A Study of How Student Optimism Changes with Each Year in College

This survey study was an investigation into the relationship between student-reported optimism and year in college. Forty undergraduates at Emory University served as participants. It was hypothesized that optimism would be negatively correlated with year in school, with senior students reporting lower scores on optimism items than first year students. Researchers used the Extended Life Orientation (ELOT), a 20-item, self-report measure of optimism and pessimism.

A Spearman’s correlation revealed no significant findings. The generally high levels of optimism and low levels of pessimism that were reported were independent of the student’s year in college. Important limitations of the study are discussed. These findings offer insight into the generally positive disposition of Emory undergraduate students.

The purpose of this research was to investigate the relationship between college student optimism and year in school. Researchers wanted to determine whether optimism, defined as positive outcome expectancy or more broadly as a positive life outlook (Chang et al., 1997), systematically varies as students progress through college.

Several previous studies have found optimism to be associated with a number of psychological factors. In one investigation using several self-report measures, optimism was positively correlated with satisfaction with life and positive emotionality. Conversely, high pessimism was found to be associated with negative affect and higher levels of depression (Chang et al., 1997).

Another study, that used similar measures, has found that college students who scored higher on optimism measures were more likely to have decreased feelings of loneliness and higher self-esteem. Also, researchers found that students with greater levels of optimism scored higher on student adjustment measures, which looked at the personal, social, and academic aspects of student adjustment to college life (Montgomery et al., 2003). Optimism has also been found to be a correlate of academic performance, more specifically, of student grade point average in both high school and in college (Prola & Stern, 1984).

In line with the research findings on optimism and student adjustment, it is logical that senior students would be better adjusted than first or second year students. We chose, however, to investigate if there would be a slightly different effect on optimism in college students in consideration of the difficulty and stress that senior students face in obtaining job prospects and making career decisions. This is a plausible idea, especially when one takes into account the poor state of the economy. We hypothesized that levels of optimism would be negatively correlated with year in college, so that first year students would be much more optimistic than their upper-class counterparts.

Methods

Participants

The participants in this study were Emory University students (N=40; male N= 18, female N=22). Fifteen of the participants were in their freshman year, seven were sophomores, ten juniors, and eight were in their senior year at Emory. The majority of individuals were White and were housed on-campus. Most participants indicated that math or science was their field of study, and most also reported a GPA of 3.0 or better.

Research Strategy

The study used a self-report measure of optimism and pessimism. The surveys were hand-delivered to all participants, who completed them as the researchers either waited nearby or briefly left the area to allow the participants privacy and sufficient time to finish. The questionnaire itself was comprised of closed-ended questions, in order to make for more standardized analysis. Also, the Likert rating scale allowed researchers to not only note the direction of a respondent’s opinion, but also the magnitude or intensity of that view. Anonymity helped to reduce possible bias due to the effects of social desirability. This was the research design of choice because it was simple to administer, simple for participants to complete, and provided a good measure of student perceived optimism and pessimism.

The predictor variable, or independent variable, was year in college. The outcome, or dependent, variables were reported optimism and pessimism.

Procedures

Setting. Data were collected in the afternoon hours, around lunchtime, at various locations on the Emory University campus. High-traffic areas, such as the Dobbs University Center and Cox Hall, were chosen so that researchers could place themselves in contact with large numbers of students.

Sampling. Convenience sampling was used to recruit participants. Researchers went to several highly frequented areas on campus and simply asked subjects to fill out the survey. This was done for practical purposes. For example, it is likely that one will find a good mix of different types of students in common campus areas. When compared to random sampling strategies, this type of sampling may introduce some bias, since there are some students who may not frequent these areas, however, the researchers agreed that this was the best method for gathering the data for their study because it was the most practical method. For example, it was the most efficient approach given the small period of time within which data had to be collected, while at the same time providing a large mix of students.

All questionnaires were hand-delivered to participants, who completed them as the researchers waited. The survey cover sheet provided subjects with a brief description of the study and addressed the issue of informed consent. And since the surveys themselves were kept completely anonymous and no identifying information was collected, it was considered consent when the participant completed the survey and returned it to the researchers. There were generally no difficulties in finding willing participants.

Measures

Student optimism and pessimism were assessed using the Extended Life Orientation Test, or ELOT, a 20 item, closed-ended, self-report measure (Chang et al., 1997). The survey included six optimism items (e.g.- “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”, “When I undertake something new, I expect to succeed.”), nine pessimism items (e.g.- “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”, “If something can go wrong for me, it will.”), and five additional filler items. A five-point Likert scale, ranging from 1-“Strongly Disagree” to 5-“Strongly Agree”, was used to rate responses.

