An interview with...

An interview with… Alex Forsythe

Dr Alex Forsythe has been an educator and psychologist since 2003 and among her various accomplishments, she is Senior Lecturer at University of Liverpool, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Head of Professional Certification for the Association of Business Psychology.

What are the main benefits students experience through goal-setting?

When we want to get something done, we set ourselves specific goals and deadlines in order to get where we want to be. We set ourselves these goals because we know what we need to achieve in order to progress. Whether it is in our careers, our lifestyle, or our fitness, goals create a specific psychological reaction that make us all the more motivated to accomplish the goals we have set ourselves.

Our brains are very complex machines, but they are also very simplistic in some of their processes. The hidden secret of goal setting lies in the fact that our brains cannot differentiate between what we want and what we have.  Instead, the brain absorbs the information of what we want and projects it into our self-image. When our reality doesn’t match up to our self-image, we are all the more like to motivate ourselves to change.  Goals give us a strategy for achievement.

What inspired you to first start looking at goal-setting and its impact on learning?

I am an occupational psychologist and most of these strategies have been around in the business and sports literature for some time.  We know the technique works.  It was simply a matter of applying my knowledge of psychology in the workplace to help students regulate their performance.

What are the most valuable resources/articles you use?

I have a book chapter forthcoming which pulls together the key resources in this area and the science behind the processes.  I am very happy to provide that to any interested academic. 

What piece of advice would you give to help students understanding of the feedback process?

In life, some feedback has no basis in reality it is nothing more than obnoxious aggression, that kind of feedback should be rejected.  The problem is that challenging feedback which is designed to critique our work, evaluate us and move us progressively forward, can generate the same fight or flight emotions as receiving obnoxious aggression.  Evaluation is loud and it is hurtful and getting upset is a natural response, but when we rely on our emotions to make a decision about whether or not feedback is obnoxious aggression or candid language designed to move us forward, we end up making all sorts of attribution errors that can leave us stuck.   To move forward, it is critical to find ways to regulate the negative emotions that are integral to good evaluation so that we can embrace failure as a friend and work actively with those who wish to help us improve our performance.

Can you tell us where you’ve used goal-setting in your life to achieve something?

It has taken practice, but I now regularly use regulatory techniques to pivot my focus away from distractions that are getting in my way.  I also find that such processes help me to have confidence in myself, believe that I can achieve and that I can overcome the inevitable obstacles that will come my way.  One of the most important changes that I have noticed is that I have more patience for myself.   I am much better at switching my focus away from how to do things, towards dedicating more time towards thinking about what, why I am doing what I do.  This has really helped me live in the moment, feel less stressed and achieve more.

What one film/ book/ resource would you like to share with the academic community?

As a ‘hard faced’ scientist and psychologist, we are not really encouraged to explore psychoanalytical theory, however, two books of that elk really spoke to me, possibly because both are written from the lived experiences of therapists.  “The Examined Life” by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz.  This is a very short book which explores how to change by exploring the stories of how people become the prisoners of history, their thinking or doing and the poor choices they make.   This book, and “Why do I do that?” by Joseph Burgo helped me formulate my thinking about how students were coping (or not) at university.  

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

That we stop chasing metrics.   People will work to whatever measurement system is put in place, often with perverse consequences.    When we go directly at improving a metric, we rarely get to the right result and in the process, we demoralise our staff.   Good results are the outcome of high performing teams, so HE should spend more time focusing on the health, wellbeing and performance of its teams and the results will follow.

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