Racial Stereotypes Affect School Achievement

Classroom Chairs 2 by James SarmientoYesterday, I wrote about the impact of sleep problems on school achievement. Performance stress can also interfere with test results. Some researchers have theorized that minority students may be doubly impacted by this kind of anxiety; they worry about their performance, but experience the added stress that if they don’t do well, they may confirm racial stereotypes about their abilities. Way back in 1995, Steele and Aronson studied test performance of African American students, and found that concern about reinforcing racial stereotypes increased their fear of failure and reduced their test scores. In the April 2009 issue of Science, Geoffrey Cohen and his colleagues investigated the impact of a simple intervention meant to close the minority achievement gap.

Cohen and his colleagues thought that a self-affirmation exercise, which has been found to reduce stress, might be helpful for African American students. They asked students in a suburban middle school to write about a value that was important to them. In a recent episode of the Science podcast, Cohen described the activity:

… they’re asked to pick the value that’s most important to them.  For example: relationships with friends and family, creativity, their interest in music and sports … this exercise essentially gives kids the chance to say, “This is what I believe in, and this is what makes me a good person.”  It takes the sting out of potential failure, so I feel like ‘Even if I do poorly here on this test, or in school, I’m still fundamentally a good person’ – it sort of anchors my sense of self-integrity – not as concerned with the specific outcome of a performance test.

The students completed the exercise between three and five times over the course of a year. For the lowest achieving African American students, the researchers found that this simple intervention was linked to an increase of about half a grade point in their overall GPA compared to students who completed a different writing exercise. Better yet, the effect persisted for up to 2 years! The students were also less likely to be placed in remedial groups or to be held back a grade. The effect was strongest for low-achieving African Americans.

So a 15-minute intervention, repeated 3 to 5 times per year, can have a major impact on school performance. Cohen believes that academic achievement is, to some extent, self-perpetuating. That is, if you experience failure, it has a psychological impact that makes it more likely that you’ll fail next time. The self-affirmation intervention might interrupt this negative spiral, and have a positive impact that is “compounded over time.”

You can read Steele and Aronson’s study of “stereotype vulnerability” here. Cohen’s study, along with a link to the podcast and its transcript, is here.

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