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Harnessing the Power of Recursive Processes - Part II

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

This three-part series explores what recursive psychological processes are, how they lead to big effects, and what educators can do to leverage them to support their students’ motivation, engagement and human thriving. Additional resources are provided for those wishing to dive deeper into this fascinating topic.

PART II: How Recursive Processes Can Lead to Big Changes Over Time

Part I Recap

In Part I we explored a few foundational ideas about recursive processes,

  • Recursive psychological processes are self-reinforcing loops that feed off their own consequences.

  • Motivation can become fragile when people are asking themselves questions about the meaning of negative events or situations.

  • Ambiguity about the meaning of negative events increases vulnerability to drawing negative conclusions that can trigger a negative recursive cycle.

  • Motivation of marginalized groups can be especially vulnerable due to negative past experiences, societal stereotypes and prejudice.

  • Affirming (self or situation) answers to questions can avert a downward cycle from beginning and even trigger an upward cycle towards higher engagement.

  • Intervening must support autonomy––successful interventions support people to arrive at alternative interpretations on their own. Telling people how to think or feel is usually ineffective and can even backfire.

  • Affirming messages must be authentic and psychologically attuned to peoples’ subjective experience and the context.

The Domino Effect

Now let’s look at how it is that harnessing recursive processes can be so powerful. In the 1-minute video below, University of Toronto Geophysics Professor, Stephen Morris demonstrates how, in just 13 steps, a tiny 5 millimeter high domino can knock over a 1 meter high domino weighing 100 pounds because each domino can knock over another domino 1.5 times larger than itself. The domino effect is an excellent analogy for how recursive psychological processes work.

In Part I of this series, you read about how when Black 7th grade students’ who got a message on their graded essays from their white teacher, that said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high-standards and I know you can reach them,” they were more likely to resubmit their essays and use their teachers feedback to improve, reported higher trust in their teachers, showed better academic performance overall, had reduce discipline issues a year later, and had higher 12th grade graduation rates(1). That’s quite a domino effect! What is actually going on here?

Momentum Builds with Each Affirming Interactions

The power of recursive processes lies in the back and forth interactions that increase in amplification over time. In this scenario, when Black students who may have had previous negative interactions with other white teachers learn that their current white teacher has high expectations of them and was confident in their ability to do well it allowed them to put aside any worries they may have had about whether or not their teacher saw them as academically capable. With this doubt behind them, they could then focus their full attention on learning and being responsive to the feedback provided by the teacher. This part–the ability to direct their full attention to learning–is not trivial. Distraction and the cognitive demand of regulating negative emotions associated with worries about being treated differently based on negative stereotypes about one’s group is called stereotype threat, a term coined by researcher, Claude Steele.

It has been shown to contribute to the well-documented underperformance of students from marginalized groups over time, even when they start with the same grades as their peers.

On the other side of this equation, as the teacher sees a student taking advantage of their feedback and engaging in class, any questions they may have had about how committed the student was to their education may have also been resolved leading them to focus more of their attention on helping the students succeed. Over time, with each subsequent interaction, trust between teacher and student likely grew, leading each to continue investing even more fully. As Walton and Wilson(2) explain,

“...lasting change does not reside only within the person, for instance in how people make sense of the world in a permanent way, or their skills or ‘character.’ Nor is it restricted to a given situation, which, once people exit, may lose its influence. Instead, change is represented as an ongoing, mutually reinforcing transaction between the person and the social environment.”

As a side note, it turns out it’s not uncommon for students to be unclear about the meaning or purpose of feedback. PERTS created Copilot programs to help teachers collect and act on student experience survey data so they can improve the learning conditions in their classrooms. One of the learning conditions, Feedback for Growth, asks students about their perceptions of getting feedback to help them improve (e.g., This week in class, I got specific suggestions about how to improve my skills). As one teacher using the program with a team of her colleagues shared:

The Feedback [for Growth score] was much lower than we had all anticipated, and we thought collectively it was because students didn't actually know what feedback was. So we had to pause, stop, and teach what feedback was.

  • Leslie VanBell, Teacher, Mineola Middle School, New York, NY

Beliefs and Expectations Impact Outcomes

At the risk of sounding like a new-age hippie, never underestimate the impact of beliefs about ourselves, others, and the situation can have on shaping our expectations for a particular outcome which, in turn, can shape the actual outcome. Expectancy effects––the general term used to describe this phenomena––can consciously or unconsciously lead us to change our behavior in ways that contribute to producing the expected result. Evidence for the impact of expectations by both researcher and research participants is why double-blind randomized controlled trials are now the gold standard in research design. Thus, expectancy effects are likely playing a role in why recursive processes can trigger amplifying impact over time.

