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Why “Cross your fingers and hope for the best” is actually great advice

Have you ever wondered what really creates the difference between the student who gives strong effort and the one who doesn’t? Is there some magical research that provides evidence that crossing your fingers initiates a physiological reaction that somehow leads to better student effort and attitude? Well, the research almost says that – not quite. If you’d like greater student effort (and attitude), you are in the right place.

Keep reading and we’ll learn how those two crossing fingers can help us remember the two key elements to mastering this month’s topic of building student …

The Research

Our topic this month is about effort and attitude-building through HOPE. You have likely noticed that when hope drops, student effort drops. And, YES, when hope is up, students do better academically. Seriously, it’s true! Hope leads to better academic performance … and so much more.

The best way to understand hope is to understand the opposite of hope – learned helplessness (which is the same as hopelessness).

Learned Helplessness: a belief that one’s behavior does not influence the outcome; therefore, one makes little effort to improve their situation (Maier & Seligman, 2016).

Ever seen that in the learners you work with?

Let’s compare that to HOPE: Hope includes a belief that one knows how to reach one’s goals (Pathways) and a belief that one has the motivation to use those pathways to reach one’s goals (Agency) (Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, 2005).

Which do you want to see more of in your classroom, school, or training? Learned helplessness or hope?

Hope is the instructional tool for improving student effort and attitude.

You can (and should) BUILD HOPE in your workplace!

There is tremendous scientific research on the topic of hope. Scientists have defined hope, studied the components of hope, and discovered what builds hope.

We’ll get to all of that, but first … why should we care? Why do you and I want to be scientifically categorized as someone with high levels of hope? And why do we want to help our students be more hopeful? Here is why:

People with high levels of hope:

  • Perform better academically at all levels (Marques, Gallagher, & Lopez, 2017).
  • Tend to be healthier (Kok, et al., 2013).
  • Report being more satisfied with their job and experience less stress at work (Woo & Park, 2017; Abbas & Raja, 2015).
  • Are happier, more confident, and have better relationships (Satici & Uysal, 2017; Alarcon, Bowling, & Khazon, 2013).
  • Handle stressors better – they see it as a challenge (Rand, 2017).
  • Use feedback to improve their future efforts (Reichard, Avey, Lopez, & Dollwet, 2013).
  • Report higher levels of self-worth, life satisfaction, and lower levels of depression (Marques et al., 2015).
  • Tend to be more forgiving of others (Taysi, Curun, & Orcan, 2015).

If some of those benefits interest you, lean in and let’s quickly learn what makes some learners more hopeful than others, and how we can help our students build their hope muscles to become what researchers call “high-hopers”. And remember, with high levels of hope comes high student effort and positive attitude. Who doesn’t want more of that in their classroom?

What is HOPE?

Hope is more than wishful thinking or the feeling that drives people to buy lottery tickets. Hope is more than an emotion. There is a cognitive element to it as well. It is a way of thinking about a future goal or action.

Hope involves both the will (Agency) to pursue a goal and the way (Pathways) to do so.


Pathway thinking involves being able to design a reasonable route to achieve a specific goal. In addition, a high-hoper is capable of creating alternative plans in case their first plan doesn’t work.

Listen … if you’ve noticed that your students rarely put forth their best effort, maybe it is because they don’t think they CAN be successful. So, they hold back and don’t work hard. Sound familiar? After all, if you don’t think you’ll succeed, why waste the effort? Students in this situation need a stronger, clearer pathway. And you can help!


You help your students become pathway builders when you:

  • clearly map out the elements of a persuasive essay
  • teach them how to approach word problems in math
  • show them the rules for conjugating Spanish verbs that end in –ar
  • demonstrate how to utilize the scientific method to test a hypothesis

So …

  • Teach the specific process to your students. Remember – they are not mind readers; they need to be taught.
  • Walk them through an example.
  • Let them practice with a partner or small group.
  • Give them opportunities to master the pathway individually.


Agency is the motivational component of hope theory. It involves our perceived capacity to actually follow the pathway we create to achieve our goal. It is the “I can do it!” attitude that propels a high-hoper along their constructed pathway.

If you have students whose negative attitude is creating limiting beliefs in themselves, it is time for an attitude upgrade. Negative self-talk can be a HUGE impediment to learning. Let’s be proactive and flood their minds with what we know helps them be a better learner.


You help your students build their agency muscles when you use:

  • positive pre-framing, “I know we can all master this next topic!”
  • emotional punctuation like, “We did it!”
  • success stories of past students to build confidence.
  • positive affirmations like, “I am a math master!” or “I am ready for this challenge!” (Snyder et al., 1998)

Here is where your two crossed fingers can actually come in handy. Think of your two crossed fingers as the two components of hope: Pathways and Agency. When you activate both of these elements with your students, you are on your way to a classroom full of students giving stronger effort and better attitudes.

As you reflect on your students’ level of hopefulness, consider which muscle could use more strengthening – their Pathways or Agency? Pick a strategy above to build that muscle and get to work! Now you can see how, “Cross your fingers and hope for the best” is actually useful advice. The first part is the agency and the second part is the path. Sure, we fleshed it out a bit more, but doing something and believing that it may work is a great start!


Abbas, M., & Raja, U. (2015). Impact of psychological capital on innovative performance and job stress. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences / Revue Canadienne des Sciences de lAdministration, 32(2), 128-138.

Alarcon, G. M., Bowling, N. A., & Khazon, S. (2013). Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(7), 821-827.

Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . . Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123-1132.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.

Marques, S. C., Lopez, S. J., Fontaine, A. M., Coimbra, S., & Mitchell, J. (2015). How Much Hope Is Enough? Levels Of Hope And Students’ Psychological And School Functioning. Psychology in the Schools, 52(4), 325-334.

Marques, S. C., Gallagher, M. W., & Lopez, S. J. (2017). Hope- and Academic-Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis. School Mental Health, 9(3), 250-262.

Rand, K. L. (2017). Hope, Self-Efficacy, and Optimism. Oxford Handbooks Online.

Reichard, R. J., Avey, J. B., Lopez, S., & Dollwet, M. (2013). Having the will and finding the way: A review and meta-analysis of hope at work. The Journal of Positive Psychology8(4), 292-304.

Satici, S. A., & Uysal, R. (2016). Psychological Vulnerability and Subjective Happiness: The Mediating Role of Hopelessness. Stress and Health, 33(2), 111-118.

Snyder, C. R., Lapointe, A. B., Crowson, J. J., Jr., & Early, S. (1998). Preferences of high- and low-hope people for self-referential input. Cognition & Emotion, 12, 807–823.

Snyder, C.R., Rand, K.L., & Sigmon, D.R. (2005). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C.R. Snyder, & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 257–278). New York: Oxford University Press.

Taysi, E., Curun, F., & Orcan, F. (2014). Hope, Anger, and Depression as Mediators for Forgiveness and Social Behavior in Turkish Children. The Journal of Psychology, 149(4), 378-393.

Woo, C. H., & Park, J. Y. (2017). Specialty satisfaction, positive psychological capital, and nursing professional values in nursing students: A cross-sectional survey. Nurse Education Today, 57, 24-28.

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