It sounds too easy to be true, but research published this week in the journal Plos One found that’s essentially what happened in a study of 221 undergraduate college students at Ohio State University.
Students in an undergraduate psychology statistics course were asked to complete a values affirmation exercise that asks them to rank a half dozen values such as relationships with family/friends, spiritual/religious values and science/pursuit of knowledge in order of personal importance.
Half of those students then spent ten to fifteen minutes writing about why their number one value was meaningful to them. The other half served as a control group that was instead asked to write about how their lowest ranked value could be important to someone else.
This exercise was completed once near the beginning of the course and repeated before the students’ first exam.
The researchers found that students who completed the exercise and wrote about their core value did better on a test of their math literacy at the end of the course, compared to those in the control group. The control group also saw declines in their self-perception of their own math skills compared to the other group.
So what does taking the time to ponder your personal values have to do with math skills? According to the researchers, other studies have shown similar results and they believe the key is that when students take the time to consider their core priorities and identity, they are less stressed and find the unpopular math course to be less daunting.
“It has a snowball effect. Values affirmation is thought to help students get some early wins in class. That leads them to try harder and get more achievements and it creates a cycle of success,” said Ellen Peters, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State.
This compound effect was also found to carry-over outside the classroom, as the students with higher math literacy also scored higher on a financial literacy test and had healthier habits in life.
The Most Important Ten Minutes of Your Life
The study focuses on the benefits of higher levels of math literacy beyond just a college statistics course, but perhaps the most interesting finding for the rest of us beyond our university years is how the cascade of positive effects (or, more accurately, positive correlations) began with a simple psychological intervention.
The exercise of intentionally determining core priorities and taking the time to work out which priority is paramount above all others and why is something many of us probably have never even thought to do.
And yet the research finds that the simple clarity this can bring to your life might directly lead to more success and better decision-making.
It’s logical really. If you think of your life like a skyscraper being built one story or one achievement upon the last, it only makes sense to take some time — perhaps as little as ten minutes — to make sure you’ve laid down a stable foundation to build upon.