Breaking down the psychological barriers to success at school

Looking into how carefully-targeted low-cost interventions can reduce the psychological barriers to success of some groups of school students and help them prepare for a happy and productive life.

by Ian Hadden

It only takes a quick glance at GCSE results across the country to see that some groups of students don’t do as well as others, notably boys, students from some ethnic backgrounds, and students from poorer families. Some well-known structural barriers to success, such as poor nutrition and low-quality housing, play a crucial role. But social and cultural factors that students experience in their everyday environment can create other, more subtle, psychological barriers. Here’s a quick look at how three of these factors can lead to barriers that affect some groups of students more than others.

Barrier 1: Low expectations leading to lower confidence. There can be widely-held expectations across society that certain types of student will do poorly at school. This can either be across the whole curriculum (e.g. “white working-class boys just don’t do well at school”) or in certain subjects (e.g. “girls aren’t cut out for maths”). Unsurprisingly, these expectations may cause students to doubt their ability to thrive academically. The result can be a vicious circle of lower confidence leading to lower performance and further reduced expectations.

Barrier 2: Lack of role models leading to a lower value placed on school. Now consider students who look around them and don’t see people like them – family members, members of their community – doing well at school and progressing into high-status universities or occupations. For example, when only 6% of doctors describe themselves as being from a working-class background, students from low-income families may not see the medical profession as a realistic life path for them. Such a lack of role models with whom they can identify may lead them to question the value of doing well at school.

Barrier 3: Mismatch in values leading to a lower sense of belonging. Finally, research suggests that people from different national, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds place different emphasis on independent versus interdependent values. Is it more important to flourish as an individual, or to play your part in a tightly-knit family or community group? If school emphasises one of these sets of values, then students from backgrounds that emphasise the other set may feel a distinct lack of ease. This sort of mismatch can lead students to feel that they don’t really belong in school, with predictable consequences.

Researchers have tested a wide range of low-cost, simple-to-implement interventions aimed at reducing these types of barriers to success, and many have resulted in surprisingly large improvements across a range of outcomes. For example, I recently trialed a very low-cost intervention aimed at increasing the confidence of a group of underperforming Year 7-9 students. The intervention reduced the stress they reported experiencing and raised their academic performance; as a result, they closed well over half of the pre-existing gap in maths scores with their peers.

So, how might any particular school benefit from all this? Well, I’m currently testing a three-stage process: diagnosis, design and trial.

1. Diagnosis. The first stage is to ask the school’s students, teachers and parents about their experiences through a series of surveys and focus groups. This will help unpack the social and cultural factors that the students are experiencing and build a rich picture of any psychological barriers that might be suppressing outcomes for some.

2. Design. Based on this diagnosis, I aim to identify an environmental factor or psychological barrier that seems to be most suppressing outcomes for some groups of students, and design a simple but potentially high-impact intervention aimed at reducing it. This is likely to be based on a proven intervention from prior research, tailored for the specific social and cultural context of the school.

3. Trial. Finally, the school will test the intervention in a randomised controlled trial across a school year. Depending on the results, the intervention could potentially become embedded in the school’s curriculum or working practices in subsequent years.

My work is, of course, just the start. While a good deal of evidence has already been accumulated, most has been in the US and it’s not clear how it will translate to the different contexts of different schools in England. We will need an extensive programme of research in order to fully understand in what contexts these types of intervention are effective across the country.

This is an exciting time for research that has the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives of many young people.

Ian Hadden is a PhD student under the supervision of  Dr Matt Easterbrook and Prof Pete Harris. He is also part of the Self Affirmation Research Group (SARG). Other posts by Ian: Grouping by attainment in schools: can psychological interventions help turbo-charge poor students’ performance? and An appetite for bringing research into practice at ResearchED

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Ingenious Report: Autumn 2018

It has been a busy term for the Ingenious Bar. Our team have spent 40 hours in the recently refurbished School Office talking to students and staff alike, and we can confirm that the new armchairs are very comfy! Since the Ingenious Bar started last academic year, we have been based in the Psychology student space in Pevensey 1 1A1 and in a private office in the 2B corridor, but we hope the School Office (Pevensey 1, 2A13) will be our definitive home: it’s easier to find, it has a smaller room for confidential conversations, and the team can consult professional services colleagues for any matter that required their expertise. Not to mention the endless provision of psychology rock sweets!

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Junior Research Associate in the ChatLab

By Madeleine Weaver


This summer I took part in the Junior Research Associates (JRA) scheme in the Children and Technology Lab (Chatlab) with Professor Nicola Yuill. The JRA scheme is an 8 week programme designed for students who are considering post graduate study.

Amongst other things, the Chatlab looks into how technology can be used to support children with autism to collaborate.  I wanted to research immersion in technology and how this might be linked to body movement and collaboration in people with autism. This idea came about from my own observations of people with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) being highly immersed in technology, ‘digital bubbles’; combined with knowledge on embodied cognition I gained from my course at Sussex: Psychology with Cognitive Science. I thought this research could be useful in understanding the impact that highly immersive technologies might have on the embodied aspects of social interaction such as gestures and facial expressions, that are already difficult for people with ASC to understand. 

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Annual Kindness Symposium at Sussex 2018

By Jessica Cotney

Robin 3rd Kindness Conference

Prof Robin Banerjee launching the 3rd Annual Sussex Kindness Symposium

A few weeks ago, the University of Sussex hosted the third annual Sussex Kindness Symposium in order to celebrate World Kindness Day. The event was organised by Prof. Robin Banerjee from the School of Psychology, funded by Kindness UK as part of the Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award, and featured kindness-related work from across the university and beyond. Following an invited keynote presentation by Dr Oliver Scott Curry from University of Oxford, there was an interactive poster workshop, highlighting a number of research projects from across campus that are working to illuminate, evaluate and/or promote kindness. The symposium also included a panel discussion of how staff and students at the University of Sussex can promote (or are already promoting) kindness on campus. The event was a massive success, attracting staff and students from a wide range of academic disciplines, as well as staff members from professional services and senior leadership teams.

