These psychologists' approach is based on the idea that at least some of these academic disparities aren't the result of faulty teaching or broken school systems, but instead spring from toxic stereotypes that cause ethnic-minority and other students to question whether they belong in school and whether they can do well there.While such a major problem might seem to require widespread social change to fix, the psychologists are finding evidence that short, simple interventions can make a surprisingly large difference.
They will present their results at the International Education Data Mining Society’s annual conference in Madrid in late June.
“The act of writing about family and friends gives students the chance to assert their self-worth in an otherwise threatening environment,” said the study's lead author, Travis Riddle, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia.
“This psychological foothold may motivate them to challenge themselves and live up to their potential.” To understand why the writing intervention works, Riddle and his colleagues developed an algorithm to explore the content of several thousand essays written by students in middle school and college during earlier research experiments.
Amid the jumble of words, they extracted 50 overarching themes, or topics, and found that students focused most on “social relationships,” indicated by words like “support” “family” and “friends.” Though all students, regardless of race and gender, emphasized social relationships in their writing, the earlier experiments showed that the writing exercise improved academic performance among African American girls and boys as well as white girls.
In the current study, the researchers looked at how essay themes varied among the writers.
They found that African American boys and girls emphasized social relationship terms slightly more often than white girls, and significantly more often than white boys.
But a growing body of evidence is showing that the interventions can work, not only among black middle school students, but also for women, minority college students and other populations.
"But now that I think about it, we all know that it's possible to damage a student in 15 minutes. So if that's possible, then maybe it's also possible to improve it." Many of the new interventions are based on the concept of "stereotype threat," first identified by psychologist Claude Steele, Ph D, in the mid-1990s.
A 2006 study in Science built on this work by showing that a brief exercise in which seventh-graders wrote about values important to them substantially raised the grades of African Americans, reducing the achievement gap by 40 percent.
The study’s lead author, Geoff Cohen, a psychologist at Stanford University, is a coauthor of the current study, which makes use of those earlier essays.