One of the big puzzles for education researchers is why students of comparable talents fall into a "racial achievement gap." On average, white students outperform black students when it comes to grades in college classes - even when the students are equally capable. Now psychologists have discovered a simple exercise that closes the gap, boosting the grades of minority students quite dramatically.
It turns out that the key is intervening during the students' freshman year with a simple, hour-long activity - and a video camera.
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The goal of the activity is to help students learn about how difficult it is for people to adjust to life in college. Friends and teachers can sometimes seem hostile, and the school environment bewildering. Psychology researcher Greg Walton said:
Being a member of a minority group can make those events have a larger meaning. When your group is in the minority, being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don't belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn't belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well.
Walton and his colleagues conducted an experiment with two groups of college freshmen. Both groups were comprised of 50 percent black students, and 50% white. The experimental group read a set of essays by older college students of various racial backgrounds talking about how hard it was to adjust to college life, but that it got easier as time went on. To help students internalize the message of the essays, the researchers asked them to relate what they'd read to their own lives in a video presentation. The control group read essays on random topics. Both groups were not told the true purpose of the exercise - they were simply told the researchers wanted to "gather information about college life."
The results were surprisingly noticeable. According to researchers:
The grade point averages of black students who participated in the exercise went up by almost a third of a grade between their sophomore and senior years. And 22 percent of those students landed in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, while only about 5 percent of black students who didn't participate in the exercise did that well. At the same time, half of the black test subjects who didn't take part in the exercise were in the bottom 25 percent of their class. Only 33 percent of black students who went through the exercise did that poorly.
The study echoes other research that's been done on "stereotype priming," where, for example, women score better on math tests when they are told beforehand that they're likely to perform just as well as men do (and perform worse when told the opposite). It seems that even though we internalize a lot of negative stereotypes about ourselves, the damage can be undone with a few simple exercises. Before students can learn, they need to feel confident. And that's what Walton's experiment managed to do.