Today’s students live highly complicated lives. They have several demands on their time – study, work, co-curricular, care, socialize, and relax. How should we guide students in managing these complicated multiple lives, so that they may engage with the larger purpose of life and be invested in their education? Today’s students are also concerned with multitude of social problems, and with multitude of spaces, relationships, and technologies. How may we guide students in navigating these diverse concerns, so that they may tackle the grander challenges of society?
I have found research on construal level theory to be quite valuable in helping to think about these questions (Reyt and Wiesenfeld, 2015). This theory builds on the word – construe. To construe is to form meaning. Construal level theory considers construal over a continuum, ranging from abstract to concrete. Abstract construal is decontextualized, capturing characteristics at a higher level of conceptuality. It is about perceiving a cluster of trees as a forest, vs. focusing on each individual tree.
Construal level theory holds that when individuals have broader mental engagements, their cognitive resources shift from segmenting to bridging. The brain activity also moves along an axis in the medial pre-frontal cortex, as psychological processes become more abstract. Bridging life construal enables the individuals to frame issues using a critical and holistic perspective of the larger life or context over a longer horizon.
Higher more abstract construal helps individuals focus on core, to their multiple lives or to construe sense of the multiple factors by setting priorities, making trade-offs and identifying synergies. Conversely, when individuals put primacy on a single life or issue, then they deploy lower level concrete construal focusing their cognitive resources more on segmenting. Segmented life and context construal enables the individuals to focus on immediate, specific, and actionable solutions to the life challenges.
Cognition and behavior are interrelated. Higher cognitive construal conditions an individual to enact integrated behaviors, that address the challenge of making the overall life more meaningful and to alleviate the pressures and stresses on the life as a whole. Conversely, lower level cognitive construal conditions an individual to enact segmented behaviors, that seek to design innovative solutions for the specific problems of the specific lives being experienced at a given time. Individuals with higher level construal tend to socially negotiate their lives and context in ways that allows them to achieve higher level of integration, versus those with lower level of construal.
Higher construal tends to be associated with higher levels of exploratory learning, using critical reasoning process to generate a wide range of hypothetical alternatives and to vicariously learn from the experiences of members in different life domains (Reyt and Wiesenfeld, 2015). Higher construal encourages individuals to frame and reframe life problems more critically and generally, abstracting away peculiar features, helping them achieve a simplified mental representation of these problems.
Thus, one effective approach to helping students manage their complicated lives and to creatively engage with grand challenges of our world is to elevate their level of construal.
Proposition 1a: Higher the level of a student’s construal, the less complicated the student will perceive his or her life challenges to be.
Proposition 1b: Higher the level of a student’s construal, the greater the student engagement with societal grand challenges.
Life and context management is not only a psychological factor, but also a social factor. Different life domains are guided by different social logics (Smets, Jarzabkowski, Burke & Spree, 2015). Some life domains are guided by market logic, where exchange tends to be transactional. For instance, in the work domain, a student typically earns based on the number of hours devoted – the more hours a student devotes to work, the more the income earned. Here the relevant solutions tend to be efficiency seeking – e.g. doing work smartly is not necessarily an effective time management strategy when facing shortage of time for the diverse demands across life domains. However, smart transitioning to work, such as smart commuting using teleworking or other options, is. Here immediate need fulfillment is the key principle guiding selection of solutions.
Other life contexts are guided by community logic, where exchange tends to be relational. What matters most is trust and reciprocity with the members of the community. For instance, in the socializing life domain, friendships are based on reciprocal commitments. When facing time challenges, a student must decide which friendships are of higher priority and how much priority to accord to each friendship.
Still other life contexts are guided by development logic, where exchange tends to be transformative. The more a student engages with challenges in these life contexts at a lower level construal, the stronger the development of the student’s adaptive skills. For instance, a student facing challenges in public speaking during studies is able to adapt more to such demands if he or she develop ways to speak more persuasively and effectively. Further, when a student develops mastery of specific solutions to the developmental challenges, then such solutions often become part of the transversal skills that the student may then apply to solve a range of challenges across the entire range of life contexts.
Depending on the nature of and the priority given to various life contexts and to various aspects of a problem under consideration, the significance of the three types of logics vary for the individuals. Based on this, we can conclude:
Proposition 2a: Stronger a student’s development logic, the less complicated the student will perceive his or her life challenges to be.
Proposition 2b: Stronger a student’s development logic, the greater the student engagement with societal grand challenges.
As an individual gives primacy to a particular life context, his or her level of construal descends to a lower level, which enables greater development logic guided effort to be a member of that community of practice and to learn about the community’s ways of doing things – i.e. methods to design solutions to address shared challenges. Conversely, as an individual seeks to balance several life domains, his or her level of construal ascends to a higher level, promoting a more generic framing of the challenge and seeking solutions centered on the reciprocity of efforts and with transactional benefits of those efforts. This spurs the following proposition:
Proposition 3a: The lower a student’s level of construal, the more a life engagement based on the development logic will reduce the student’s perception of life challenges as complicated.
Proposition 3b: The lower a student’s level of construal, the more a context engagement based on the development logic will enhance the student’s engagement with societal grand challenges.
