Choral Explanations for Student Success: A Proposal

This is a proposal on how an approach to community resource building called  “Choral Explanations” could be used to increase retention, based on recent research into the relationship of “belonging” and “mindset”.

But we need to cover some background first.

Mindset, Motivation, and Belonging

We’ve long known that a sense of belonging is crucial to student success. Carol Goodenow’s work in the 1990s showed the strong correlation between motivation and a sense of belonging, and Karen Osterman’s work reaffirmed those findings. Higher education has been aware of this, and structured its social and academic environment to be welcoming to students and promote connection between faculty, students, and staff.

At a recent AASCU webinar, however, I was made aware of a new development in research into belonging: mindset researchers are finding their way back to belonging as well. In the formulation presented to us by researcher David Yeager, mindset and belonging are tightly intertwined. A student who feels their experience of college is fundamentally different from the experience of other students is likely to adopt a fixed mindset towards challenges.

Further, this effect is cascading and cross-institutional: a first-generation student who feels like everyone else is finding the rooms their classes are in with no issues (even if they aren’t) is more likely to feel that everyone else knew to have their textbooks on the first day (they didn’t) and that feeling in turn makes them more likely to interpret critical feedback from a professor as an indication that they “don’t belong at college” (they do!).

In other words, while there are many unique barriers and struggles that non-traditional and at-risk students face, the mindset that struggling at college is a sign one does not belong amplifies the impact of each obstacle, eventually turning even small obstacles into existential crises. This results in decreased motivation and increased stress, which increases the chance of failure, which in turn increases the sense of not-belonging, and so on.

Furthermore, this cycle is not purely academic. It’s not just seeing yourself as smart or not, but about the whole experience. Every interaction with the institution or peers is another potential existential crisis.

I’ve been critical of applications of mindset theory before, and still approach them with some caution. The fact of the matter is that non-traditional students simply *do* have more barriers to overcome than traditional students. We have to address those issues.

At the same time, this particular formulation feels right to me. Most college students will feel initially out of place in college, most students will struggle, most students will face some social rejection, most students will make occasional bone-headed moves. If we know that’s normal, we learn from it and continue on. If we think it tells us something deep about whether we belong in college, we start to spiral into isolation, depression, and loneliness.

I’ve seen this happen to students. It’s real.

Belonging Interventions

Traditional approaches to belonging have tried to minimize the cultural obstacles for students transitioning into college, and this continues to be important work.

However, mindset researchers have been taking a somewhat different tack, seeing if direct-to-student mindset interventions can help improve retention.

There are various models of intervention, but one of the more common forms is this:

  • Students read testimonials from a wide variety of students, detailing their own troubles and how they overcame them.
  • At some point in the first year, students write their own testimonials for the next set of freshmen, detailing obstacles they hit, and how they overcame them.

Reading a wide variety of student testimonials shows the student that they are not as alone as they think. Writing a testimonial — even if no one reads it — helps the student connect their own experience to the ideas they see in the other testimonials:

  • You are more valued by your peers and teachers than you realize.
  • Everyone makes occasional boneheaded moves, people remember them for about five minutes.
  • Even the best students struggle at something.
  • Failing a single test tells you precisely nothing about whether you should be in college.
  • Almost every feeling you have of inadequacy is shared by a person that seems to you to “have it all together”.

The results of several controlled tests on this methodology have had extraordinary results. Possibly the most remarkable is the Walton and Cohen study published in Science in 2011. The study split 90 students into control and treatment conditions. The 45 freshmen in the treatment condition spent one hour reading messages from other students of many different backgrounds talking about how criticisms, slights, and occasional loneliness were a normal part of the college experience. Here’s an example:

“Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar,” one older student — a black woman — was quoted as saying. “Since I realized that, my experience . . . has been almost 100 percent positive.”

The students were then asked to write their own testimonials, describing an event or situation that initially seemed to suggest to them they did not belong at college, but which they overcame.

What the researchers found was that, while impact on more privileged students was not significant, impact on students from traditionally at-risk groups was profound. In this particular case the achievement gap between white and black students in the treatment group was more than halved.


Chart from Mindset Scholars Network. Results from Walton and Cohen (2011).

While this was a small sample size, subsequent research has supported the finding (albeit with somewhat less dramatic results). Where adequate support for at-risk students exists, belonging programs that follow this model can dramatically increase student retention and positively impact student success. And the mechanism that seems to work best is peer explanations of how they made it through their own experience.

