Racial Achievement Gap Dramatically Altered with Affirmation Exercise

For minority students, simply completing a writing assignment designed to affirm a positive identity and sense of “self integrity” near the beginning of the school year raised their school performance and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40 percent, according to a study published in Science September 1.

Geoffrey Cohen, one of the two principal investigators who conducted the research first as an associate professor in Yale’s Department of Psychology, is now an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he continues this research. He said that school settings can be stressful to all students, but that African American students experience an extra “threat” due to the negative stereotypes about the intelligence of their race.

“People subjected to widely known negative stereotypes impugning the intelligence of their group are aware of these negative characterizations and may worry that performing poorly could confirm the stereotype of their group,” said Julio Garcia, associate research scientist in the Psychology Department at Yale.

The randomized, double-blind study, replicated a year later with the same results, was conducted at the beginning of the fall academic term at a suburban middle school in the Northeast. The student body was divided almost evenly between African Americans and European Americans. The participants were 119 African American and 124 European American seventh grade students from middle to lower-middle class families. The affirmation exercise targeted the same academic subject for both groups.

The students did a 15-minute writing exercise for which they were given a list of values, such as relationships with friends or family or being good at art. One group of students was randomly assigned to the treatment condition. They were asked to choose their most important value and explain its importance, thus affirming their sense of self-integrity. The control group was asked to write about their least important value.

At the end of the term the students’ grades were evaluated and African American students who had written about values important to them earned higher grades in the course, closing the race gap between them and their European American peers by 40 percent. The percentage of African American students receiving grades of D and F fell from 20 percent in the control condition to nine percent in the treatment condition. No effect was seen, up or down, among the European American students.

“Unlike other interventions, it benefits the targeted students, including those most at risk, reducing group-based inequality while not adversely affecting non-targeted students,” Cohen said. “This research highlights the importance of situational threats linked to group identity in understanding intellectual achievement in real-world, chronically evaluative settings.”

The principal investigators also point out that although their findings are important, their intervention should not be viewed as the “silver bullet” that will wipe out the achievement gap. However, it could become another important factor in boosting minority academic achievement.

The other co-authors include the research project director Nancy Apfel of Yale and research assistant Allison Master, now at Stanford University.

The study was funded with grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation of Quincy, MA and the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University.

Science Vol. 313, No. 5791: (September 1, 2006)

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326