Italy: Fabio Alivernini, Elisa Cavicchiolo
Fabio Alivernini and Elisa Cavicchiolo are superbly perched to assess the impact that relationships, autonomy, and competence have in educational settings. As researchers at the National Institute for the Evaluation of the Education System (INVALSI) in Rome, they have the entire Italian school system available as research subjects.
The two are colleagues with slightly different backgrounds—Alivernini is a psychologist whose university preparation was in statistics, Cavicchiolo’s earlier work was in statistics and her PhD was in sociology—but both have a deep interest in Self-Determination Theory, especially in relationships and autonomy support and the large roles these two elements play in the social, emotional and academic lives of young people.
One recent study on the performance of college freshmen that Alivernini worked on (Girelli et al., 2018)—specifically looking at the effects of parent and teacher support of student autonomy—found that students who felt autonomy support had better academic performance, and were less at risk of dropping out of school after freshman year than those motivated by more controlling adults. A later collaborative study (Manganelli et al., 2019) looked at the role that autonomous motivation—versus controlled motivation—played in the pathway to academic performance for university students. The researchers found that autonomous motivation positively influenced the critical thinking strategies students used, and this lead to better academic performance relative to peers. When motivation came externally—from controlling adults, on the other hand—a direct negative impact on academic performance was seen.
Beyond autonomous motivation, both Alivernini and Cavicchiolo have a decade-long interest in Italy’s immigrant population and especially in the extent to which immigrant children become assimilated into the larger culture. In the first fifteen years of this century, they point out, the number of immigrant students in Italian schools has more than quadrupled, from 2.2% in 2001-02 to 9.4% in the 2016-17 school year.
One project for which Cavicchiolo was the lead author involved working with an instrument to measure how relationships affect adolescents: specifically, how “relatedness” affects adjustment to school and psychological well-being (Cavicchiolo et al., 2019). Cavicchiolo and her collaborators were able to work with data from a sample of over 35,000 students in this project. The study checked the validity of the Classmates Social Isolation Questionnaire for Adolescents (CSIQ-A), finding one of the benefits of the CSIQ-A to be that it allows direct measurement of the effects of classroom interventions for promoting peer relatedness and preventing social isolation. The instrument was deemed reliable when used even with students of different socio-demographic and cultural characteristics.
One of Cavicchiolo and Alivernini’s favorite collaborative endeavors touched on eighth-grade students’ sense of relatedness and belonging at school, and specifically on how immigrants played into the equation. Most fascinating about this study—titled “Brothers, Ants, or Thieves: Students’ Complex Attitudes Toward Immigrants and the Role of Gender and Social Status in Shaping Them” (Alivernini, Cavicchiolo, & Manganelli, 2019)— was the “openness” of its methodology, in the sense that it included components that made the results more complicated to tabulate, but that were richer because of this particular design feature. Most research limits findings to data gleaned from checked boxes, or data easily inserted into tables. For “Brothers, Ants, or Thieves” (a collaboration with INVALSI colleague Sara Manganelli) the researchers included a number of open-ended questions that thus needed to be dealt with by thinking human beings rather than a computer algorithm. Here’s how it worked.
Students were offered an anonymous questionnaire asking them to complete the phrase: “Immigrants are like…” Metaphors were then recorded and arranged into categories, which then allowed the researchers to look at the ways factors like gender, socio-economic level, or even immigration status seemed to affect how immigrants were perceived. The findings: in general, girls displayed more benevolent feelings toward immigrants than boys; they were generally more disposed to say that immigrants are like “family members” or like “people in need” than they were to characterize immigrants as pesky swarms of mosquitoes or people out to steal resources that otherwise might be “ours”. Higher socio-economic status, in both boys and girls, also tended to translate to more positive feelings toward immigrants, though the results were more nuanced here, as some high SES students did see immigrants as thieves stealing resources.
Alivernini and Cavicchiolo’s work in a country highly affected by an influx of immigrants—though not immediately generalizable to other countries with immigrant populations from perhaps different backgrounds—probably has significance for us all, in a world that needs more answers; answers to our problems of relatedness, especially.
Alivernini, F., Cavicchiolo, E., & Manganelli, S. (2019). Brothers, ants or thieves: students’ complex attitudes towards immigrants and the role of socioeconomic status and gender in shaping them. Social Psychology of Education, 22, 629–647. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-019-09492-8
Cavicchiolo, E., Girelli, L., Lucidi, F., Manganelli, S., & Alivernini, F. (2019). The Classmates Social Isolation Questionnaire for Adolescents (CSIQ-A): Validation and invariance across immigrant background, gender, and socioeconomic level. Journal of Educational, Cultural, and Psychological Studies, 19, 163-174. https://doi.org/10.7358/ecps-2019-019-cavi
Girelli, L., Alivernini, F., Salvatore, S., Cozzolino, M., Sibilio, M., et al. (2018). Coping with the first exams: Motivation, autonomy support and perceived control predict the performance of first-year university students. Journal of Educational, Cultural, and Psychological Studies, 18, 165-185. http://dx.doi.org/10.7358/ecps-2018-018-gire
Manganelli, S., Cavicchiolo, E., Mallia, L., Biasi, V., Lucidi, F., & Alivernini, F. (2019). The interplay between self-determined motivation, self-regulated cognitive strategies, and prior achievement in predicting academic performance. Educational Psychology, 39, 470-488. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2019.1572104