An in-class writing assignment designed to boost students' sense of identity and personal integrity reduced the achievement gap between African-American and nonminority students by 40 percent, according to a new study by a University of Colorado at Boulder researcher.
The results suggest that targeted psychological interventions on a wider scale could potentially help narrow the racial achievement gap among U.S. students, according to Associate Professor Geoffrey Cohen of CU-Boulder's psychology department and his fellow principal investigator Julio Garcia of Yale University's psychology department.
"Our research was based on the idea that ethnic minority students experience, on average, higher levels of stress in the classroom," Cohen said. "This is because they are concerned that if they do poorly it could confirm the negative stereotype about the intellectual ability of their racial group. We all know from personal experience that too much stress is bad for performance."
The study appears in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Science.
The classroom intervention is among the first "aimed purely at altering psychological experience to reduce the racial achievement gap, a major problem in the United States," wrote Cohen, Garcia and their colleagues Nancy Apfel and Allison Master at Yale University and Stanford University. "Unlike other interventions, it benefits the targeted students, including those most at risk, reducing group-based inequality while not adversely affecting nontargeted students," they wrote in the study.
Past research has found that school settings in general are stressful to many students regardless of race. However, many African-American students experience chronic stress in school stemming from negative stereotypes portraying them as less intelligent than their peers, according to Cohen and Garcia. This in turn leads to decreased academic performance.
The study involved two experiments in which seventh graders from middle-class and lower middle-class families were asked to choose one or two values that were important to them and then to write a paragraph describing why they cherished the values. A control group was asked to write about values that others might hold. A total of 243 students participated, divided in roughly equal numbers by race.
"This exercise, called a self-affirmation, allows a student to reaffirm that he or she is a good person," Cohen said. "That helps fight the stress arising from the fear that the negative stereotype could be used against you."
The study found the average performance gap in the course between African-American students and their white peers at a suburban middle school in the northeastern United States was three-quarters of a grade point on a four-point scale for those in the control group.
The African-American students who completed the in-class assignment improved their end-of-term grades by three-tenths of a grade point, closing the gap by 40 percent, according to Cohen. The assignment had no impact on white students' grades. While the study results are encouraging, Cohen said he isn't suggesting the findings to be a "silver bullet."
"We don't really know how these results will transfer to other schools and areas in the country, or know conclusively what the psychological mechanism behind this is," Cohen said. "However, it may turn out that if we intervene earlier, the gap could be reduced even more."
As an example of how chronic stress affects performance, Cohen used a workplace analogy where two good friends work together and one of them tells the other that the boss may not like him.
"While both employees may feel workplace stress, the one who thinks the boss may not like him is going to feel a higher level of stress," Cohen said. "He may ask himself, 'Is this constructive criticism from the boss or is the boss biased against me?' Over time, the chronic stress of this social situation would probably negatively affect his job performance," he said.
Cohen and Garcia plan to continue the research and would like to more fully investigate the psychological mechanism responsible for their findings and the generality of the effect.
"We think there are many educational practices and programs, both governmental and private, whose true positive impact is being masked by psychological factors in the environment that interventions such as ours can help to alleviate," Cohen said.
The research was funded with grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation of Quincy, Mass., and the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University.