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The Psychology of Driving

By Dr Graham Hole

My recently-published book,”The Psychology of Everything: Driving” is one in a series of short books by Routledge that show how psychology can provide insights into every aspect of our daily lives. My book deals with a behaviour that can have deadly consequences: worldwide, every year, one and a quarter million people are killed on the roads, and 50 million seriously injured. Driving is the biggest cause of death amongst 15-29 year olds, especially young men.Driving psychology

My main aims with the book were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to show that psychology, as the science of the mind and behaviour, has a vital role to play in reducing road accidents, given that the vast majority are primarily due to human error. Secondly, I wanted to show how research can debunk some of the many myths relating to driving that are based on intuition, “common-sense” or pseudo-science.

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Exploring Kindness as a JRA

By Alessia Goglio

Being a Psychology undergraduate here at Sussex enabled me to explore different domains of interest in this fascinating subject and to develop my passion for “Positive Psychology”, the field that studies what is good in life.  Among the topic explored in this field, there is kindness: a construct that had been shown to not only improve life satisfaction and well-being but also friendships and relationships.

Kindness is a topic of growing interest in our university and one of the five core values of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework. Therefore, when I was given the amazing opportunity to work as a Junior Research Associate during summer 2018, I decided, with the help of my supervisor Professor Robin Banerjee and my mentor Jessica Cotney, to conduct a mixed-methods research investigating this positive construct.

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My JRA experience at the EDGE Lab

By Alexandra Schmidt

Over the summer I had the pleasure to be part of the Junior Research Associate scheme and conduct my first own piece of research in the EDGE lab. I got interested in the scheme when I visited the poster exhibition of the previous year’s JRA students and was amazed to see all the exciting and interesting research everyone was conducting.

For my project, I wanted to look at resilience and factors which may protect at-risk individuals from potential maladaptive outcomes, such as depression.

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Grouping by attainment in schools: can psychological interventions help turbo-charge poor students’ performance?

By Ian Hadden

Last month I attended the impressive – and buzzy – sell-out researchED 2018 annual conference in London.

The highlight for me was a fascinating piece of research presented by Becky Francis and Jeremy Hodgen of the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) on grouping secondary school students into classes (‘sets’) by attainment. This is often known as ‘setting’. Read more ›

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Psychology’s Ingenious Bar

We work hard to provide a great student experience for our students. We also want to make sure that there is always a place where you can tell us how to make your time at Sussex even better. That place is the Ingenious Bar, a drop-in session with the Head of School and/or members of the Management Team to speak about your experience as a psychology student at Sussex: what you like, what you don’t like, and any queries you might have about your course. Anything you tell us will be confidential, and we will try our best to take any suggestions on board.

Who is the Ingenious Bar for?

The Ingenious Bar is for you! Any Psychology student, from undergrad level to PhD, can use the Ingenious Bar.

How does it work? What kind of subjects can I discuss at the Ingenious Bar?

That depends on you. You might want to tell us how much you like your course (we’d love that!), or point out certain things that in your opinion could be better. You might have an idea for a School related initiative or event that the we could sponsor. You might have a query about a module, and your convenor or Academic Advisor is not available. You might be going through a difficult situation and want to talk about how this is impacting your studies (we’ll do our best to support you). In the past, we have received queries about marking criteria, project work, and even parking spaces. Whatever the subject, we want to hear it!

The staff at the Ingenious Bar will try to answer your queries on the spot or refer you to the relevant person. We will make sure to chase it up and get back to you with an answer as soon as possible. Every term we will publish a report here on the School blog, a kind of ‘you said, we did’. The report will not include student names to ensure that all queries remain confidential.

Who will be at the Ingenious Bar?

The Head of the School and the other members of the School’s Management Team will take turns at the desk:

Title Name
Head of School Prof Thomas Ormerod
Deputy Head of School Prof Robin Banerjee
Director of Teaching and Learning Dr Jessica Horst
Director of Student Experience Dr Richard De Visser
Director of Doctoral Studies Dr Sarah King
Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange Prof Martin Yeomans
Director of Recruitment and Admissions Dr Ryan Scott

We are also organising special sessions dedicated to specific themes, from assessment to careers in Psychology, and we will invite guest speakers from other sections of the University.

Check the calendar on this Canvas site to see who will be at the Ingenious Bar and when.

When and where?

Every Monday to Thursday, between 12:30 and 13:30, at the reception desk in the School Office (Pevensey 1, 2A13). The calendar on the UG Psychology module on Canvasshows the days and times when the Ingenious Bar will be open.


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Student view: studying Psychology at Sussex

By Leila Davis

When I began studying psychology at Sussex in 2015, my biggest fear was how I would cope with the research and statistical aspect of the course, and generally whether I could cope with degree level work. It was only when I began studying on the course and started worrying about my ability that I realised there was an abundance of help available, and all I needed to do was ask.

Leila in the photo booth at the Finalist Party in June 2018

From then on, whenever an assignment or topic left me feeling worried or overwhelmed, I would take advantage of the following resources: forums, my academic advisor, office hours, course convenors, drop-in sessions, tutors and mentors. I have used every single one of these resources, and each time I have received the help I was looking for. Read more ›

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