The ELOT is an adaptation of two optimism-pessimism measures, the Life Orientation Test (LOT) and the Optimism-Pessimism Scale (OPS). The Life Orientation Test is a widely used measure of optimism and has been used in a number of research studies, which attests to its high construct validity (Terrill et al., 2002). However, Burke et al. (2000) found that the LOT and the OPS do not share concurrent validity, for an important reason. Researchers pointed out that one should note that the LOT is thought to measure what is known as “trait” optimism and pessimism, reflecting more stable personality characteristics. On the other hand, the OPS measures what is considered “state” optimism and pessimism, which describes more mood-dependent outcome expectancies or life outlooks. Thus, Chang et al. (1997) found the ELOT, a bidimensional measure combining to two separate scales, to be a more appropriate for measuring positive and negative life expectancies since it provides a more well rounded estimate of optimism and pessimism. Alpha coefficients for internal reliability of the OPS were determined to be .84 for optimism and .86 for pessimism. Test-retest reliability was r=. 75 and r=. 84, for optimism and pessimism respectively, over a two-week period. Internal reliability for the LOT was found to be .78, and test-retest reliability was determined to be r=. 68 over a four-week period (Burke et al.,2000).

Results

The research hypothesis was that optimism would be negatively correlated with year in college, so that first year students would be much more optimistic than their upper-class counterparts. A Spearman’s correlation failed to support the hypothesis, yielding no significant findings (r= .144 for optimism, r= .107for pessimism, p>.01). See Figures 1 and 2 for further illustration.

There was, though, a significant correlation between optimism and pessimism (r= -.582, p<. 01), which is confirmation that the Extended Life Orientation Test did measure the intended constructs.

Discussion

The results of this study did not confirm the research hypothesis that there was a negative relationship between student optimism and year in school; no correlations were found in either direction. As can be seen in Figures 1 and 2, the generally high optimism and fairly low pessimism scores that were reported were apparently independent of students’ year in college. The findings also failed to support previous findings that optimism is positively correlated with student adjustment, following the logic that older students would be better adjusted to college life.

These results provide insight into the general mindset of undergraduate college students. This can be useful in the development and implementation of future programs designed to enhance student performance or boost campus morale. It is even possible that the insignificant results are a reflection of the academic environment provided by Emory University itself. One can imagine that there would be differences in student reported optimism at different types of academic institutions, depending on the institution’s reputation, prestige or level of competition, for example.

This study adds a slightly different dimension to the large body of literature on the correlates of student optimism.

The primary limitation of this study concerned sampling. It is typically more desirable to use random sampling techniques, in order to increase the likeliness of having a representative sample. Researchers, however, used convenience sampling, recruiting participants for practical purposes, which may have introduced some bias. For example, there may have only been certain kinds of students who frequented the areas in which sampling was done. Also, it is possible that no significant effects were seen due to the small sample size (N=40). In a study with such a small sample, the effect size would be very low. Thus it is possible that there is in fact a difference in optimism among students in their different years in college that would only be seen with a much larger sample, that better reflects the composition of the general student body.

Another important limitation that should be mentioned is the fact that data collection was limited to one university. It may be that Emory University students have a positive life outlook because they are confident in the quality of education that they are receiving at such a prestigious institution and the success that will therefore ensue. It would be interesting to investigate student optimism and it’s correlation to year in college across universities. There may also be interesting findings depending on the institution type. Future studies that attempt to account for these factors will be important in the development of this particular area of research.

Burke, K. L., Joyner, A. B., Czech, D. R., & Wilson, M.J. (2000). An investigation of concurrent validity between two optimism/pessimism questionnaires: The life orientation test-revised and the optimism/pessimism scale. Current Psychology, 19, 129-136.

Chang, E. C., Maydeu-Olivares, A., & D’Zurilla, T. J. (1997). Optimism and pessimism as partially independent constructs: Relationships to positive and negative affectivity and psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 23, 433-440.

Montgomery, R. L., Haemmerlie, F. M., & Ray, D. M. (2003). Psychological correlates of optimism in college students. Psychological Reports, 92, 545-547.

Prola, M. & Stern, D. (1984). Optimism about college life and academic performance in college. Psychological Reports, 55, 347-350.

Terrill, D. R., Friedman, D. G., Gottschalk, L. A., & Haaga, D. A. F. (2002). Construct validity of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of Personality Assessment, 79, 550-563.

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