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News Flash: How Tiny Boosts to Personal Identity Improve Minority Students' Grades

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A few years ago I wrote a story about a new piece of research that blew my mind. A group of Yale University researchers led by Geoffrey Cohen gave a bunch of Connecticut seventh-graders a 15-minute writing assignment. Half the children in this racially-diverse, working-class school were prompted to write about their personal values - a task designed to validate their identity and self-worth -- and half were assigned a more neutral subject.

Their results seemed almost impossible. At the end of the semester, African American students who had written the personal essay earned an average course grade 0.24 points higher on the four-point A-F grading scale than their classmates of the same race. Cohen and colleagues were so startled that they tried it again with different kids. This time the affirming essay boosted black students' final grade by an average of 0.34 points.

The likelihood of this happening by chance, without any influence from the essay? One in 5,000.

I checked in with Cohen (now at Stanford University) this week, and now he has more mind-boggling data. The researchers wanted to see how long the effects of the affirmation would last, so they assigned students three to five similar essays over the course of seventh grade and tracked their grades for two years. The results:

  • Over seventh and eighth grades, the affirming essays raised African American students' GPA in all core academic courses by an average of 0.24 points.
  • The effects were strongest for low-performing black students, whose average GPA boost was 0.41 points.
  • Fewer affirmed students than others were placed in remediation.
  • The affirmed black students' grades did drop over time, as is common in middle school, but their curve was less steep than that of their same-race peers.

Say what? A few short in-class essays, and the trajectory of low-performing African American students' middle-school careers turns around? (None of these assignments made any difference in white students' grades, by the way.)

Like, wow.

Stereotype Threat

Cohen's explanation has to do with a fairly well-documented psychological phenomenon called "stereotype threat." In my 2007 story I explained it thus:

A member of a stereotyped group -- say, a woman playing baseball -- knows of a stereotypical belief that she's likely to "throw like a girl." As she winds up, somewhere just below her consciousness lurks the nagging fear that if she tosses a blooper, other people will chalk it up to her gender. That anxiety undermines her skill, and she does just what she doesn't want to do: She lobs a weak, "girly" throw.

The theory goes that a similar pressure compromises the performance of African American and other minority students in diverse classrooms, where they're constantly aware of the stereotype that their group does poorly in school.

Cohen posits that this creates a self-perpetuating (and self-worsening) cycle. Stereotype threat messes with little Johnny's head when he's taking a math test, so he does poorly on that test, which shakes his confidence and makes the stereotype feel more real to him, which makes him perform all the more poorly on the next test, etc. Cohen believes the essays about personal values - which reinforced the children's sense of individual identity and worth -- interrupted that downward spiral and changed its direction. They did better on their next assignment, which in turn boosted their confidence for the next one.

My question to Cohen was: "I know you scientists have to be cautious about your conclusions and all, but seriously, is there any reason teachers shouldn't just run out and do this in their classrooms right now?"

He had some good reasons to proceed more thoughtfully. "The devil is in the details," he says. The timing may be important - his essays were timed for key transitions (the beginning of the school year) and periods of stress (just before standardized tests). And the researchers tailored the essay prompts carefully to the particular cultural fabric of each school. There's more research under way to illuminate exactly what works, when, and for which students.

Caution and all, the powerful message I take from these findings is this: the psychological environment we create for children in the classroom has a massive impact. And very small things - smaller than we realize -- can define that environment.

Inoculating Against Stereotype Threat

I'm reminded of what I saw last year in Louisville, Kentucky, where a district-wide effort called CARE for Kids aims to build a strong sense of community and mutual support within classrooms. Could a program like that inoculate kids against the creeping effects of stereotype threat?

"I think the kinds of interventions we do are weaker versions of what excellent teachers and programs do all the time in the real world, which is convey this message that you are a valued part of our community, we believe in you, and you belong," says Cohen. "Weaker but also very precise."

Cohen's intervention isn't the only one showing promise. Other researchers, including his Stanford colleague Carol Dweck, tried teaching New York City seventh-graders that the brain is malleable and can grow with effort and learning -- the antithesis of the idea that "you're born with it." The students' motivation improved, and as their peers' math grades fell over time, theirs stayed constant.

