Reading, Writing, and Self-Esteem

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Jon Han /

By almost every measure, Cupertino High School in northern California is a successful place. Perched in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cupertino sent 85 percent of its senior class to college in 2009, and hundreds of its students take advanced placement classes each year.

But some of Cupertino’s kids are doing better than others. On average, students there excel on California’s Academic Performance Index. The target is 800; Cupertino students scored 893. Latino students, however, who make up 10 percent of the school’s population, scored 780, just under the statewide goal.

Nationwide, the numbers are even more striking: 94 percent of white young adults have earned a high school degree by age 24, compared to only 87 percent of blacks and 78 percent of Latinos. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education review found that black fourth- and eighth-graders scored lower than their white counterparts on math and reading in every state for which data were available. Some of the differences can be explained by socioeconomic factors, faulty teaching, or broken school systems, but not all of them.

Recently, a group of social and cognitive psychologists have hypothesized that at least some academic disparities spring from toxic stereotypes that cause ethnic-minority and other students to question whether they belong in school and can do well there. While such a major problem might seem to require widespread social change, the psychologists are finding that quick classroom exercises that bolster students’ resistance to stereotypes can make a surprisingly large difference.

They’ve gotten dramatic results: In one of the best-known studies, low-performing black middle school students who completed several 15-minute classroom writing exercises raised their GPAs by nearly half a point over two years, compared with a control group.

A growing body of evidence also shows that the interventions can work, not only among black middle school students, but also for women, minority college students, and other populations.

“When this was first described to me, I was skeptical,” says physics professor Michael Dubson, who participated in one of the studies. “But now that I think about it, we all know that it’s possible to damage a student in 15 minutes. It’s easy to wreck someone’s self-esteem. 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,” which shows that when people who are about to take a test are reminded of negative stereotypes, they fear confirming those stereotypes, which saps their cognitive resources.

Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University wondered if there was a way to inoculate students against the effects of stereotype threat by buffering their sense of self-worth. He and his colleagues tested their theory at a suburban, low-to-middle-income middle school in Connecticut that was approximately half black and half white. At the beginning of the school year, about 400 seventh-graders spent 15 minutes doing a classroom writing exercise. Half were asked to pick a personal value, such as athletic ability or family relationships, and then write about why that value mattered to them. A control group wrote about why a value that didn’t matter to them might be important to someone else.

The researchers found that the short exercise reduced the achievement gap between the black and white students by up to 40 percent over one school term, and that it was particularly effective for low-achieving black students, halving the percentage who got a D or below in the class.

Cohen and his colleagues tracked the original group of students through the eighth grade. Amazingly, the effect lasted–the low-achieving black students who had completed the values-affirmation exercises raised their GPAs by four-tenths of a point (on a four-point scale) and were less likely to need to repeat a grade. The intervention didn’t have any effect on white or high-achieving black students.

What was going on? Cohen hypothesizes that the exercise started a self-reinforcing loop. It strengthened students psychologically at a crucial time, the beginning of the school year. By reminding them of something personal that mattered to them, it reduced their stress level and any worries that they might not measure up. As a result, they were able to do better on one critical first exam or homework assignment. Doing well early on boosted their resilience to stereotypes even more, leading to another successful test–and, perhaps, permanently changing their academic trajectory.

Researchers don’t yet know the precise cognitive mechanisms at work in the study, says psychologist Akira Miyake of the University of Colorado-Boulder, who has worked with Cohen on the research. But he hypothesizes that pushing down extraneous worries increases the amount of working memory available to concentrate on schoolwork.

Researchers have tested the model on female physics students, as well, since women in science face some of the same achievement gaps that blacks and Latinos face in the rest of academia. Miyake and psychologist Tiffany Ito, along with Cohen, had about 400 students in an introductory physics class at the University of Colorado-Boulder complete a personal-­value writing exercise similar to the one used in the Connecticut middle school study. The college physics students did the exercise twice, once during the first week of the semester and once right before the first exam.

The women who completed the self-affirmation exercise did significantly better in the class: Among the control group, about 60 percent of the women earned C’s and less than 30 percent earned B’s. In the self-affirmation group, as many women earned B’s as earned C’s. The exercise didn’t affect men’s grades in the class.

Dubson, the professor who taught the class and who was initially skeptical about the intervention, was blown away by the results. “Holy mackerel,” he says. “I can’t think of anything else that you could do in 30 minutes that would have a measurable effect on exam scores.”

Other brief interventions have also shown promise for reducing achievement gaps. In one recent study, Stanford psychology professor Gregory Walton, with Cohen, found that boosting a sense of belonging among black college freshmen could improve the students’ grades all the way through their senior year. In the study, Walton and Cohen asked 90 black and white college freshmen to read vignettes, purportedly written by older students, describing how school was difficult at first but how eventually they found their social and academic niche. Then the participants had to write essays about what they had just read. A control group read vignettes unrelated to social belonging.

The goal was to change students’ attitudes about their sense of fitting in, and to subtly let them know that their “fish out of water” worries were common to all students, and not a sign that they weren’t meant for college. It worked. Over the next three years, the black students in the treatment group earned GPAs nearly one-third of a point higher, on average, than those in the control group–roughly halving the black-white achievement gap.

If these interventions become more common, and students start to recognize them, will they still work? Some evidence suggests they won’t, at least not as well. In one study, Cohen and University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist David Sherman found that a self-affirmation exercise wasn’t as effective when they told the participants that the goal was to boost self-worth.

And what about delivering the interventions? Teachers must employ subtlety, explaining the writing exercises without giving away the real purpose. Could teachers be trained to do that effectively on a large scale?

Stanford graduate student Dave Paunesku is working on the delivery issue by developing online versions of the interventions. He aims to test the program in at least 50 schools in 2012 and has already begun testing in Cupertino High School.

Psychologists know that their research by itself won’t solve the achievement gap. “It’s important to understand that this is not a silver bullet,” says Walton. “If you delivered a great [psychological] intervention but the teaching was terrible, the intervention would have no effect.”

But in the right places, under the right circumstances, these interventions might just make a difference in students’ lives.

Lea Winerman is a writer based in Alexandria, Virginia. Excerpted from Monitor on Psychology(Sept. 2011), the magazine of the American Psychological Association. Copyright © 2011 by the American Psychological Association. Adapted with permission.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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