Short essays raise school scores of low-achieving African-American students for two years.
African-American school students asked to write about their personal values for fifteen minutes at the start of the school year earn higher grades for up to two years afterwards.
The work is a follow-up to a 2006 study1 in which students were asked to rank the importance of values such as religion, relationships and art and describe what the top value or values meant to them. The intervention reduced the achievement gap between African-American and European-American students by 40%. Low-achieving African-Americans benefited most, getting better grades than students in a control group who were asked to write about why the values they ranked lowest might matter to someone else.
Now, the research team led by Geoffrey Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has found the effects of the brief assignment last up to two years, with the lowest-performing quarter of African-American students earning grade point averages 0.41 points higher on a 4-point scale than peers in the control group2.
The timing of the intervention is important, says Cohen. "The initial performance has a disproportionate impact because it sets the initial trajectory" of a student's grades. "If you can intervene early in this cycle you might be able to deflect the trajectory of performance over time."
The team thinks that the intervention helps students to deal with the stress of being judged in light of negative stereotypes. Many studies have shown that when people are reminded that they are in a group which stereotypically performs poorly, such as African-Americans in an academic setting, they score worse than members of the same group who were not reminded of their group status3.
Students who completed booster exercises in the second year after the initial exercise did not noticeably outperform other students, suggesting that that the first assignment alone was enough to lift grades for two years, says Cohen. "But it could be the case that we need to reinstate affirmations during stressful transitions such as high school," he adds.
Defanging the stereotype
Students taught that their intelligence is not fixed do better than students who believe intelligence is a fixed quantity, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. "It combats stereotype threat by 'defanging' the stereotype, which is a message of fixed low ability," she says.
She says the new findings from Cohen and colleagues "could be used in tandem" with similar educational work.
But Cohen cautions against wide use of the intervention for now. "The question of how to scale up intervention raises all kinds of questions that need to be rigorously evaluated," he says, such as what happens when students and teachers are aware of the aim of the assignment. "It would be irresponsible to test it indiscriminately," he says.
Edward Zigler, the Yale psychologist behind the Head Start preschool intervention programme in the United States and a consultant to Cohen's research project, agrees. Teachers get "thousands of ideas across their table", he says, and persuading them to adopt a new intervention will require very strong evidence and further research.
“We have this big self-esteem movement in the United States and I think it's misguided. Jennifer Crocker , University of Michigan”
Self-affirmation tasks "enable [students] to transcend themselves", says psychologist Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It promotes a sense of connection to other people or to something outside the self", which helps students to learn in situations that threaten their self-image.
But she warns that self-affirmation is different from creating a falsely optimistic self-image. "The concern I would have from this paper is that teachers and educators are going to say that 'Oh, what we need to do is make these kids feel great about themselves.' We have this big self-esteem movement in the United States and I think it's misguided."
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N. & Master, A. Science 313, 1307–1310 (2006).
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N. & Brzustoski, P. Science 324, 400–403 (2009).
Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 69, 797–811 (1995).