Call me an optimist, but I'm envisioning a day when we have a full menu of simple, targeted psychological interventions that could make a big impact for kids in school. Is that possible?

"Yes," Cohen says. "That's one of the really thrilling things about this research. If it's done carefully and systematically there's a real potential for large-scale social change." Larger efforts to put more great teachers in classrooms are more important, he adds, "But coupled with this kind of approach we could really do a lot of good."

Do these ideas ring true for you, in your education experience? How do you cultivate a sense of capability and belonging for your students?

-- Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia

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poonam kurani's picture

How do I cultivate a sense of capability and belonging for your students.

Just Yesterday i initiated an activity on FACEBOOK...i got kids to LIKE a bookstore page...every day this bookstore initiates small discussion or complete the sentence, for e.g Faliure is____________
here i allowed kids to say what came into their mind (positive and negative) as bad, is a teacher etc.

i very intentionally did not rule out whatever was said, simply agreed to all that kids quoted.

this i think is an action that empowers kids with a sense of belonging and capability...

looking fwd to comments to my thoughts :)

malcolm bellamy's picture
malcolm bellamy
Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

Absolutely right. The need to have a positive self-image is essential. I recently watched an excellent TED Talk by Aimee Mullins where she talked about the way that she was helped to overcome her difficulties as a disabled child by having a doctor who stated that she was a "strong and able" child and that the fact that she had been told this reinforced her self-image and made her try all the harder to work the difficult exercise apparatus that would help her to walk on her artificial lower legs.
Teachers have real power to motivate children by building up their self-esteem or indeed they can destroy their chances by negative remarks and statements that they can never succeed.
I would like to see all schools having a "Can do, can succeed" attitude for all their children. This is particularly important ,as Grace says, for the disadvantaged children who often come to school with very little, if any, self-esteem

willa taylor's picture
willa taylor
Director, Education and Community Engagement, Goodman Theatre

Every summer I work with students who have been marginalized - because of ethnicity, poverty, test scores, trouble in school, etc. They come from all over Chicago. They are all strangers. They come because some teacher or adult as asked us to work with them or because someone they know has worked with us. For three hours a day, four days a week we treat them as fellow artists, trust their instinct and teach them the fundamentals of producing theater. In six weeks they write, produce and perform an original devised work. And they are transformed. The kid who came in saying before every comment "I know I am stupid but..." learns he is a brilliant comedian. The girl who was too shy to talk to anyone becomes the one organizing their lunchtime get togethers. This is what the arts can do - instill self-confidence and self-esteem. It changes lives. It changed mine. And so do those 80 kids each summer.

Jennifer Holcombe's picture
Jennifer Holcombe
After School care at the Austin Discovery School (Challenge School)

Even after a very long work day and a brain that's quite fried this was an excellant read! Thank you Grace!*

I love your information and your enthusiasm, your words are like great big hugs over a youthful, humanity. Divine!

In my experience whatever a teacher treasures they will share. Whatever is important to you you will cultivate in others. If you understand and appreciate cultural diversity you will celebrate it in your students.

I have a hard time believing that sharing that exercise with white children had no effect on their grades? Every child, given support and attention, and affirmation is going to be a happier person, a more focused student.

This topic proves that emotionally mature and well balanced teachers are as important as teachers that know how to understand and teach the basics.

It is quite a privilege to work with "minority" children for so many reasons, I love learning about their worlds as much as I love sharing my experiences of this country with them.

Validation is a key piece to almost everything good that we do here on earth* ;)

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Jennifer and others, really glad this resonated with you! And Poonam, very cool idea for that Facebook idea. How did the students respond to it?

By the way, I changed the headline of the blog from "Self Esteem" to "Personal Identity," at Geoff Cohen's suggestion. As he pointed out, his intervention targeted something more precise than the message, "I'm good enough." It aimed to shore up kids' sense of personal identity, knowing who they are as individuals, feeling valued for that, and feeling that they belong.

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