The life of African-American middle-school students can be pretty stressful. From the moment they step into the classroom, some must contend with not only coursework but also the anxiety that performing badly might confirm negative stereotypes. That fear can itself lead to poor performance, researchers have known for a while; now they've come up with a simple antidote: getting students to reflect on their sense of self-worth by writing a personal essay about what they value.
Geoffrey Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his colleagues tested the strategy among 243 seventh graders at a northeastern U.S. school that had a roughly 50:50 ratio of African-American and white students. Each student was asked to complete a 15-minute writing assignment that included a page with a list of values such as one's relationships with friends, athletic ability, and creativity. Students circled their top two or three values. On the next page, they wrote a few sentences explaining their choices and describing moments when they had felt the importance of the chosen values. The researchers designed a similar assignment for a control group in which students had to circle the value they thought was least important to them and explain why that value could be important to other people. The students were not told the purpose of the assignment.
At the end of the term, the researchers found that African-American students in the treatment group got significantly better grades than same-race students in the control group. Low-performing African Americans seemed to have benefited the most. The assignment didn't have any effect on white students. Overall, the intervention closed the racial achievement gap by 40%, the team reports tomorrow in Science. "The results exceeded our expectations," says Cohen. "It was remarkable."
To find out how the treatment worked, the researchers had the students complete 34 word fragments, seven of which--such as _ACE--could be completed to form either a stereotype-relevant word such as RACE or a stereotype-irrelevant word such as FACE. African-American students who got the intervention formed fewer stereotype-relevant words than did African Americans in the control group. This suggests that the intervention allowed students to distance themselves from racial stereotypes, Cohen says.
The researchers also found that African Americans in the control group did progressively worse as the academic term went on, while those in the treatment group stabilized or started improving after the intervention. "There is something about the stereotype threat that feeds off its consequence: You are stressed that you'll do badly, and so you do; then you get even more stressed and do even worse," Cohen explains. "Our intervention seems to halt this downward spiral."
"These are very exciting results," says Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was among the first to show that the threat of reinforcing negative stereotypes can impair performance among minority students. "They suggest some powerful and simple ways of fixing things in American education." Cohen warns, however, against viewing the intervention as a silver bullet for improving minority-student performance. "It worked in this particular school," he says. "Whether it'll work in a predominantly minority school or at a different grade level, we can't say."