Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Race, stereotypes and school performance

New research shows how exercises that help students focus on values that are important to them can help them improve their grades.

A 15-minute writing exercise at the beginning of the seventh-grade school year improved African-American students' grades at the end of the semester, researchers report.

These findings are important because people belonging to groups that have negative stereotypes often worry that if they do badly at something, it will confirm the stereotype. And, worrying like this can be so stressful that it actually make them do badly anyway. This effect is called "stereotype threat."

For example, some people think girls are bad at sports. So, a girl playing baseball might get nervous when she steps up to bat because she thinks other kids are expecting her to strike out. And being nervous makes it hard for her to hit the ball.

Another example involves the stereotype that African American students are less intelligent than white students. This is false, of course, but it can make African American students nervous that if they get bad grades, they are confirming the stereotype. And, being stressed-out about this makes it more difficult to do well on tests and homework.

Geoffrey Cohen of Yale University and his colleagues investigated whether an in-class exercise could lessen the effects of stereotype threat. They asked a group of 7th graders of different races to write about why certain values were important to them. The point of this assignment was to remind the students of their own integrity and values.

At the end of the semester, the researchers compared the grades of the students who had done this exercise with the grades of students who had done a different exercise instead. They found that the African American students who had done the exercise did show a small improvement in their grades compared to the other students.

One little exercise might not seem like it would have such a long-term effect, but usually students of all races begin the semester earning similar grades. Some African American students' grades drop over time, as stereotype threat sets in, and the lower the grades get, the harder it is for the students to bring them up. The researchers think their experiment worked because they intervened early in the semester, before this trend had really taken off.

The scientists describe their findings in the September 1, 2006 issue of the journal Science.