Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students

By Ed Yong | April 16, 2009 2:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.

Blackschoolchildren.jpgWith so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.

In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.

Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.

Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.

The writing exercise worked. The black students who wrote about themselves achieved better grades than those who wrote about other people, while the white students were unaffected. The gap between the two ethnic groups was slashed by 40%. But benefits like this often decay over time, so Cohen wanted to see if his solution was a long-term one.

He revisited the students again and managed to reconvene with 93% of them (the rest had either moved or were ill). Over the next year, they did 2-3 booster versions of the original exercise. They wrote about a different value or delved more deeply into one they had named earlier. The control group simply described a part of their daily routine. In year two, only half of the students who wrote about themselves were given more booster exercises, while the others carried on as usual.

The results were very positive. After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

As before, only the black children benefited and the low-achievers most of all. Those in the bottom quarter of their classes raised their GPAs by 0.4 points. And while 18% of the control group were placed in remedial classes or held back a year, only 5% of those who did Cohen’s exercises were penalised in this way.

These figures support Cohen’s contention that the exercises break a cycle where doing badly confirms negative stereotypes, increases stress and leads to ever worsening performance. During the years of middle-school, all students tend to show a drop in performance, regardless of ethnic background. But Cohen found that black children who boosted their sense of integrity showed much shallower declines in GPA than their peers. Even the students who stopped attending booster sessions in the second year had the same advantage, which suggests that even a couple of sessions have long-term benefits.

The confidence-boosting effects of the exercises were made abundantly clear by a short survey, which showed that black students who wrote about others finished the school year with less confidence in themselves than those who reasserted their self-esteem. They felt more positively about their own abilities to fit in at school and to succeed academically, even if they had originally performed badly before Cohen came along.

However, for the control group, a bad early start dealt a lasting blow, and it led to feelings of inadequacy later on. This is exactly the type of psychological cycle that Cohen wants to break. He believes that by shoring up a student’s integrity in their early school career, even briefly and subtly, can provide them with psychological defences against any failures.

There’s good reason to be optimistic about Cohen’s work. It’s a very simple task that would be easy and cheap to roll out. It can narrow the gap in performance between black and white students, it has long-term benefits and works best for struggling students who need the most help. Best of all, it provides more evidence that the poor performance of black students is hardly a sign of lacking ability, but a social problem that can be addressed. One can only hope that solutions like these will be even more effective in a time when a black President provides a strong counterpoint to negative racial stereotypes. 

Reference: Science 10.1126/science.1170769

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Comments (24)

  1. Very interesting stuff!

  2. Dr. Kate

    I read about his original study when it first came out (in Science, I think), and I thought it was brilliant then. This is even better. If I ever do end up teaching, this type of exercise will be the first thing I do in my classroom at the beginning of each semester (or year).
    I wonder if he’s looked at girls vs. boys…

  3. This is impressive: that such a small thing can have such positive long-lasting results. I wonder what kind of impact more of that kind of thing might have.

  4. Nathan Myers

    There are troubling and obvious ethical problems exposed here. I wonder how it is they did not need to be addressed by the researcher.

  5. What do you mean, Nathan?

  6. JYB

    I’m a teacher and I’ve been using this exercise the last two years. I have no real way of telling if it makes a difference or not. I also use the growth mindset stuff from Dweck. We start the year learning about how the brain grows and makes new connections when you learn something.

  7. Nathan Myers

    Zach: They left the controls to languish year after year well after having strong indications that they were suffering for it.

  8. Why did the writing exercise only work on black students?
    How were the students divided into only white/black populations?
    Also, if I’m reading this studies results correctly, won’t a black president diminish the effects of this exercise (it only worked in blacks because they are a minority without positive role models; white students, who have positive role models, were unaffected?)

  9. Richard Simons

    After reading about the original report, I tried it with a group of young adult native Canadians. I did not read what they had written, but very few wrote more than about 4 lines and several wrote nothing even after prompting. How do you get people to actually write something down?

  10. David

    “Zach: They left the controls to languish year after year well after having strong indications that they were suffering for it.”
    *facepalm*
    Yes, clearly the students suffered because of writing a 15 minute essay about something important to someone else. Not because they were intended to be a control group representative of the students who did nothing in order to better gauge the benefits the essay gave to the experimental group.

