for learning may lead to adaptive student beliefs. Put another way, some students may find meaning in college because it allows them to fulfill a self-transcendent purpose, whereas others may derive meaning in life from college because it promotes self-growth/understanding and/or a sense of personal importance. No matter how students derive meaning from college, getting them to reflect on how college promotes meaning in life has the potential to support student success.
It is important to point out, however, that the college meaning manipulation was evaluated in a laboratory setting rather than a more realistic setting, and the effect of the college meaning manipulation was in the small-to-medium range (Cohens f2 = 0.10). This effect size is on par with other interventions that attempt to promote positive student mindsets. For example, a recent meta-analysis of growth mindset interventions indicates small-to-medium effects depending on the types of outcomes and whether the students receiving the intervention believe that the intervention will be beneficial (Burnette et al., 2022). Yeager and Walton (2011) argue that wise interventions are not to be considered standalone or fool-proof solutions to promote student success. Similarly, we do not wish to advocate that a simple college-meaning manipulation be a default strategy for promoting academic self-efficacy or suggest that it is the strongest method. We agree with self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977) that actual success in school would be a stronger way to build academic self-efficacy. Therefore, we think it is best to acknowledge that our college meaning manipulation is likely a temporary strategy to fortify academic self-efficacy and that the manipulation’s true power may reside giving students the small push they need to pursue more lasting strategies for building academic self-efficacy. Of course, future research is needed to evaluate this claim. Moreover, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness and strength of the college meaning manipulation outside of the laboratory in naturalistic student settings, like in classes or workshops. Nonetheless, this research is promising that getting students to consider how college gives their lives meaning/purpose may be a beneficial strategy for building academic self-efficacy and promoting student success.
It is important to consider moderating factors when gauging the intervention potential of college meaning. In other words, some students may benefit from a college-meaning affirmation more so than others, and there may be contexts where college-meaning affirmations are not beneficial. We did explore whether some student demographics moderated the link between college meaning and academic self-efficacy and found no evidence in favor of moderation. Of course, our coverage of potential moderators was limited since we concentrated on academic achievement and whether a student is from a group that is traditionally underrepresented in higher education. It is important to point out that our coverage of underrepresented groups was not complete, since we did not consider factors like students with disabilities and whether students were community college transfers. Moreover, there were weaknesses in our approach to assessing demographic characteristics. For example, we used self-report measures for income and GPA and students may not have been accurate in reporting their GPA and/or income. Additionally, the gender of the sample was imbalanced with a greater number of women compared to men due to our use of convenience sampling. We did not plan to explore whether gender moderated the reported effects but did run posterior analyses which suggest that controlling for participant gender did not alter any of the reported effects (see gender footnotes for details about analyses). Future research needs to continue to determine when and for whom college meaning is most impactful.
Another limitation that has to do with the generalizability of the findings is that both studies were conducted at the same university. The university is small in size (around 5,000 undergraduate students), is broad access, is a public university, and most of the undergraduate students are non-residential. The university is also classified as a Minority Serving Institution and serves a relatively high percentage of low-income, non-traditional, and first-generation college students. Factors such as college accessibility, affordability, and financial support may affect perceptions of college meaning. For example, a student who comes from a low-income background is the first in their family to attend college, and/or is financially independent may find it easier, compared to a more privileged student, to view college as a meaningful endeavor because it is their ticket to a better life. We attempted to control for student demographics like income, first-generation college status, and race/ethnicity and did not find evidence that they moderated the relation between college meaning and academic self-efficacy. Nonetheless, it is important for future research to replicate the link between college meaning and academic self-efficacy at a variety of institutions, including more elite/selective colleges and universities, less economically and racially diverse colleges and universities, community colleges, and so on.
In conclusion, these studies were intended to test the link between meaning in life and academic self-efficacy. We found that students who view college as contributing to their sense of meaning in life had stronger academic self-efficacy. Moreover, we provided causal evidence that college meaning leads to increased levels of academic self-efficacy. Thus, getting students to recognize and reflect on the meaningfulness of their efforts in school can inspire the belief that they have what it takes to succeed in college.
We explored gender differences in the primary variables by computing Hedges’ g for the difference between men and women on college meaning, self-efficacy for coping with college stress, and self-efficacy for academic achievement. Genders differences were small to medium in size. Women reported higher college meaning (M = 3.50, SD = 0.76) than men (M = 3.41, SD = 0.82), Hedges’ g = − 0.12, 95% CI [-0.34, 0.10]. However, women reported lower self-efficacy for coping with college stress (M = 4.76, SD = 1.09) than men (M = 5.20, SD = 1.13), Hedges’ g = 0.41, 95% CI [0.18, 0.63]. Women also reported lower academic achievement self-efficacy (M = 6.86, SD = 1.76) compared to men (M = 7.47, SD = 1.83), Hedges’ g = 0.34, 95% CI [0.12, 0.56]. Critically, including gender as a covariate did not substantively alter the reported results.
We explored gender differences in the primary variables by computing Hedges’ g for the difference between men and women on positive affect, search for meaning, presence of meaning, and self-efficacy for academic achievement. Gender differences were small. Women reported less positive affect (M = 5.19, SD = 1.22) than men (M = 5.21, SD = 1.17), Hedges’ g = 0.02, 95% CI [-0.25, 0.28]. Women also reported lower academic achievement self-efficacy (M = 7.42, SD = 1.62) compared to men (M = 7.77, SD = 1.68), Hedges’ g = 0.21, 95% CI [-0.05, 0.48]. However, women reported a higher search for meaning (M = 4.96, SD = 1.16) compared to men (M = 4.76, SD = 1.40), Hedges’ g = − 0.17, 95% CI [-0.43, 0.09]. Women also reported a higher presence of meaning (M = 4.75, SD = 1.15) compared to men (M = 4.63, SD = 1.29), Hedges’ g = − 0.10, 95% CI [-0.36, 0.16]. Critically, including gender as a covariate did not substantively alter the reported results.
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Trieu, E., Abeyta, A.A. Finding Meaning in Education Bolsters Academic Self-Efficacy. Int J Appl Posit Psychol 8, 383–403 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41042-023-00095-5