What is it?
By aspirations we mean the things children and young people hope to achieve for themselves in the future. To meet their aspirations about careers, university, and further education, students often require good educational outcomes. Raising aspirations is therefore often believed to incentivise improved achievement.
Aspiration interventions tend to fall into three broad categories:
- interventions that focus on parents and families;
- interventions that focus on teaching practice; and
- out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities, sometimes involving peers or mentors.
The approaches used in these interventions are diverse. Some aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities and others aim to raise aspirations by developing general self-esteem, motivation, or self-efficacy. For interventions that focus on self-efficacy and motivation specifically in a learning context please see Metacognition and self-regulation.
How effective is it?
The relationship between aspirations and achievement is complex but, on average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little or no positive impact on educational achievement. This may seem counterintuitive but there are three main reasons why this might be the case.
First, evidence suggests that most young people already have high aspirations, suggesting that much underachievement results not from low aspiration but from a gap between aspirations and the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required to achieve them. Second, where students do have lower aspirations, it is not clear that any targeted interventions have consistently succeeded in raising their aspirations. Third, where aspirations begin low and are successfully raised by an intervention, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows. As a result it may be more helpful to focus directly on raising achievement. In aspiration programs which do raise achievement, additional academic support is generally present.
There are no Australasian-based studies examining the impact of aspiration interventions on student learning and achievement. However, a few studies have examined growing aspirational thinking as one of several intervention outcomes of community engagement programs in Australia and New Zealand that focus on family engagement and building family aspirations.
A 2009 observational study examined the relationship between the aspirations and academic outcomes of high school students in Queensland and Western Australia. The authors did not identify a significant relationship between aspiration and academic outcomes, but noted that that the degree to which students believed they were capable of achieving their goals was a strong predictor of academic success.
How secure is the evidence?
The evidence base on aspiration interventions is very limited. More rigorous studies are required, particularly focusing on student-level rather than school-level interventions. There are no meta-analyses of interventions to raise aspirations that report impact on achievement or learning. There are two relevant systematic reviews. These indicate that the relationship between aspirations and achievement is complex and that the evidence for a clear causal connection between learning, changing aspirations, and attitudes to school is weak.
This lack of strong evidence does not mean that impact is not achievable, but schools considering aspiration interventions cannot assume that raising aspirations will be straightforward or will necessarily increase achievement.
What are the costs?
Overall, costs are estimated as moderately high. Costs vary widely and are hard to estimate precisely. Mentoring approaches in Australia are estimated at around $1,500 per student per year but can be provided by volunteers at lower or nil cost to schools.
What should I consider?
The relationship between aspirations and achievement is not straightforward. In general, approaches to raising aspirations have not translated into increased learning.
Most young people have high aspirations for themselves. Ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills to progress towards their aspirations is likely to be more effective than intervening to change the aspirations themselves.
The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse, so avoid generalisations.
Effective approaches almost always have a significant academic component, suggesting that raising aspirations in isolation will not be effective.
Have you considered how you will monitor the impact on achievement of any interventions or approaches?