A low-cost intervention can make a big difference for students in their formative years, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin researcher and professor Geoffrey Borman. In an interview with Borman in Time, writer Belinda Luscombe explores how a simple writing exercise improved the experiences of more than 1,000 new middle schoolers.
While other social and emotional interventions cost more than $500 per student, according to researchers, the writing intervention costs a tiny fraction of that—an eye-popping $1.35 per student—and the results outperform the more expensive interventions, Lunscombe writes.
Middle school is an especially difficult time for many students because in addition to developmental and physical changes, they move from a single teacher to multiple teachers, often in a new location. “The process of alienation and disengagement from school often takes root at the beginning of middle school,” Borman says. The study’s intervention was designed to ease that transition by reminding kids that their fears are common and by fostering a sense of belonging with peers and teachers.
The proposed solution is simple: New middle school students in the study completed two 15-minute writing exercises at the beginning of the year that asked them to reflect on statements like these from prior students: “Almost all 7th graders said they had worried a lot about taking middle school tests at the beginning of 6th grade, but almost all 7th graders say that they now worry much less about taking tests,” and “Almost all 7th graders said they had worried at first that they did not ‘fit in’ or ‘belong’ at the beginning of 6th grade, but almost all 7th graders say that they now know that they ‘fit in’ and ‘belong.’”
The materials also included individual anecdotes and quotes from prior students about their test fears, social anxieties, and relationships with teachers—all in an effort to show incoming students that their challenges were normal and surmountable.
The short writing prompts asked three simple, open-ended questions:
- “Name one or two reasons why a 6th grader like you might worry about taking tests.”
- “Name one or two reasons why a 6th grader like you might worry less about taking tests after a little bit of time.”
- “Name one or two reasons why a 6th grader like you might do well on tests even if you worry about taking tests.”
The survey then asked participants two multiple-choice questions about how students who preceded them might have felt about test-taking in 6th grade as compared to how they might feel about test-taking now. A month later, students responded to similar questions meant to guide them through difficult transitions related to social interactions and new relationships.
Students who participated in the intervention exhibited a shift in attitude with far-reaching consequences. Study participants “reported trust in their teachers, that they liked school, were not as nervous about big tests, and that, ultimately, felt like they fit in. These more positive attitudes about school help students worry less, which helps them devote more cognitive and psychological resources to doing well in school,” Borman told Time. The students also had fewer absences and fewer disciplinary problems. “Over time, these shifts in student beliefs and behaviors improve academic performance, which then reinforce students’ positive beliefs,” Borman says.
The cost of the intervention is low—researchers estimate the cost per student is only $1.35 for “printing costs for the materials and for the time that it takes teachers to administer the two 15-minute activities.” In comparison, Borman says, Columbia researchers estimate some of the popular social-emotional interventions cost more than $580 per student.
The cycle of positive attitudes makes this very short, low-cost intervention a very powerful tool. “Over time, these shifts in student beliefs and behaviors improve academic performance, which then reinforce students’ positive beliefs.”
The simple, replicable questions could be asked of any middle school students. Encouraging students to reflect on their fears and anxieties while at the same time reminding them of the struggles of the peers creates confidence and strengthens relationships with teachers.