Self-Perception and Education

Naomi Ducat QC ‘16 and Jim Stellar

Naomi and I met last spring at an Honors function where she was on the classical “Dean’s List.” We began talking about experiential education and she pointed out recently that much of what students achieve is based on their self-perception, that education influences self-perception, and that self-perception influences how one uses the available educational opportunities. Now this sounds like a topic for experiential education as it goes beyond the knowledge of fact and theories conveyed by classes to something about the person. That conversation led to this blog.

Naomi, can you tell us how you came to see (and change) your self-perception.

I would like to start off by explaining how I understand the concept of self-perception. To me, this concept is a change that one experiences in terms of evaluating and comprehending their abilities and worth.

In my experience, my self-perception frequently fluctuates. However, as I reflect on my previous experiences, interactions and accomplishments, I do see a distinct ascension. This change began to reveal itself this past year, when I made the transition from high school to Queens College.

Being a nervous freshman, I have been extremely attentive to my surroundings. This is probably because of the poor self-perception that I developed in high school as a result of facing academic difficulties. Having entered the college setting, I was apprehensive about dealing with new, and what I was told would be “harder” tasks. However, I began to explore and become enthusiastic about the available hands-on opportunities that Queens College has to offer. Once I began to dig into those opportunities, I began to see a change in myself.

The first part of the change was my awareness of the vastness and accessibility of the opportunities available to me, including research labs, seminars, and internships. I became aware of these opportunities through developing relationships with my professors. This newfound knowledge motivated me to apply for different honors programs and internships, and take unconventional classes. My professors encouraged me to make use of the available opportunities, and by taking their advice I have been able to use my skills and watch them emerge and develop.

While still in the beginning of my journey, I can already see the difference that immersing myself in experiential learning has had and will have on me. It has allowed me to see the world through a new lens, influencing me to tackle my academic studies with a more innovative approach. As a result, I see my potential, and am in the process of developing a more optimistic and confident self-perception.

I wonder if we could get you to be more precise. What was it about your interaction with your hands-on opportunities or interaction with your professors that led to this increased self-perception as a successful student, or was it all about the grades in your classes (clearly a success area for you as a Dean’s List student)?

Grades definitely played a part in my developing an improved self-perception, however my grades were also a result of this new perception. I think that one of the initial components of this realization were a few classes where the dynamics of the class were conversationally based. The student-professor interactions made me realize that I can and will absorb more material than what the texts provide if I converse more with my instructors and do outside research about topics that I have an interest in or do not fully understand. This increased immersion in my studies contributed to a spike in my grades, creating a cycle between learning more, getting higher grades, feeling confident in my abilities and wanting to continue in this cycle.

Can you talk about how this change in self-perception changed the way you approached college? Did it make you study more? Did it seem to make your studying better when you did study?

I began to realize that I could actually control my skill development and knowledge intake through initiating more of these interactions. Because of this, people now constantly intrigue me. I have realized that there is a lesson to be learned from everyone, and that by initiating interactions with other intelligent people; their knowledge and abilities will begin to rub off on me.

This newfound knowledge has impacted my study techniques. As opposed to feeling a sense of hopelessness when encountering a difficult task, I realize that I am more in control of my intellectual growth than I previously understood. As result, I now confront difficulties as a learning experience and put more effort into efficiently completing the task.

This lesson has improved my study skills. For one thing, I am much less distracted by the feeling of “I can’t do this.” And as a general statement, I believe that people work better in optimistic environments, the brain being an environment in itself. Also, being aware that interactions are what have helped me in school, I decided to bring these interactions home with me. For example, when reading my textbook, if I find something peculiar or interesting, I’ll research the topic even if the textbook only briefly mentions it. Although the topic of my interest may not be on any of my exams, having some sort of connection between what I need to know and what I want to know certainly helps me internalize the information. Another example of how I better internalize information is by trying to apply the information to other parts of my life. For example, many of the topics discussed in my environmental science class were applicable to things I encountered during an internship that I had with a politician, who had to address his stance on many of those environmental issues.

The truth is that I could have used any of these study techniques before I entered college, but the point is that I didn’t. I think that the college environment has created this internal desire to initiate and control my own development, and therefore has increased my self-awareness and improved my self-perception.

Tony Coyle writes in his book Talent Code that we often cite in this blog about the process of “ignition” where the person gets engaged. Of course, we believe a lot of this happens in the hidden brain as Eagleman states in his book Incoginito. Here we see an example of how self-perception produces this engagement with a college education. Perhaps self-perception is the mechanism for all engagements were the person thinks to themselves that “I can do this” and “I want to do this.” That is very similar to the previous blog post where again the student transitions successfully to college. It reminds us that college itself is an experience and is therefore more than just a collection of classes that deliver the facts and theories students must learn. If we knew whatever happened in the brain and mind of a student in an experience like a successful internship, maybe we would know what happens when students make a successful transition to college.