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Narrowing the Achievement Gap with a Psychological Intervention

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There is an academic achievement gap in the United States. Compared to their White peers, African American and Latino American students earn lower grades and are more likely to drop out of school. Compared to “the haves”— that is, students with greater economic means, “the have nots” also have lower grades and higher drop-out rates [1]. These achievement gaps are there when students come to school in the fall and widen as the year goes on. Recently, a small intervention, aimed at easing the psychological burdens that impair minority performance, has been found to interrupt this downward trajectory, improving the performance of minority students, narrowing the achievement gap, and with long lasting effects. This month, a new paper [2] in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reports findings from two field experiments led by David Sherman of the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with eight collaborators*, that replicate this pattern of results among Latino American middle school students, helping to better understand how the intervention works and why it has its long lasting effects.

The Psychological Roots of the Achievement Gap

For most students, middle school is hard enough as it is, but for minority students it can present an added set of psychological obstacles. They have to take the same tests as everyone else but, if they perform poorly, they risk confirming negative stereotypes about their group. This phenomenon, known as stereotype threat adds a cognitive burden that can lead to underperformance [3, 4]. In school settings stereotype threat tends to affect minorities as well as women in math and science but, more broadly, it can affect anyone (including white men doing math while being compared to Asian students [5]). Worse still, the process can build on itself recursively.

First, stereotype threat impairs performance; in turn, poor performance increases the threat, which then further depresses performance. This recursive pattern helps explain the downward trajectory in students’ grades over the course of the year. The goal, then, is to intervene early and interrupt this pattern. Geoffrey Cohen, also a co-author of the new research, has been able to do just that with African American middle school students [6, 7]. This new research, led by David Sherman, replicates Cohen’s findings with a population of Latino American students, a group that had received relatively little attention in stereotype threat research, despite its growing numbers. Using student diaries, the new research was also well positioned to provide insight into how the intervention affects students in their daily lives.

Sherman and his team ran separate field experiments in two middle schools, each of which had a substantial Latino American population integrated. One school had a substantial economic disparity between White and Latino American students. In both schools, the intervention improved core course grades (Science, Social Studies, English, and Math) among Latino American students by the end of the school year by an average of roughly 0.3 points (on a 4.33 scale), reducing the achievement gap by 20-30% (the intervention had no effect on the White students’ grades). The intervention also sharply reduced the downward performance trajectory. Moreover, students in one school were followed for two years after the intervention had been completed and its effect on their grades persisted, even as some students made the difficult transition from middle school to high school.

The Intervention

At each of the schools, the intervention was introduced early in the school year, when it had the best chance of interrupting the recursive cycle. The intervention itself was administered by teachers, as the researchers were careful to avoid presenting it as an intervention but rather as a regular part of school. Teachers remained unaware of the students’ randomly assigned condition by handing out sealed envelopes containing the materials.

Inside each envelope were instructions for a writing exercise**. All students were presented with a list of eleven values such as, “being creative,” “being with friends and family,” and, “being good at sports.” Half the students were in a control condition and were asked to write a few sentences about why some of the values that were not important to them might be important to someone else. The other half of students instead wrote about the values they considered most important and why. This sort of writing exercise is known as a self-affirmation. Although the name may evoke self-help, the effectiveness of the exercise has been replicated dozens of times since first introduced by Claude Steele in the 1980s [8, 9, 10]. Affirmations reduce physiological stress and make people more open to uncomfortable information about things like their health and their political beliefs [9].

As David Sherman put it, “When you look at what the students write, you see that they are generally not boosting their egos or self-aggrandizing. What they do is remind themselves about who they are, and what is important to them. They are reaffirming a narrative about themselves that they are okay people who have core values that will be with them through the ups and downs of school. And this helps the students see threatening events from a broader perspective, and these threats become less of a stressor and less disruptive of their academic motivation and efficacy.” [11]

In the second of the studies, in addition to the affirmation exercise, students in both conditions (affirmed and unaffirmed) also completed a series of surveys and took part in a writing exercise at six different time points. They wrote about their experiences with daily adversity (e.g., “Today I feel stressed out at school.”), identity threat (e.g., “Today in school, I am worried that other people might judge me based on my race.”), and their sense of academic fit (e.g., “Today, I really feel like I belong at [my school].”). Variants of these structured writing assignments were given throughout the year. With the cooperation of teachers and administrators, they were developed to be intelligible and impactful for the students at the specific schools.

How it’s working

Because Latino American students must contend with the threat of being negatively stereotyped, they are also likely to be particularly vigilant to this possibility. As Claude Steele recently put it, “When you feel under threat, you know that based on an identity you have, something bad could happen. You don’t know whether in fact it will happen. You don’t know precisely what could happen or when or where it could happen […] It’s like having a snake loose in the house. It’s a terrible feeling. When you are in this situation, most of your cognitive resources are devoted to vigilance.” While increased vigilance is a rational response to a potential threat, it also carries a cost. In addition to being cognitively taxing, which can impair performance, vigilance also narrows people’s focus. When in a state of vigilance, people tend to neglect long term goals in favor of attending to the present, and are more likely to see threats in ambiguous situations than they might otherwise be. The affirmation, then, may be effective because it helps threatened students take a step back and see things from a broader, and perhaps less vigilant, perspective.

