Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More evidence that simple classroom interventions can have positive effects on achievement

Reading the article I summarized yesterday reminded me of a pair of articles I read recently on a related topic. The first was published in the 1 September 2006 issue of Science, and the second was published in the 17 April 2009 issue. Both describe the results of affirmation exercises on student achievement.

For the first article, Cohen et al. studied two groups of seventh graders (approximately 120 students per group), about half European-American and half African-American. They randomly assigned students to one of two groups (an experimental group or a control group). Students in both groups were given short (~1 paragraph) writing assignments. Students in the experimental group were instructed to choose and write about values that were important to them; those in the control group wrote about values that were unimportant to them.

The intervention occurred at the beginning of the fall semester during the experimental year. Researchers followed up on students' fall semester grades to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention.

In the second article, the researchers describe the results from a third experiment (a third set of students given the assignment), plus additional data on the students from the original groups, two years later.

This is where it gets interesting. As you read the following, keep in mind that this intervention took about 15 minutes and involved no special equipment, no curriculum modification, and no teacher preparation at all.

African-American students in the treatment group showed significant increases in GPA (~0.24 points) compared to their peers in the control group. African-American students with the lowest achievement going into the class (and the lowest expectation for achievement in the class) had an increase in GPA of 0.41 points compared to their peers in the control group. These effects were present even two years later. What's more, students in the treatment group were less likely to be held back or assigned to remedial classes. Students in the treatment groups also reported more positive self-perceptions, even over the long term.

European-American students showed no differences between control and experimental groups. In fact, the treatment reduced the "achievement gap" (the observed difference in performance between African-American students and their white classmates) by approximately 40%.

The researchers hypothesize that the affirmation exercises act to break a recursive cycle of failure. To quote, "A feedback loop, with psychological threat and poor performance reinforcing one another, can create worsening performance over time. Students' poor performance may also cause them to be seen as less able by their teachers and less worthy of attention and mentoring, increasing the likelihood of lower performance." In other words, students who fail early--and therefore assume that they are less capable--have lower expectations of achievement. Those low expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: students expect to do poorly, so they do.

Because the affirmation exercises focus students on things they value, the exercises can increase students' feelings of self-worth. By reinforcing students' self-esteem, the exercises help to break students out of the failure feedback loop.

The differential effects of the treatment on African-American and European-American students may arise because of the so-called "stereotype threat." A common stereotype is that African-American (and other minority) students perform poorly compared to white students. Therefore, minority students are more likely to fall into a feedback loop when confronted with failure--students' awareness of the stereotype makes them more conscious of their performance, and if they do poorly, they think they're conforming to the stereotype, which puts them under more pressure, which makes them do even more poorly...you get the idea. Even minority students who perform well may experience negative stereotyping effects--their awareness of the stereotype (again) puts pressure on them, which negatively affects performance.

The researchers hypothesize that doing the affirmation exercises helps to reduce the psychological "threat" of stereotyping, allowing students to perform better.

Together, these two papers provide additional evidence that even short-term, simple interventions can make significant strides in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. As in the article I reviewed yesterday, the effects of this simple exercise were most pronounced for the most at-risk students (low-achieving African-American students), and the exercise had no downside for high-performing students. The results also suggest that such interventions might have long-lasting positive effects. Obviously, these kinds of exercises will not solve all of the educational issues facing the country--but they are cheap (in terms of both time and money), easy, and effective.

(And by the way, the older article is available--full text--for free online at www.sciencemag.org.)

Cohen, G., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap Science, 324 (5925), 400-403 DOI: 10.1126/science.1170769

Cohen, G. (2006). Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention Science, 313 (5791), 1307-1310 DOI: 10.1126/science.1128317


Sandra Porter said...

I read that article, too. This was a nice summary!

Kate Porter said...