Let’s now understand these propositions in the context of student population in today’s higher education. Many first-generation and under-represented groups of students are from communities that have strong norms of community logic for relating with the members within the community, and of market logic for relating with those without their community. For them, family and community is often more important than their self-concept and their own development. These students likely bring a lower level construal to the university campuses, where family and community life is perceived to be segmented from the academic life. This makes the life of these students very complicated, as they find it difficult to transfer the development practices from their family and community lives to the academic life.
The dominant group of students in the research-intensive universities, on the other hand, arrive after developing strategies to achieve balance among various life domains. They have learnt how much to prioritize on different life domains, and how much time and resources to devote to each life domain, in order for them to achieve academic excellence. These students likely bring a higher level construal to the university campuses, where family and community life is perceived to be only one dimension of the overall self-concept. Therefore, they are more likely to be able to intentionally blend market, community and development logics for their life engagements while on campus.
Clearly, the university student support practices that do wonders for the dominant group of students are unlikely to be effective for the first generation and under-represented groups of students, that predominate the open-access comprehensive public universities, such as the California State University system. The universities are experimenting with several strategies to address this challenge.
A common strategy is based on the doctrine of ‘in loco parentis’ – the idea that the universities have responsibilities similar to that of the parents, and need to provide the entire gamut of care and support needed for a student to succeed and thrive. They also need to assume the liability, morally as well as financially, for offering this additional care and support to the students at risk. However, as the proportion of first generation and under-represented groups of students has risen at many universities, the demands and expectations for student support and assistance have also risen. The budget constraints have made it difficult for the universities to meet these challenges effectively.
The research in this blog may suggest two additional strategies.
First, to make the methods for using development logic more intentional for all students. This is likely to be particularly helpful for the groups of students for whom family and community life is of highest priority. At Arizona State University, a comprehensive set of spaces and resources are offered for the students to strengthen their development logic – conceived in terms of growth mindset, and to monitor their progress on this. These are offered both before the student starts their academic journey, as well as along the critical milestones. There is particular effort in helping students be socially integrated on campus, so that they perceive the campus community to be a home away from their home. Additionally, students take an intensive orientation bootcamp and then an ASU 101 course of 1 credit where they learn the hands-on practice of development logic. Many students participate in special programs where they take a specific set of courses as a cohort. under the guidance of faculty who collaborate across disciplinary lines. Even for the students with more balanced life engagements, an emphasis on development logic helps enhance the construal of the academic life, by making campus life even more meaningful and by inviting students to engage in the entire range of life opportunities that the university campuses offer.
Second, to ensure a threshold level of construal for all students on campus, and to help them vary their construal level depending on the need for innovative critical thinking vs focused problem solving. An appropriate threshold will be one that enables students to abstract away from the immediate challenges of their own family and the community, while also focusing more on the concrete grand challenges that are making the lives of people in the entire society more complicated. This will allow students to not perceive their own lives to be overly complicated. It will also allow them to be grounded in the bigger realities, so that they may strive to discover and design a range of concrete creative solutions, as they progress through deeper learning within specific disciplinary communities and broad learning across diverse disciplines.
How may the universities go about helping students achieve appropriate level of construal? Beyt and Wiesenfeld (2015) show several approaches to manipulate short-term construal level. For instance, in one of the experiments, the authors selected 18 common knowledge work activities (e.g. preparing a report, attending a meeting, proofreading a document, etc.) and built descriptors of high and low level construal of these activities. They then asked one group of participants to briefly describe how work activities in their different life domains were integrated; the other group was asked to describe how the same work activities were segmented. Those who were primed to be integrated subsequently chose higher construal descriptors, while those primed to be segmented chose lower construal descriptors. Thus, a set of activities focusing on the integrated aspects of subject lives or abstract dimensions of objects, may help raise the construal level of the students, and foster innovative critical thinking. Similarly, a set of activities focusing on the unique challenges of subject specific lives, and on the unique features of the objects, may help students develop their problem solving skills.
Ultimately, the real test of the construal level interventions will be how that helps all students be engaged with the wonders of the academic life, and persist, progress and graduate on time and with appropriate skills for lifelong success. When the students connect with the larger mission and purpose of their life, and with the grander challenges of the society we live in, then they are more likely to further their critical thinking skills and demonstrate engagement to design original pathways to that larger purpose and original solutions to that grand challenge. They will be able to operate at a transdisciplinary frontier, leveraging modes of inquiry from different disciplines for leading a life that is both wholesome (conscious of the concrete aspects of specific problems and life contexts) as well as whole (conscious of the overall purpose of life and overall well-being of the entire society).
Reyt, J. N., Wiesenfeld, B. M. (2015) Seeing the forest for the trees: Mobile technology and knowledge workers’ integration behaviors, Academy of Management Journal. 58 (3), 739-762.
Smets, M., Jarzabkowski, P., Spee, P. and Burke, G. (2015), Reinsurance trading in Lloyd’s of London: Balancing conflicting-yet-complementary logics in practice. Academy of Management Journal, 58(3): 932–970.