Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Mesmin Destin

Interventions Providing Motivation for Education

IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin surveys a future-goals session for middle-schoolers.

As a Northwestern undergraduate, IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin sensed that something was missing from his syllabus.

“It felt like social class was not a part of the mix of understanding basic human behaviors and outcomes of young people,” Destin said. 

This sentiment launched him into research on the issue, and eventually led to a PhD in social psychology from the University of Michigan. Examining social class not only “fulfilled a lot of my intellectual curiosities,” Destin said, but also “directly connected to real things that I thought were important, going on in the real world.” 

Since rejoining Northwestern as a faculty member in psychology and education and social policy, Destin continues to seek out interventions to guide high schoolers, middle schoolers, and first-generation college students and that will help address inequities they might face.

First-Generation College Students

Part of his research deals with improving outcomes for “first-generation” college students—students whose parents never attended or got a degree from four-year colleges. A minority at elite institutions, first-generation students suffer academically and psychologically on campus, surrounded by “continuing-generation” peers and faculty who often lack understanding of their situation. 

Seeking to remedy this situation, Destin and his coauthors, Northwestern’s Nicole Stephens and Stanford’s MarYam Hamedani, designed a “difference-education” intervention. They assigned incoming first-generation freshmen to attend an hour-long orientation session featuring first-generation and continuing-generation panelists. In one session, the panelists gave general advice on succeeding in college, such as, “Go to class and pay attention.” In the other, the panelists linked their backgrounds to their college experiences, for instance, not being able to rely on their parents for help choosing classes.

The result: “Typically, first-generation freshman GPAs lag behind their peers’ by 0.3 points. The gap was eliminated for students in the session where panelists shared their backgrounds; they also reported being happier, less stressed out and more willing to seek help than the control group,” the New York Times reported of the study.

Additional interventions that Destin is investigating involve looking in particular at the “factors that set the climate” at elite institutions—such as faculty-student interactions—that “can make it difficult for high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds to continue to excel.”

Interventions for Student Motivation

While motivation is clearly an issue for a college student, what about motivating middle and high school students to succeed in school? Through his experiments, Destin has discovered that a key element entails making academic success relevant to a student’s identity.

While a student who aims to become a doctor, lawyer, or join any other profession that requires a lot of education might find it easier to devote herself to school, a student aiming to become an athlete, an entertainer, or a community organizer, might find such motivation more difficult, Destin and his coauthor found.

Destin is targeting such students in two of his current projects. One project aims to increase high school students’ motivation by showing them that a high school diploma is useful for something more than just going to college. The second project seeks to show middle school students how education can help them attain “more communal types of goals,” such as giving back to the community and building a family.

“Even for middle school kids, we’re finding with that the goals that they have for the future, they’re either focused on things that are really about themselves, or they are focused on things that are really about the community,” Destin said. “That difference matters for the effectiveness of interventions. It has to be tailored toward the things that matter to them.”

Lastly, Destin is examining ways to make parents and mentors a part of this motivating process—looking at how parents can best convey messages to their children that help keep them focused, and the effectiveness of pairing high school mentors with middle school mentees.

“What are the things that kids in those communities can share with each other, in terms of resources to seek out, and negative forces to avoid?” Destin reflected. 

Next Steps

Having attained a “critical mass of basic understanding” about students’ resources, motivations, and their self perceptions through his research, Destin says he plans to bring that understanding to bear on his projects in progress. 

In collaboration with IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller, Destin will design interventions to buffer against the physiological stresses of upward mobility—an extension of Chen and Miller’s work on “skin-deep resilience,” or when youth doing well behaviorally, academically, and emotionally show worse health outcomes. 

“To me, it’s exciting to have a certain foundation built that we can continue to build upon,” Destin concluded.

Mesmin Destin is assistant professor of psychology and human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.