Encouragement as social support highlighted in new study

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For the past several years, Joel Wong, Department Chair and Professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology, has researched the psychology of encouragement. With a new study, he hopes to understand the power of encouragement for Black college students as a means of social support – and a tool to disrupt the negative effects of racism.

Wong defines encouragement as the affirmations people communicate to others, typically through the use of language, to enhance motivation within the context of realizing a potential or addressing a challenging situation. Although encouragement is commonly used in daily social life as a means of social support, Wong says why, how and when it works is poorly understood.

Through several past studies, Wong and his colleagues have examined the character strength of encouragement, the benefits of receiving encouragement within an academic context and an encouragement letter writing intervention for female doctoral students. Encouragement can also be used as a racial justice tool against racism, with evidence from that research showing that encouragement messages exert a more positive impact on African American students’ academic outcomes than on their White counterparts.

I hope this research will draw attention to the simple act of writing an encouragement letter as a practical tool for elevating the lives of Black students and other students from minoritized backgrounds.

Joel Wong

For this project, Wong and his team will be studying the use of encouragement as an intervention for Black undergraduate college students. He hopes to recruit 170 pairs of Black first- and second-year undergraduate students who attend predominantly White institutions and their academic mentors, defined as anyone who is familiar with the mentees’ academic work and whom the mentees rely on for support and advice on academic matters. Black college students will be randomly assigned to a letter writing condition, in which their mentors will write and then read a letter of encouragement via the Zoom video platform to them, or a control condition, when their mentors will be told to do something to encourage them but without further instructions. Wong expects that Black students who receive the encouragement letter from their mentors will report higher levels of racial pride, more positive academic outcomes and higher GPA, compared to the participants in the other condition. As part of the study, participants’ outcomes will be tracked for a year after the intervention. Wong will also examine which mentees benefit most from encouragement and the linguistic and content features that will distinguish effective encouragement letters from those that are not. 

“I think that encouragement is an underappreciated tool for addressing racial justice,” Wong said. “I hope this research will draw attention to the simple act of writing an encouragement letter as a practical tool for elevating the lives of Black students and other students from minoritized backgrounds.”

Funding to help him complete the project is coming from the IU Racial Justice Research Fund. If the encouragement letter writing intervention produces positive outcomes for Black college students, Wong plans to conduct workshops for faculty members, academic advisors and other mentors at IU on the findings of this project and provide practical tips on how to craft an effective encouragement letter to students of color.

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