Thinking Ahead (via the Talking Stick)

By: Dr. Sherry Woosley & Matthew Venaas | Jul 07 2016

Most assessment looks at cases of cause and effect. Utilizing mental models, though, asks you to predict expectations, decisions, and behaviors. Learn how you can use this approach and potentially head off issues before they even occur.

Thinking Ahead, from the Talking Stick

Nobody can totally predict the future, as is proven time and time again by casino profits, election outcomes, and movie plot twists. However, imagine how valuable such an ability would be for a campus housing department. What questions would a prospective student want answered on the housing website? What complaints may a new construction site generate? How will students behave in the new study lounge? If one could simply peer into a crystal ball and see the answers to these questions, preparation would certainly be much easier.

While perhaps not as reliable as a crystal ball, utilizing mental models can help predict how future scenarios are likely to play out.

A mental model is a representation of something real or hypothetical, like an architect’s model of a building. It is a set of thoughts and assumptions about how something works. In many cases, these are high-level conceptualizations that are not consciously discussed or thought about, but they greatly influence expectations, decision making, and interpretation of outcomes.

The mental model approach is often associated with the role of a user-experience designer. When creating a new online software system, the designer may ask questions like “What mental model do people have when they come to this page? Are they thinking it is like Facebook and they are sharing information? Or are they thinking Amazon and wanting to take action like making a purchase?” By considering the user’s mental model, one can begin to anticipate what they expect to see, how they expect the system to work, and what they will do.

Mental models impact what people pay attention to, what they expect to happen, and how they go about solving a problem,

yet because they are often implicit it is easy to overlook how they affect the decision-making and planning process. They may be discarded as simply a gut instinct, or it may be that a single, specific interest, which was otherwise an outlier in the overall body of evidence, could be given too much weight.

Housing and residence life professionals have many mental models that guide and influence their work. Being aware of those that come into play in thinking about students as well as housing and residence life work allows professionals to provide the proper context and analyze the implications of the mental model in much the same way that they would analyze survey results or focus group feedback.

A very simple but powerful mental model is a story that conveys a real or hypothetical situation. Whether it involves the student staff member who beats the odds to attend college and become a leader in their profession or the student whose failure and departure was so painful that the story remains vivid years later, the accounts of students hold real power. The stories may involve a particularly memorable call from a helicopter parent and the negative impact it had on a student’s behavior, or it may be about the much needed breath of fresh air that a coat of fresh paint and some new furniture brought to a residential community.

Whether positive or negative, stories have a lasting impression that affects daily work, planning, and even the personal behaviors of housing and residence life professionals. When compared to a statistic, such as the retention rate of students who request roommate changes or the mean grade point average of students who attend at least one hall program a month, it’s not surprising that a story would have a more lasting impact than a data point would. Stories tap into emotions, connect to larger truths or values, and gain strength from the way they show the audience something rather than telling it to them. They have significant sticking power and are impactful because they are often vivid, emotional, and concrete. They can easily be shared with others, and people remember them. But stories as a mental model do have limitations if too much is assumed about the truth they contain.

Because a story sounds good, it is easy to assume that the lessons from it are accurate, generalizable, and widespread. A story about a resolved roommate conflict, for instance, may have been unusual or unique and may have involved other behaviors not included in the narrative. However, that story may not be…

Continue reading Thinking Ahead in the July + August 2016 issue of the Talking Stick, the official magazine of ACUHO-I (the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International).