The achievement gap between black and white students has frustrated educators and policymakers alike for decades. Although the number of black students at American colleges has reached an all-time high, less than half of those students are expected to make it to graduation. Stanford psychologists Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen believe one way to help close the gap is to change the way students think about school.
In a recently published paper in Science, they explain how an intervention lasting only one hour boosted the grades of minority students over three years and cut the racial achievement gap in half.
The intervention itself was simple. A group of black and white college freshmen at a U.S. campus were brought together for a discussion about college life. These freshmen read essays written by both black and white senior students at the school. In the essays, the seniors wrote about the types of problems they faced when they first got to campus, such as getting snubbed by a professor or feeling lonely. Importantly, their essays emphasized how these problems tended to get better over time. After reading these essays, the freshmen wrote their own essays about how difficulties adjusting to college are normal and temporary. The entire exercise took only one hour.
For the next three years Walton and Cohen tracked the performance of this group of students, along with another group who had not received the intervention. The intervention had no effect on white students. However, the black students who participated ended up earning much higher grades compared to their peers of the same race. About 22 percent of them made it into the top quarter of their graduating class, compared to only 5 percent of the black students who had not participated. Overall, the intervention reduced the gap between white and black students by a staggering 52 percent.
Meanwhile, half the black students who didn’t receive the intervention finished in the bottom 25 percent of their class, while only 33 percent of the black students who received it finished in the bottom quarter. Not only that, the black students who received the intervention reported feeling happier about their lives and having fewer health problems than their peers.
While it might seem like magic, the intervention’s outsize success is less surprising as you learn the psychology behind it. Black students are largely outnumbered on most U.S. college campuses. These small numbers, combined with negative stereotypes, can leave them feeling isolated and uncertain of themselves. The same goes for other groups who have historically faced prejudice and discrimination, such as Latinos and women in math and engineering.
“Everyone worries at first about whether they belong,” says Walton, “but for students from groups that have been negatively stereotyped, their worries are more pervasive.” Walton and Cohen’s intervention helps assure these students that they do, in fact, belong in college.
To figure out exactly how the intervention helps, Walton and Cohen had the students keep a diary for a week. These diaries showed that the intervention changed how students thought about stressful situations, such as receiving a poor grade or not being invited to a party. Instead of taking such events personally, the students were able to brush them off and keep going.
“What the intervention does is provide people with an alternative interpretation to negative events,” Walton explains. “It changes their perspective, so when their friends don’t invite them somewhere, they don’t take it to mean that they don’t belong in general.” Walton and Cohen also found that the students receiving the intervention were more likely to take risks that lead to personal growth, such as seeking out new friendships.
Other research confirms that brief psychological interventions can dramatically improve student performance. For example, a different study led by Cohen randomly assigned half the members of a seventh-grade class to spend 15 minutes writing an essay about a value that’s important to them. Writing the essay had no effect on the grades of white students, but it significantly improved the grades of the black students over the course of a semester.
Cohen refers to the essay-writing task as a “self-affirmation” exercise, and it’s thought to work by increasing feelings of self-worth. Greater feelings of self-worth lead students (and others) to work harder and pay less attention to setbacks.
While critics might say that these interventions gloss over other important causes of the racial achievement gap, Walton and Cohen fully acknowledge that their research offers no quick fixes.
“It’s really important to understand the complicated sources that contribute to inequality,” says Walton. “For example, if you go to a school where the teachers are less qualified, you’ll be less prepared academically. Minority students tend to have more of those experiences.”
While addressing problems in the educational system remains important, Walton believes that we should also address the psychological reasons that minority students perform poorly. He believes that removing psychological barriers may increase the likelihood that traditional solutions, such as improving curriculum, will yield positive results.
But before schools start applying these interventions more widely, there are a few issues they should consider. First, timing is very important. The intervention is most likely to work when it is given at the beginning of the academic year, before students experience the negative events that cause them to question themselves.
Second, the intervention needs to be subtle. If it’s delivered in a way that’s too obvious, minority students may feel like they are being singled out because of their race. And finally, researchers and school administrators need to work side by side in making sure the intervention is delivered effectively. For example, if students are simply told that problems adjusting to college are temporary, they may not really believe it. Instead of telling students this, Walton and Cohen had the students write essays about why this message is true. This encouraged them to adopt the message as their own.
Aside from informing educational policy, Walton and Cohen’s research offers another important insight: it challenges the common belief that academic performance reflects stable, underlying abilities. In other words, their research raises important questions about whether grades and test scores accurately reflect people’s abilities, given that both tend to underestimate the full potential of minority students.
As Walton points out, “We sometimes have this assumption that intellectual success is fixed and says something deep or true about somebody, for example, thinking that your SAT is diagnostic of your ability. This research shows how much people’s performance can vary due to subtle, psychological manipulations.”