Choral Explanations

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my work on Choral Explanations. I won’t go into the entire theory of how a Choral Explanations approach allows for community-based OER production or how it helps student self-scaffold their understanding of difficult subjects. What interests me now is how a Student Success OER could benefit from the same choral approach. (If you want or need deeper background, follow the link).

Choral explanations can be done in a number of ways, but when paired with traditional content, the way it works is as follows. A traditional text explains a subject in its relatively generic, textbook way. But inset into the chapter is a “Insight and Perspectives” piece, formed around common questions and misperceptions:


Clicking into a question here will bring you to the “chorus” of community contributed answers to the questions. Key to the notion of the chorus is that students do best when given a broad variety of examples from various perspectives. The chorus is not a competition to produce the best explanation, but an attempt to produce a broad variety of entry points into a topic. Here multiple people take on why mitosis is important: for one person it gives them insight into why cancer treatments have certain side-effects, for another it explains why stem cells are an important tool in repairing nerve damage. A third student or professor with an interest in bodybuilding might write about how understanding mitosis can help one understand the dangers of use of Human Growth Hormone (or maybe not, I just made that third one up).


In choral explanations, one of the keys is that these explanations are written from a point of view (like a forum) but in a non-conversational mode (like a wiki). They have a voice, they align with specific interests. In the models we’ve been playing around with they may even be identified by an avatar photo. They replace a single, generalized story with a variety of valuable and specific perspectives. They also give students an opportunity to write and contribute their own OER in a way that values their unique voice and perspectives.

The Mindset Chorus

What occurs to me is you could use a similar sort of structure to implement belonging interventions in student success classes.

Take, for example, Lumen Learning’s Student Success OER. Here’s a page from it, on the subject of stress:


We can imagine this page redesigned with an “Insights and Perspectives” box that instead focuses not on explanations, per se, but on student experience.


Questions might be around subjects such as:

  • What was a time you were stressed, and how did you deal with it?
  • What are some of the surprising things you found stressful?
  • How do you know if it might be time to talk to the Counseling Center?

Just as with Choral Explanations, clicking through to the question presents the reader with an instructor-curated selection of content from the broader community. Key to the experience here is that examples are presented from a wide variety of students, of different races, sexual identities, and backgrounds. As we learned in the AASCU seminar, it’s just as important to include “traditional” students in this mix as nontraditional: part of the point here, again, is that the students who make it seem easy also worry and also struggle, just not out loud. In short, you want to see the stories of perseverance from students like you, and the hidden stories of struggle from the students different from you.

Importantly, students would also be getting valuable information. The instructor curation feature would allow the instructor to choose a mix of material that was both varied and relevant to students at the institution. Responses from students around the country would be mixed in with material specifically relevant to the specific institution.


Of course, on any of these answers, a student can hit a “Thanks” button that thanks the student for sharing their experience.

Or they can write up their own experience. (A process that plays into the research that says “saying is believing”). In this case the work gets shared immediately with their class (and only their class). But if they have checked off that it is OK to share it outside the institution, the teacher can review it and kick it into the general pool of answers tied to that question in the OER text. Other teachers can then pull that answer (if they want) into their own text, or use a set of materials curated by the distributor. Students can visit their content to see how many thanks they got on it, and the different institutions that are using it.

Further down this path is the possibility of Choral Explanations as we’ve discussed them previously, where students produce choral answers to questions on Biology, Ethics, and English Literature, explaining difficult concepts through unique examples, custom diagrams, and amateur video. That’s later.

But here, in this first student success class, they not only help each other to realize they are not alone in their struggles, but they also begin their college career creating learning materials for one another. That’s kind of cool right?

Some Final Thoughts

Building online communities for first year students is not new, and there are many great examples of this to be found (see a particularly good example from Davidson here).

What choral explanations brings to the process, however, is a mode halfway between forum and wiki, where resources are self-sufficient (and not part of any ongoing conversation) but maintain the features of distinct authorial voice and perspective that are crucial for students to see if they are to understand the relative universality of much of their experience.

This sort of structure (which can be seen as a hybrid of wiki and forum) has proven strong design for precisely these sorts of problems. I have not gone into the background of choral explanations here at length, but if you are interested in this idea I would strongly suggest you read the most recent summary on the practice, to better understand how the format differs from both traditional wiki and forum formats, as well as from more traditional question and answer sites.

Finally — I titled this a proposal because someone should do this. Maybe it could be us at WSU Vancouver: we’re already using OER for the student success course, and while it would take some effort and time to plug in choral technology, once it’s written it can plug into the student success textbooks anywhere. So I’m looking at you my partners in the Re-imagining the First Year project — should we look at this?

And if we don’t do it here — are there any takers out there?


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