April is the time when students across the nation are being diligently prepped for the dread exams mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. The fate of thousands of public schools turns on how well their charges do. Now there’s a study that appears to show that a simple one-hour exercise can halve the racial achievement gap, while also making minority students healthier and happier. Although this claim sounds as preposterous as a pitch for a potion to cure baldness or to erase wrinkles, it’s made in a recent issue of the journal Science.
The researchers, psychologists Geoffrey L. Cohen and Gregory M. Walton, don’t claim that their intervention is a miracle cure for the problem of 17-year-old black and Latino students whose average reading and math skills are comparable to13-year-old white students. But their experiment — one of numerous scholarly studies examining the relationship between self-esteem and achievement that have reached the same conclusion — confirms an important, if often ignored, fact: Success in school doesn’t necessarily result from ceaselessly drilling students to prep them for achievement tests. “Noncognitive” factors, such as students’ sense that they fit in and are capable of doing the work, profoundly affect what they learn. Whether they believe they have the brainpower and the social skills to make it in the achievement-oriented world of school can shape how well they actually do.
Though many youngsters lack self-confidence, the research shows that minority students are especially prone to the fear of failing. As early as kindergarten, nearly a quarter of African American boys — three times more than whites — are convinced that they lack the innate ability to succeed in school. There’s ample evidence that such fearfulness, which psychologists have labeled “stereotype vulnerability,” undermines their performance. These students do badly, their fears are confirmed, and the cycle repeats itself.
The experiment reported in Science tested whether this life script could be changed. College freshmen read the results of what they were told was a survey of upperclassmen, together with ostensible firsthand reports of navigating college life. The stories detailed how, at first, the juniors and seniors had felt snubbed by their fellow students and intimidated by their professors, but their situation had improved as they gained self-confidence. The freshmen were asked to write essays explaining how their own experiences dovetailed with those of the upperclassmen; they then crafted short speeches that were videotaped, supposedly to be shown to the next generation of undergraduates. The exercise took about an hour. Meanwhile, a control group was reading and writing about an unrelated topic.
This simple experience didn’t affect how well white students in the study performed academically; that’s not surprising, because whites aren’t hostage to stereotypes of inferiority. But it appeared to change the arc of the minority students’ college lives. Over the next three years their grade-point averages steadily rose, compared with the GPA’s of a similar group of black undergraduates: the control group who didn’t participate in the “social belonging” exercise. At graduation, their grades were a third of a point higher than the grades of the students in the control group; that’s the difference between a B+ and A- average. Twenty-two percent of the minority participants, but only 5% of the control group, were in the top quarter of their class; only a third of them, compared with half of the control group, wound up in the bottom quarter. What’s more, they were substantially less likely to have become sick, and more likely to report being happy, during their undergraduate years than the other minority students.
What’s the explanation? The researchers suggest that “the intervention robbed adversity of its symbolic meaning for African Americans, untethering their sense of belonging from daily hardship.” All these students had the usual ups and downs while at college, but the minority freshmen who wrote and spoke about overcoming adversity were better able to cope, apparently because they saw adversity as a transient phenomenon, not a life sentence.
In an earlier study of minority middle-school students, Walton demonstrated that an even less intense experience could work wonders. Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course. Only 3% failed the course for which they wrote the essay, compared with 11% of the control group. That’s critical because data show that students who fail classes in middle school are prime candidates to drop out before graduating.
Another experiment, this one carried out by psychologists Lisa Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski, focused on students who were predicted to do badly in middle-school math. A survey found that many of them believed their brains were fixed at birth. When they enrolled in a four-hour class about how “effortful learning” rewires the brain, they set higher goals for themselves, were more highly motivated and more likely to think that making an effort could pay off. A year later their math grades were higher than students who hadn’t learned about brain development.
Let’s be clear: These experiments don’t mean that schools and universities should stop trying to improve the quality of their teaching, relying instead on brain twisters and lessons in self-confidence. “The intervention is like turning on a light switch,” says Cohen. “It seems miraculous when the lights go on, but it all hinges on the infrastructure [the academic program] that’s already in place.”
Here’s what is probably happening: The writing exercises and the brain development classes altered students’ understanding of the possible. If they did better academically, their teachers observed the changes and responded positively. Over time, this self-reinforcing cycle of success replaced the old pattern of failure.
These days, school officials and education policymakers give short shrift to things like self-confidence and a sense of belonging. Instead they act like closet Cartesians, embracing the belief of 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes that thinking and feeling, mind and body, occupy different spheres. The test prep that’s happening now assumes that mental gymnastics are the way that students learn reading and math — or at least how their test scores can be jacked up. There are legitimate grounds for debate over how much importance should attach to the test results. But whatever side of that debate you’re on, the research findings invite a new appreciation of why “soft skills” powerfully affect success in school.
David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future.”