Thursday, 16 April 2009

Simple psychological intervention boosts school performance of ethnic minority students

Fear of failure at school can be crippling, especially for ethnic minority students. Research shows it's all too common for them to fear that their own poor performance will reinforce negative stereotypes. Unfortunately this anxiety only serves to undermine their achievement, thus perpetuating the cycle. Now Geoff Cohen and colleagues have shown a simple psychological intervention based on self-affirmation can help prevent this downward spiral, leading to academic benefits up to two years' later.

The intervention involved twelve-year-old students at an American school choosing one or more values, such as relationships with friends or family, music, art, politics, and so on, and then spending 10 minutes writing about why those values were important to them. Doing this has been shown in past research to reduce stress and to bolster people's ability to withstand the threat of failure.

Students in the intervention group did this three to five times over the course of a year. To test whether the intervention needs boosting, half of these students subsequently repeated the intervention two to four times over a second yearly period, whilst the other half did not.

For African American students, completing this intervention had a beneficial effect on their academic grades both early on in the study and at the end of the two-year period (a boost of approximately half a grade), compared with students who completed a neutral control intervention, which required them to write about their morning routine. Students completing the intervention were also less likely to be put into a remediation class for poorly performing students.

African American students who were lower performers at the study start showed greater benefit from the intervention, thus supporting the researchers' contention that the intervention works by putting the brakes on a negative cycle.

Moreover, the African American students who received the intervention in just the first year showed just as much benefit two years on as did those students who carried on receiving the intervention throughout the study. This shows that the effect of the intervention is long-lasting and does not need to be boosted over time. European American students, in the majority at the school, did not benefit from the intervention, regardless of their initial academic performance.

"The findings demonstrate how initial psychological processes, triggered by an apparently subtle intervention, can have psychological and pragmatic effects that perpetuate themselves over extended time spans," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgGeoffrey Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, & Patricia Brzustoski (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1170769

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


tintinsnowy said...

Very interesting. This seems to indicate that even small efforts at reaching out can pay large dividends down the road. I have to say, though, that one sentence in your article tested my credulity. I'm sure you know the one:

"European American students, in the majority at the school, did not benefit from the intervention, regardless of their initial academic performance."

That one sentence screams for an article all its own. "Why is that?" "That can't be true!" More information about that would be really helpful. Thanks.

Clifford Young

Nestor L. Lopez-Duran said...

Interesting study! Concerning Clifford Young's comment about why the European American students did not benefit from the intervention, much has been written about this phenomenon. In this particular case, the 'affirmation' intervention was designed to reduce "psychological threat and stress" which is experienced by ethnic minority students. Specifically the authors stated "The intervention should benefit students from groups subjected to threat pervasive enough to undermine their average performance—in this case, negatively stereotyped minority students."

It is then not surprising that an intervention designed to reduce this perceived threat would not be effective among children not experiencing such threat. Of course, the results would be expected to be different if conducted in a different type of school or community.

Cheers, Nestor.

Susana Gallardo said...

Fascinating. Thanks for reporting on this research. And thanks for the excellent response above, Nestor!


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