Subjective Meaning-making and Social Context Matter

These kinds of interventions are often called “Wise Interventions” because they leverage a rich understanding of psychological processes. Actively attempting to help people adopt positive narratives isn’t as easy as telling them how to think or feel, a common misunderstanding. This can be especially true in educational contexts in which there has been a long history of approaching change in a top-down, compliance-oriented way. Fundamentally, wise interventions are carefully attuned to people’s subjective meaning-making processes; how they see themselves and how they see the situation. Therefore, any attempts to intervene must take into account the impact of social stereotypes, interpersonal bias and other institutional and structural biases against certain groups that are embedded in the larger society. As Quay(3) explains:

In specific situations, racial, gender and other identities people have foreground negative interpretations, such as the knowledge that one’s social group has historically been marginalized in an [a given] setting. That knowledge elicited the reasonable concern that people might be marginalized there too.

Other "Wise" Intervention Examples

Other examples of brief interventions that have demonstrated powerful effects over time, include:

  • Encouraging an Empathetic Approach to Discipline - In a study with 31 teachers from five schools and 1682 of their students, a brief online program (two 45-minute sessions) that encouraged teachers to adopt an empathetic approach to disciplining their students halved the year-long suspension rates for students with a prior history of suspension. Participating teachers were encouraged to think about and value gaining an understanding of their student’s perspective and to actively reflect on strategies they use to build positive relationships with their students(4).

  • Teaching a growth mindset about intelligence – In a nationally representative sample of over 12,000 9th grade students, a brief, online program (now available for free through PERTS) that helped students adopt a growth mindset of intelligence––that intelligence is like a muscle that can grow through using good strategies, making mistakes, seeking support and putting in effort––led students who were initially off track to become 5.3% more likely to pass their classes. In schools with a growth mindset supporting culture, this jumped to 8.4%. There was also a 9% boost in choosing advanced math classes overall in schools where this opportunity was available(5).

  • Normalizing belonging uncertainty – Brief, widely-replicated interventions that help normalize belonging uncertainty as students transition into new academic environments such as the transition to high school or college have reduced the achievement gap for students from marginalized groups by 50% 6,7. A similar intervention with 7th-grade students which normalized worries about belonging and relationships with teachers improved academic outcomes and reduced discipline citations among Black boys through the end of high school by 65% (8). These programs are now available for free through PERTS.

  • Reappraisal of anxiety – When students preparing to take the GRE were told that anxiety is the body’s way of preparing for a challenge and that it can actually help their performance, they did better on the practice GRE and the real GRE exam three months later(9). Note that this intervention is based on an accurate description of the physiological responses to a challenge and provides an excellent example of the negative impact of having anxiety about anxiety.

Getting the Message Right Requires Skill

Messages intended to support people in adopting more helpful narratives can lose potency or even backfire if, for example, there is dissonance between the message and what the person targeted by the message is actually experiencing in their interpersonal interactions or cues they are picking up in the immediate environment or in society more broadly. For example, messages intended to reassure female STEM students that they belong and can succeed will have less impact if all the textbook images, pictures on the walls, and faculty members are males. Or if faculty give male students significantly more opportunities to speak or if exclusionary behaviors by other male students go unchecked. I once dropped a class in college because the professor seemed oblivious to the fact that two male students were consistently and loudly mocking every answer given by female students. No amount of reassurance was going to make me feel safe in that class. Period.

Learning how to leverage recursive processes by attending to students meaning making about negative events requires skill, but it is possible. In the final installment of this three-part series, we’ll look at core concepts and strategies educators can use to harness the power of recursive processes.

To Recap:

  • The domino effect is a good analogy for why small changes can lead to big impacts over time––each domino can topple another domino 1.5 times its size. Boom!

  • Momentum and impact grow because of mutually affirming Interaction between the individual and their social context that strengthen trust.

  • Beliefs and expectations also impact outcomes through expectancy effects––how our expectations shape our behavior whether we’re aware of it or not.

  • “Wise” interventions are attuned to peoples’ subjective meaning-making and social context such as societal stereotypes, historical context, and cues coming from the environment.

  • There are many examples of rigorously tested “wise” interventions showing that supporting a small shift in meaning can lead to big impacts over time.

  • Getting the message right requires skill and, in educational contexts, taking a student-centered approach.

In Part III, the final installment, we'll explore what educators need to know to leverage recursive processes to support their students to stay engaged and thrive.

Below are additional resources for diving deeper:

Relevant Resources

  • ARTICLE (Edutopia) Creating an Identity-Safe Classroom A great article with actionable strategies teachers can use to create identity safe learning environments. “Identity-safe classrooms foster belonging and value for students of all backgrounds. Because social identity affects students' experiences, identity-safe teaching can help students become successful learners.”

  • TOOLKIT (BELE Resource Library) Classroom Belonging A series of resources for understanding the research and concrete strategies for building a welcoming classroom environment

  • TOOLKIT (BELE Resource Library) Feedback for Growth A series of evidence-based resources on helping create a classroom norm where students understand that feedback is meant to help them improve, and that making mistakes and taking risks are key to learning. are willing to take risks and.

  • ARTICLE (The Atlantic) Can Three Words Turn Anxiety Into Success? “A simple technique called “anxious reappraisal” might help people channel nervous jitters into improved performance.) By Olga Khazan, March 23, 2016

  • VIDEO (The College Transition Collaborative) About the CTC Social psychology researchers describe how “wise” interventions work during the transition to college. Also listed on the CTC website.


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