The big idea: When it comes to academic success for college students, having a sense of purpose and gratitude makes a significant difference. That’s what I found in a peer-reviewed study published in June 2022 in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice.
For the study, I analyzed answers provided by 295 undergraduates to questions about whether they did better academically if they had a sense of purpose and gratitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wondered if students were more likely to be academically engaged – and less likely to suffer academic burnout – if they had a strong sense of purpose. I specifically asked about three types of purpose: self-growth, others-growth and career-focused purpose orientations. I also wanted to know if being grateful for positive experiences made a difference. I defined academic engagement as a motivational mindset that is characterized by students’ enthusiasm for school-related activities. I also looked at three types of academic burnout: devaluation of schoolwork, reduced sense of accomplishment and mental exhaustion. I found that only one type of purpose was directly relevant to engagement and burnout – career-focused purpose. When undergraduate students connect their life purpose with career aspirations, they tend to be engaged in their academic studies. They are also less likely to devalue their schoolwork or feel unaccomplished in their studies. I also found that gratitude was just as important. These findings suggest that the more grateful undergraduate students feel, the more they are engaged in their academic work and the more they feel accomplished and value schoolwork. Why it matters This study adds to a growing body of research that suggests having a deep sense of life purpose is important for people’s well-being, success and ability to cope with challenging life situations. My study suggests that university advisers and faculty should recognize the role that sense of purpose plays for student success. They should also engage in practices that foster students’ sense of life purpose. For example, faculty members can use assignments to encourage students to reflect on their life purpose and connect it with their future career aspirations. Fostering gratitude is also important. This is because gratitude is also associated with greater academic engagement and less burnout among undergraduate students. My study also suggests that it benefits students if they are given opportunities to reflect on things in life for which they are grateful. Such opportunities can be incorporated into first-year experience courses or incoming student orientations. What still isn’t known Since this study was conducted when participants had few, if any, opportunities to help others due to COVID19 restrictions, I wonder if others-growth and self-growth types of purpose will be more relevant to academic success once these restrictions are eased. I also wonder whether classroom activities aimed at connecting life purpose with students’ future careers will lead to higher graduation rates. What’s next? As part of Graduation Initiative 2025 – an initiative is meant to increase graduation rates and close gaps in the rates of graduation between different groups – my colleague Gitima Sharma and I created an undergraduate course, titled “Fostering Sense of Purpose.” Our preliminary data showed that students who took this course in spring of 2022 reported a strengthened sense of life purpose. We plan to continue to examine how effective the course is at fostering sense of purpose in life. We also plan to look at whether the course leads to lasting positive effects for students’ academic and career success, such as higher graduation rates.