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Hope and Academic Performance

December 30, 2019 by John Andrew Williams

In 2002, C.L. Snyder and his colleagues set out to see if hope had anything to do with what Hanson (1994) termed the “lost talent.” 

These are the students who have high natural talent, academic ability, and innate intelligence who do not achieve the success one might expect based on their potential. They drop out of college early, or don’t go in the first place. They struggle to find jobs that convert to careers. This study marked the first time hope theory was used to sort out why some students succeed and others don’t. 

The authors remind us that, “hope is not an emotion but rather a dynamic cognitive motivational system,” (Snyder et al. 2002, emphasis mine). Hope theory casts hope as a conscious, reinforcing, thought-process used in the service of achievement. The emotions we feel in association with goals stem from these thought processes first. It’s refreshing when you think about it that way, because it implies that hope is something we can all cultivate if we understand how it works. 


The hope framework. Hope theory hypothesizes that the successful achievement of one’s goals can be broken down into two mechanisms: 1) agency, or motivation, to pursue goals, and 2) pathways, or routes, to follow that will lead toward one’s goal. In the 1990’s Snyder and others developed the Dispositional Hope Scale, a survey tool that targets both pathways and agency to quantify how people evaluate their own capacities for goal achievement. 213 college freshmen over a six year period. This study was “longitudinal”, meaning it followed the same people over a relatively long time period. The students took the Dispositional Hope Scale upon entering college as freshmen. Then, the researchers tracked their GPAs and graduation rates after 6 years, hypothesizing that higher scores on the hope scale would correlate with higher GPAs and graduation rates. Hope predicted academic outcomes. The results were clear – both GPA and graduation rates were positively correlated with high hope scores and negatively correlated with low hope scores. 


Hope is a mechanism for success in academia. Students that reported high levels of agency and pathways on the hope scale performed significantly better than students who reported low levels of agency and pathways. This suggests hope is getting at something real. It makes a lot of intuitive sense – students who know what their goals are and how to achieve them are intrinsically motivated to perform at high levels. Students who are uncertain about their goals lack agency and direction and are thus less likely to achieve goal-related outcomes. Hope really is the light at the end of the tunnel. Like I said in the first post on hope, it’s what keeps you going when things get hard. When you have a goal, you know the way, and you’ve got excitement and energy to keep at it, hope becomes a forward feeding force even in the darkest of places. The authors highlight the critical question all of this brings up: “Can we teach hopeful thinking to students?” (Snyder et al. 2002). The ability to convert low hoping students into high hoping students would be incredibly powerful. Hope theory provides a structure for thinking about hope – the motivation and the roadmap to pursue a goal. With that structure, coaches can help clients identify what is holding them back. Do they lack motivation? Do they not know how to get started? Do they just not have a clearly defined vision? Hope theory allows us to zero in on what is really going on and help clients focus on the pieces of their being, learning, and doing that need attention. 


808 students enrolled in an intro to psychology course took the Dispositional Hope Scale a week into the fall semester. The researchers recruited all freshmen who filled out the scale into this study. For the 213 freshmen, the researchers formed hope categories. Scores were first sorted by gender and then arrayed in order from lowest to highest. The researchers organized the scores into three evenly distributed groups – high hope, medium hope, and low hope. Researchers compared hope scores with students 1st and 2nd semester GPAs, their cumulative GPA after six years, and their graduation status. The differences between GPAs during the semesters and cumulative GPAs were statistically significant between low and high hope scoring students. For graduation rates, there was also a statistically significant difference between low and high hope students, with only 40.27% of the low hope students graduating compared with 56.2% of the high hope students. The researchers compared the graduation rate of the study group with total college graduation rates. The graduation rate of the 3,287 students in the same class as the research participants was 53.8%, similar to the high-hope group’s graduation rate of 56.2%.


Hanson, S. (1994). Lost talent: Unrealized educational aspirations and expectations among U.S. youth. Sociology of Education, 67(3) 159-175.Snyder, C. R., Shorey, H. S., Cheavens, J., Pulbers, K. M., Adams, V. H., & Wiklund, C. (2002). Hope and academic success in college. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), 820-826.

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