Geoffrey Cohen's latest research on "stereotype threat" finds that small interventions in a classroom can have big impacts.
gap in academic performance between academically at-risk minorities and
European American students has concerned educators, social scientists,
policymakers, parents and students themselves for decades now. It’s a troubling
fact that Latino Americans and African Americans, for example, earn lower
grades on average than their European American peers, and are much more likely
to drop out of high school.
sobering statistics, a bright spark has appeared in the form of research led by
Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Department
of Psychology, and David Sherman, a professor at the Department of Psychological
and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In an
article published online Feb. 11 by the Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, Cohen, Sherman and seven co-authors
reveal that a simple intervention made with middle-school Latino American
students can reduce the achievement gap significantly. What’s more, the
positive effect can persist over time.
The matter comes
down to overcoming the negative effects of “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon
that researchers have identified and documented over the last two decades. What
they have found — in numerous studies — is that the stress and uncertain sense
of belonging that can stem from being a member of a negatively stereotyped
group contributes substantially to poor academic performance of minority
students as compared with white students.
Cohen and his
colleagues have been looking for remedies to stereotype threat. In the first
study described in the forthcoming JPSP
article, the researchers devised well-timed “values-affirmation” classroom
assignments given to both Latino American and white students as a part of the
regular classroom curriculum. In one exercise, middle schoolers were given a
list of values, such as “being good at art,” “being religious” and “having a
sense of humor.” They were asked to pick the ones that were important to them
and write a few sentences describing why. In a second exercise, they reflected
in a more open-ended manner on things in their life that were important to
them, and in a third they were guided to write a brief essay describing how the
things they most consistently valued would be important to them in the coming
completed several structured reflection exercises in their class throughout the
year. The tasks were given at critical moments: the beginning of the
school year, prior to tests and near the holiday season, a period
of stress for many people with challenging home environments.
group was guided to write about values that were important to other people, but
not themselves, or about other neutral topics.
The results were
dramatic: Latino American students who completed the affirmation exercises had
higher grades than those in the control group. Moreover, the effects of the
affirmation intervention persisted for three years, remaining stable even as
students transitioned from middle school to high school. The task had no
significant effect on white students.
A second study
looked at whether affirmation interventions could lessen the persistent threat
to Latino Americans’ identity caused by the overt or subtle presence of racial
and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. Researchers administered values
affirmation tasks and assessed students’ perceptions of daily adversity,
identity threat, and feelings of academic fit several times over the school
year as reflected in diary entries, and again measured their grades.
completed by children “in vivo” in the classroom indicated that Latino American
students who had participated in the affirmation exercises were less likely to
see daily stress and adversity as threatening to their identity and sense of
belonging in school. They tended to be more philosophical about challenges they
were experiencing, and were less likely to have their feelings of academic fit
and motivation undermined. Once again, their grades were also consistently
higher than those who did not participate in the affirmation assignments.
exercises provide adolescents from minority groups with a psychological ‘time
out,’” said Cohen, who led the study with researchers from the University of
California, Santa Barbara; Columbia University; the University of Colorado; and
the University of Chicago. In the midst of what for many minorities can feel
like a hostile environment, such tasks provide reassurance about who they are
and what’s really important in life at a critical time when they are engaged in
identity crafting, he said.
As to why the
interventions affected minorities but not white students, Cohen said, “Latino
Americans are under a more consistent and chronic sense of psychological threat
in the educational setting than their white counterparts on average. They
constantly face negative stereotypes about their ability to succeed, so they
are the ones to benefit the most from affirmations that help them to maintain a
positive self-image.” Such affirmations not only help students feel more
confident, but also allow them to reframe adversity and challenges as temporary
phenomena rather than looming signs that they somehow don’t belong –– or worse,
that they are fulfilling negative stereotypes about their inferiority.
The studies also
underscore that underperformance is frequently not a function of individual
inadequacy, but rather systemic failure. “A threatening environment can make
smart kids less likely to show what they know, whereas a positive environment
might pull out qualities that make the seemingly average student shine,”
represents the latest advance in decades-long work on minority student
achievement pioneered by a group of researchers across the country, most
notably Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Claude Steele, whose book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How
Stereotypes Affect Us, chronicles the discovery and explanation of
stereotype threat. Working in this arena for the past 10 years, Cohen, often in
collaboration with others such as Steele and Stanford psychology professor Greg
Walton, has used the critical insights from the previous research, identifying
the pernicious effect of stereotype threat to explore what types of measures
could reduce its effects and close the achievement gap among minorities and
other marginalized groups.
particular study, we also add the insight that interventions can have
significant positive long-term effects,” Cohen said.
As to the
implications of the study for pedagogy, Cohen noted that such interventions in
fact echo what great teachers do all the time: continually affirm children.
“Clearly, small gestures of affirmation can have lasting consequences,
especially when they are woven into the student’s daily experience,” he said.
Teacher training, then, should include more formalization of such practices so
that teachers who are not necessarily naturally inclined in this direction can
draw upon them as part of their toolkit, he added.
cautioned that such interventions are not a magic bullet. “Psychological threat might not contribute
to a group’s performance in some schools, in which case affirmations shouldn’t
have much effect,” he said.
“There are also family
and neighborhood factors to always be aware of. At the school level you
need committed teachers, and a solid curriculum. But when these factors
are in place, when opportunities for growth are there, psychological
interventions like these can help students seize the opportunities and change
their lives for the better,” he concluded.
In addition to
Cohen, the other authors of the paper include David K. Sherman, Kimberly A.
Hartson and Kevin R. Binning of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Valerie
Purdie-Vaughns of Columbia University; Julio Garcia, Suzanne Taborsky-Barba and
Sarah Tomassetti of the University of Colorado; and A. David Nussbaum of the University
of Chicago. The research has been funded by the National Science Foundation
(Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering division;
Social Psychology division), Spencer Foundation and the University of
California All-Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity.
Marguerite Rigoglioso writes frequently
for the Stanford Graduate School of Education.