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Brief Intervention Improves Achievement of Students Subject to Negative Stereotyping, Study Finds

Susan Notes: It's overwhelming to think about all the negative stereotypes minority students face. But note that the researchers caution that this intervention is not a silver bullet. We can't expect to "fix" this by handing out self-esteem workbooks.

By Richard Monastersky

In a striking experiment about stereotypes and academic achievement, African-American seventh graders performed better in school months after they were asked to spend 15 minutes thinking about their identity and values.

The results of the study, published in today's issue of the journal Science demonstrate how racial stereotypes can adversely affect minority students and how simple interventions can partly counteract those stresses, researchers said on Thursday.

"It shows that their academic performance is tied to these pressures, and it gives us a better understanding of what's going on with minority students," said Claude M. Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of its Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, who was not involved in the new study.

The experiment was led by Geoffrey L. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Julio Garcia, an associate research scientist at Yale University. The team worked with 243 seventh graders in social-studies classes at a suburban school in the Northeast, the location of which the researchers did not identify because they are continuing their work there. The researchers split the students into two groups and gave them different writing exercises. Students in one group were asked to read a list of values, pick the most important, and then describe why they made their choice. Students in a control group read the same list of values, selected the least important, and then described why their choice might be important to another person.

The students completed the assignment in class at the beginning of the fall term, and the researchers followed the progress of those students. At the end of the year, African-American students who had written about their most important values had better grades than did African-American students in the control group. The difference was about one-third of a grade point on a four-point scale, where an A is a 4 and a D is a 1.

White students who wrote about their most important values did not show any significant difference than white students in the control group.

The researchers were so surprised by the results that they repeated the experiment, waiting a year to get more data, Mr. Cohen said on Thursday. "We wanted to make sure it was replicable and reliable," he said.

The study fits into a body of research about the stresses caused by negative stereotypes that are attributed to a group. That effect, known as stereotype threat, was first described by Mr. Steele and his colleagues. The effect happens when a person is concerned -- either consciously or subconsciously -- about being a member of a group that is perceived as being inferior in some way. Researchers have demonstrated the effect in minority groups, women, and nonminority men, in settings as diverse as academic tests and miniature golf.

The new study differs from most previous work because Mr. Cohen and Mr. Garcia tested their intervention in the field, rather than in a laboratory setting in a university.

In the classes where the recent study was conducted, the achievement gap between African-American and white students was three-quarters of a grade point, so the experimental intervention reversed 40 percent of the gap, the researchers report. "These results suggest that the racial achievement gap, a major social concern in the United States, could be ameliorated by the use of timely and targeted social psychology interventions," Mr. Cohen and his colleagues conclude in their paper.

Mr. Steele said the intervention had an effect because it accomplished what good teachers routinely do: affirm students' sense of themselves and convey that they are valued. The results of the simple assignment are "dramatically encouraging," he said. But more research is needed, he said, before teachers could start implementing those strategies in the classroom.

Mr. Cohen agreed, saying he would not yet recommend trying to incorporate such interventions into schools. "This is not a silver bullet," he said. "We don't know how far this goes, whether it generalizes to urban settings or predominantly minority settings."

In a commentary also in Science, Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, praises the new study but warns against overemphasizing the importance of stereotype threat. "The achievement gap is surely caused by multiple factors, including poverty, racism, and lack of parental involvement," he wrote.

Following are more details of the experiment led by Mr. Cohen and Mr. Garcia:

Students were asked to select from a list of values the ones that were either most important or least important to them. The list included athletic ability, being good at art, being smart or getting good grades, creativity, independence, living in the moment, membership in a social group (such as your community, racial group, or school club), music, politics, relationships with friends or family, religious values, and sense of humor. Excerpts from responses the students gave follow:

From African-American students who were asked to write about why certain values were important to them.

* "My friends and family are most important to me when I have a difficult situation that needs to be talked about. My friends give me companionship and courage. My family gives me love and understanding." (female)

* "Well being a great athlete and hitting the book are really the most important things in my life. I'm a great athlete when it comes to sports like basketball and football but when it comes to school I try and try to work as hard as I can to go to college and to make my family proud." (male)

From African-American students in the control group, who were asked to describe why values that were least important to them would matter to another person.

* "Athletic abilities may be important to someone who comes from an athletic family. They probably feel that everyone wants them to live up to the capabilities of your family member(s). It may be important to someone else because they are trying to live up to your dream of becoming a football player, basketball player or whatever. This is not important to me because I want to be a pediatrician or lawyer." (female)

* "This value [being good at art] would be important to someone else because they might be good at that. They might best at it or the might be happy when they do it." (male)

From European-American students who were asked to write about why certain values were important to them.

* "This value [music] was important to me when I tried out for stage band or when I am at a concert. This was also important when I have to play for a grade. The reason why this is so important is because I love playing all 3 of my instruments because I picked alot of the harder instruments so it is more of a callenge. Such as my tenor saxophone I practice every night because I love the way it sounds. Same for my bass that I just started playing about 3 months ago." (male)

* "The value of having close relationships with friends and family is important during school because that's where you are 75% of your life. Peers are a big issue. Friends mean the world to me because I always know they are there for me." (female)

From European-American students in the control group, who were asked to describe why values that were least important to them would matter to another person.

* "Art may be very important to someone else because maybe that person is very artistic. They may like to draw many pictures and love the subject during the school year. They might also like the experience of learning in a totally different area. That person might also believe that Art is essential to calm them down; make them relax. They might love the feeling of how the pencil, pen, marker, or crayon feels in their palm. Art might be the best way for them to express themselves. Sometimes, that person might find it eaisier to understand themselves best with Art. They might feel drawing is just fun." (female)

* "Art would be important to someone who wanted to be an artist when they grow up. Being in a membership to a social group is if you planned helping your community all the time or if you wanted to start a club. Music would be important to someone who wanted to teach music write mosic or be a rock start. Politics would be important if you wanted to be a politican and get into that kind of stuff." (male)

— Richard Monastersky
Chronicle of Higher Education


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