A Boost to Minority Achievement through Writing?

By Sean Cavanagh — April 20, 2009 2 min read
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What kinds of classroom lessons and activities can improve the confidence, and ultimately the performance of minority students? A new study suggests that a series of structured writing assignments can play a strong role.

According to a new research article published in the journal Science, African-American middle school students benefited academically and narrowed the achievement gap between them and their white peers, after being asked to produce written essays, which the authors describe as “self-affirmations.” The 7th graders studied were asked to reflect on important personal values, such a relationships with family or friends, their musical interests, and other topics.

The new study reports two years of results for those students, and follows up on a series of earlier, preliminary findings. The authors found that African-American students who participated in the study, particularly those who were in the lowest percentile of student performance, made gains in their grades after taking part in the writing exercises, compared to a control group. Overall, all the student groups taking part in the study saw their grades decline, which the authors describe as a common trend in middle school. But with the intervention, the decline became significantly less steep for African-Americans, easing the gap between them and their white peers, not just over one term, but throughout middle school. The study was a randomized field experiment, involving three different cohorts of students, ages 12 to 14.

I recently wrote about federal data on achievement gaps between black and white students in math, even among those who both report earning “A” grades in school. Why did the “self-affirmation” writing exercises appear to have an effect? The authors say that black students were particularly vulnerable to early failures, which sap their confidence, early in school.

“For them, early failure may have confirmed that the stereotype was in an indicator of their ability to thrive in school,” they explain in the paper. “By shoring up self-integrity at this time, the affirmation helped maintain their sense of adequacy, and interrupted the cycle in which early poor performance influenced later performance and psychological state.”

African American students experience must fight through anxiety over stereotypes that they will be low-performers, which in turn hurts their academic performance, according to the authors, who included Geoffrey L. Cohen of the University of Colorado. A well-timed intervention, even a very subtle one, can have an strong effect on minority students, the authors suggest.

Can readers—teachers, curriculum directors and others—who have tried different strategies to help struggling minority students attest to the truth of the researchers’ finding?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.