One indication that this may be happening is that, when affirmed, Latino American students report seeing things from a more abstract perspective. In a survey, students are asked to answer questions that identify whether they are seeing things more abstractly or concretely. For example, ringing a doorbell can be seen concretely as “pushing a button,” or abstractly as “seeing if someone is home.” Latino American students in the affirmation condition saw significantly more of the items in an abstract way than those in the control condition (66% vs. 51%).

The students’ writing exercises provide additional evidence supporting this view. When unaffirmed Latino American students reported adversity, they were also more likely to report identity threat and poor academic fit. They were also more likely to see “adversity [as] a sign that the stereotype is in play and evidence that they do not belong. [2]” For affirmed Latino American students the relationship between the adversity and identity threat was absent. So even though all students may have been experiencing similar levels of daily adversity, for unaffirmed students experiences of adversity spilled over into their academic narrative, but it did not for those who were affirmed. It appears as though the affirmation changes the way Latino American students experience adversity. They are much less likely to interpret something going wrong as a sign that they don’t fit in or that the academic environment is hostile towards people with their identity.

Without the added psychological burden, students become better able to perform to their potential. As Cohen explains, “The intervention taps into what’s already there, alleviating underperformance. It obviously won’t teach kids to spell or offset the effects of harsh disadvantage. But under the right circumstances, when threat inhibits performance and infrastructure supports student growth, it will produce significant gains and these kinds of interventions may even synergize the effects of other reform efforts that don’t take into account the psychology of the student.”

By intervening early, it appears that it is possible to interrupt a self-reinforcing cycle of threat and underperformance, improving Latino American students’ grades and narrowing the achievement gap. The new research also illuminates the process by which the affirmation is having its effect: “Together,” the article’s authors explain, “these results paint a rich portrait of the psychology of identity threat and how affirmation works. Affirmation opens people up to a broader cognitive perspective, and it helps them to construct a less threatening narrative around adversity.” With the burden of identity threat diminished, Latino American students become less likely to interpret the adversity that all students inevitably encounter as potentially related to their ethnicity. Instead of seeing adversity as confirmation of their fears, they are able to take a step back and see their situation from a broader perspective. This not only improves their performance on the next test, but it interrupts a downward trajectory in performance and helps narrow the achievement gap.

These findings and interventions hold potential for not only minorities, but for any group that is operating under psychological threat, such as test anxious students [12] or women in advanced math [13]. Indeed, who may be experiencing underperformance due to threat or stress may vary substantially by context. It is not minorities who should benefit per se, but any student, regardless of race, who is underperforming due to threat or stress. Many questions remain to be addressed, both in terms of the psychology and the possibility of implementing such interventions on a larger scale, but this research offers a promising step towards effective, psychological interventions that can play an important role in reducing the achievement gap.

*Full disclosure: I am the eighth of these nine authors. I took part in the grant writing process and helped to write and edit the article, but I was not involved in administering the intervention, or in data collection and analysis.

**There were three different versions of the affirmation exercise that took place over the course of the year; each is described fully in the article.


[1] Reardon, S. F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. Whither opportunity?: Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances, 91-116. Russell Sage Foundation Publications. Link to PDF

[2] Sherman, D. K., Hartson, K. A., Binning, K. R., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Taborsky-Barba, S., Tomassetti, S., Nussbaum, A. D., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 591-618. doi:10.1037/a0031495

[3] Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613–629. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.52.6.613

[4] Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115, 336–356. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.115.2.336

[5] Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When White men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29 – 46. doi: 10.1006/jesp.1998.1371

[6] Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307–1310. doi:10.1126/science.1128317

[7] Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324, 400–403. doi:10.1126/science.1170769

[8] Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261–302). New York, NY: Academic Press. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60229-4

[9] Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183–242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(06)38004-5

[10] Sherman, D. K., & Hartson, K. A. (2011). Reconciling Self-Protection with Self-Improvement. Handbook of self-enhancement and self-protection, 128-151. Guilford Press. Link to PDF

[11] Shnabel, N., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Demystifying Values-Affirmation Interventions Writing About Social Belonging Is a Key to Buffering Against Identity Threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/0146167213480816

[12] Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331(6014), 211-213. doi: 10.1126/science.1199427

[13] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L. E., Finkelstein, N. D., Pollock, S. J., Cohen, G. L., & Ito, T. A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. doi:10.1126/science.1195996

Image: Alex de Carvalho

Dave Nussbaum About the Author: Dave Nussbaum is a social psychologist and currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. His research includes work on rationalization processes and helping people to reduce their defensiveness. He writes for Capital Ideas and blogs about social psychology at Random Assignment. Follow on Twitter @davenuss79.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. jhayashi 6:10 pm 04/15/2013

    Sunny Hills Services also released a blog post today about closing the achievement gap by addressing emotional and mental health needs. Looks like we’re all on the same page!

    Link to this
  2. 2. sjfone 7:38 am 04/16/2013

    Perhaps if they just studied more.

    Link to this
  3. 3. bucketofsquid 1:56 pm 04/19/2013

    So what I get from this is that by disrupting negative confirmation bias, we break the self fulfilling prophecies of inadequacy. This affirmation process sound like a pretty cheap way to bolster our economy by providing a higher graduation rate and more confident entry level workers. The more confident in themselves people are, the more likely they will undertake starting a business which obviously builds the economy. I’m sure there are some cowardly racist scum out there somewhere who will hate this idea but they are un-American anyway so who cares what they think. Anyone with even a couple of functioning brain cells can see the huge benefit to this kind of intervention for all Americans and thus everyone in the world. People that have more money spend more money. That means more jobs as it increases demand.

    Link to this

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