We know the importance and influence of our students’ social identity. Their social confidence determines how they interact with others in a variety of settings. Their social skills influence their success in developing and maintaining relationships. Their social status often is driven by the social identity they project.
Students also develop and behave consistently with their academic identities. Academic identity might be thought of as a combination of students’ experiences as learners and how they interpret and make meaning from what they experience. Academic identity is how students perceive their ability to learn. It influences how students interpret what happens in their academic lives. It can be a driver of or impediment to success. For example, some students possess high levels of academic confidence and take learning risks. Other students replay past struggles and are reluctant to take risks. They give up easily, believing they’re not capable.
Most students have a sense of who they are as learners. However, students may not pay much attention to what skills and characteristics make up their identity, how they can change and build their identity, and how it determines their current and future success.
Like social identity, academic identity includes these elements:
Learning skills. Some students see learning skills as their strength and are quick to engage in developing them further. Others believe their capacity is limited and won’t invest much time and energy in gaining new learning skills.
Learning risks. Some students are willing to try, even when they’re not confident of success. Other students prefer to focus on aspects of learning in which they’re confident and believe success is likely.
Learning persistence. Some students continue to strive and struggle even when success isn’t readily apparent. Other students more readily give up when success is slow in coming.
How students respond to mistakes. Some students are quick to recognize mistakes and leverage them to build new insights and learning. Others take great care to avoid, ignore, and discount the occurrence and value of their mistakes.
Value of their ideas and perspectives. Some students are quick to present and defend their ideas. Other students are reluctant to share and lack confidence in the worthiness of their thoughts.
Of course, we can influence the academic identities our students develop. Our daily interactions, coaching, nudging, and feedback are part of students’ learning experiences and influence how they see themselves as learners. Here are six actions we can take:
We can support students to reflect on their academic identity. Through dialogue, self-assessments, and reflection, we can coach students to become more aware of their current learning strengths, identify opportunities for growth, discover passions, and build aspirations.
We can focus our attention and instruction on development of learning skills over emphasis on intellectual abilities. Students have control over the skills they develop. As their skills grow, their intellectual abilities also grow.
We can celebrate academic risk-taking. We know new learning is richest when it includes an element of risk and promise of reward. As students learn the value of taking learning risks, their confidence and abilities grow.
We can design and present challenges that require students to struggle then reward their learning persistence. One of the best ways to develop a commitment to persist is to have our efforts pay off.
We can treat mistakes as valuable opportunities to build understanding and create conditions for success. When students see mistakes as valuable learning experiences, their openness to try, learn, and succeed increase.
We can exercise care with the ideas and perspectives students present. Students are keenly aware of whether we accept and respect what they share. When we ignore, discount, or reject their thoughts without consideration, we risk sending a message that students’ ideas and thoughts aren’t valuable. As a result, students may come to doubt the worthiness of their thinking and are less likely to share in the future.
Academic identity determines whether our students will invest and succeed in their learning today. How they see themselves as learners will also influence their choice of careers, the learning circumstances within which they’ll place themselves, and the learning trajectory of their lives. Our work with students today to build strong, confident academic identities pays rich dividends that will last a lifetime.