  11. Ed Yong

    Nathan – surely this is just like any medical clinical trial? You set up the study knowing that some of your sample isn’t going to benefit from the “treatment” you’ve designed. It’s no less ethical to withhold potentially life-saving drugs from a placebo group. You need to first establish that what you’re doing works and, in this case, that it works in the long term.
    Zazayem – the exercise only worked on black students because white students don’t suffer from the same sort of “stereotype threat”. The exercise was designed to address the fact that fear of confirming a negative stereotype leads to anxiety that reduces performance and eventually *does* confirm a negative stereotype. White students aren’t subject to the same stereotype in the first place. The students don’t need to be physically separated – you just give the individuals different exercises.

  12. Nathan Myers

    Ed: Of course medical trials have similar ethical problems, compounded by dangers from ill-tested drugs and structurally bias. That these problems are familiar in no way reduces their implications, particularly as applied to children.

  13. 1) It’s unlikely that a one-time 15-minute exercise would achieve the maximum possible reduction in self-stereotyping, if that’s indeed the mechanism, so it would be worth testing stronger interventions based on the same hypothesis.
    2) The US also has huge differences in quality among schools, largely due to the bizarre practice of funding them with local property taxes, so eliminating within-school gaps in academic achievement is only part of the challenge.

  14. Always with the children. Why should studies involving children we be held to some higher ethical or moral standard? We’ll all the same species. The only differences are ontological and developmental.
    I’ve always despised “ethical” considerations that put people above other test animals. We’re all animals. Just because we can think about thinking about things doesn’t make us special.

  15. It occurs to me that in real life, the act of writing essays about things that matter to oneself is called “blogging”.

  16. MattK

    Medical trials can be ended early if the treatment provides a clear benefit and this becomes obvious early on in the study. The HPV vaccine Gardasil is one example where the trial was stopped so that that control group could receive the vaccination.

    It’s unlikely that a one-time 15-minute exercise would achieve the maximum possible reduction in self-stereotyping

    There were follow up “booster” exercises.

  17. Don’t most school kids get asked to write an essay like this sometime anyway? I mean, teachers have to keep coming up with different writing assignments and something like “write about something that is important to you” (or whatever, along these lines, they were actually asked to do) is a pretty obvious choice for a topic which might stand a chance of getting the students involved. If this effect is real, I think there must be more to the cause than has been made apparent.

  18. Isn’t is possible that merely the inclusion in the study – that knowing that someone cared enough about them to monitor their progress was enough to give them the boost? What about more people simply caring about children, rather than cramming their head full of useless nonsense so they can be good little consumers of either color or gender?
    Perhaps the problem isn’t with the students, but with the system that teaches them: And rather than seeking to modify the system to make it better we need to consider having a different system all together – when will we realize that some things just don’t work for people?

  19. I wonder if it works on children of different background as well. Still if a child is from poor family their self-estime is lower, they have lower grades and teachers don’t pay so much attention to them… May this 15-minute-long writing exercise be the solution?

  20. joel

    @Dominic Ebacher: “Isn’t is possible that merely the inclusion in the study – that knowing that someone cared enough about them to monitor their progress was enough to give them the boost?”
    That doesn’t account for the difference between the two groups writing the essays.

  21. TL

    Dumb question: “During the years of middle-school, all students tend to show a drop in performance, regardless of ethnic background” — I assume this refers simply to a drop in GPA, but does that really mean anything? e.g. maybe middle schoolers are simply graded more harshly, or maybe the curriculum is more difficult, or whatever … is there actually a meaningful way to compare student “performance” across different ages?

  22. DrNHMc, Edu

    Unfortunately, issues relative to academic gaps, student self-esteem, education value and the stereotypical attitudes some teachers have about urban/public school student performance are also grounded in literacy, math, and science student performance—not just writing.

    The 15-minute write is a very good brain start-up tool for children of all grades and races and certainly not a Black student vs. White student fix-it. I have used it. Raising the bar with students doing more in depth writing and having our Black President are not the only solutions as this article suggests.

    It’s hard for me think about academic improvement soley for Blacks when US urban & public schools (which people of color and whites attend) are unequal in so many capacities—books, computer access, quality teachers, curriculum, student expectations, district grade cards, sociocultural backgrounds, education values…and so on and so on.

    We should be advocates for equal education for all children…

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