A. Riley Finch '11

Hometown: Seymour, TN
Senior Study Title:
“Social Identity and Social/Academic Self-Efficacy Among First-Generation (Versus Non-First-Generation) College Students”
Dr. Crystal Colter

Thesis Abstract

In order to complete his Senior Study, Riley Finch ’11 had to overcome his belief that he couldn’t see the project through. Ironically, the research involved in his Senior Study held clues about how he could envision himself reaching the goal.

Finch chose to combine his interests in social cognition and how it impacts first-generation college students (undergraduates whose parents’ highest level of education is a high school diploma or less). An “FG” himself, Finch worked in the College’s Admissions Office and already was aware that academic and social integration factored in to a student’s success and persistence toward graduation, but he wanted to know more.

“Research regarding [first-generation college students] is now on the rise because of the interest in retention rates at institutions across the United States,” he explained. “I thought it would be interesting to study something relatively new to the field of psychology, but more importantly, the application of psychology to other disciplines.”

Finch’s study began with an extensive review of recent research on first-generation college students – how the population has grown, what they look for in a college, how they see themselves succeeding, what keeps them motivated, what their challenges are. Dr. Crystal Colter, associate professor of psychology and Finch’s Senior Study advisor, was impressed and said she gained a lot of knowledge through this portion of her advisee’s study.

“I have long been interested in the first-generation college student experience and had read many research papers on the topic, but Riley was able to find research and theory I had not seen previously – both from the field of psychology and from related literatures,” she said. “In fact, there were a few weeks when I kept some of the articles he turned in so I could make copies for my own files before I returned them to him!”

Finch also researched social cognitive theory and how it explains the importance of human beings’ feelings of belonging.

Ultimately, he described the purpose of his Senior Study this way: “To analyze first-generation college students’ levels of social identity and academic/social self-efficacy and compare these findings to non-first-generation students.” He predicted that first-generation students would have lower academic/social self-efficacy compared to non-first-generation students, and that group/personal identity would be higher for non-first-generation students compared to first-generation students.

To test his hypotheses, Finch recruited 141 Maryville College students for his five online surveys, which he built through the online site “Survey Gizmo.” Of the 141, 22 identified themselves as first-generation, and 119 identified themselves as non-first-generation. Sixty-five completed the surveys.

Asking participants to rank their agreement with statements that ranged from “I am a worthy member of the social groups I belong to” to “It’s important to me that I thoroughly understand my schoolwork,” Finch’s study measured academic self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, importance to identity, membership self-esteem, private collective self-esteem, public self-esteem, personal identity traits, personal group identity, personal relationship identity, personal academic identity, group identity traits, group identity, group relationship identity and group academic identity.

The data collection and analysis was particularly challenging and time consuming.

“I remember sitting in my designated study room for thesis work for four hours, working on data collection from the survey site to the statistical software,” he said. “I guess it took me about two to three weeks to complete the survey and participant process, but a short time to run the analyses because that’s the most exciting part.”

The results of Finch’s research supported his hypotheses – group identity is important among Maryville College students but much more so among non-first-generation college students.

“I also found that FGs were less concerned with their importance to identity, and non-FGs had a higher sense of identity/self-esteem within their social groups. Overall, it was evident that self-esteem, identity and social categorization were more important to non-FGs than FGs,” he said.

Graduating in December 2011, Finch is currently applying to graduate school programs for experimental psychology with an emphasis in cognition.

In particular, I am interested in working memory and how information is processed,” he said. “My Senior Study has also helped me better understand social cognition, which is a topic I was interested in during the beginning of my psychology career.

“Eventually, I would like to get my Ph.D. in order to research cognition and teach at a postsecondary institution,” he continued.

Colter, who recommended her advisee’s Senior Study for the library’s permanent collection, said she has no doubts that he’ll achieve his professional goals.

“From the beginning of the thesis experience, Riley was one of the most independent and competent students I have supervised. From his review of the relevant literature to his data collection and analysis, Riley knew what to do and moved ahead in the process with little prompting from me,” she said. “Each time I gave feedback and offered suggestions for improvement, Riley responded quickly and went far beyond what I had asked him to consider.”

Finch said he forever will remember late-night e-mail exchanges with Colter while he was working on his survey and data collection.

“Dr. Colter was by my side during the whole process. It was great to work with her because of her knowledge about experimental design, first-generation students and social psychology concepts,” he said. “She was awesome!”