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Task to Aid Self-Esteem Lifts Grades for Some

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

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Some seventh graders who were struggling in class did significantly better after performing a series of brief confidence-building writing exercises, and the improvements continued through eighth grade, researchers reported Thursday.

The students who benefited most were blacks who were doing poorly, the study found; the exercises made no difference for white students, or for black ones who were already doing well.

Experts cautioned that the writing was hardly transforming. Those who benefited were still barely getting C’s, on average, by the end of middle school.

Yet the results were surprising, because interventions to improve school performance tend to have short-term benefits, and the writing assignments were simple 15-minute efforts.

By the end of eighth grade, the students who benefited had nearly a half-point higher grade point average than struggling peers who completed a different writing exercise. The study was published in the journal Science.

“A difference of a third or more on G.P.A. is a large effect, and what’s surprising is that there was apparently no fadeout of the effect,” said Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research. “Fadeout is the coin of the realm in school intervention studies.”

The researchers, led by Geoffrey L. Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado, had seventh graders in suburban Connecticut schools do the assignment three to five times through that school year. It asked them to choose from a list values that were most important to them — including athletic ability, sense of humor, creativity and being smart — and to write why those values were so important. The students were randomly assigned, within classes, to do the exercise or a control assignment that was not focused on their values.

In previous studies, researchers had found that such exercises reduced stress and the fear of failure in some students. By the end of eighth grade, among black students who were struggling, those who had expressed in writing their most important values had an average G.P.A. that was 0.4 points higher than those who had not.

“The idea is that a bad experience early in school can have lasting effects, and that if we can do something in that crucial window, it could alter the student’s trajectory slightly and change the arc of their experience over time,” Dr. Cohen said.

The assignment, he said, reminded students that their entire self-worth was not riding on a single test result.

Dr. Cohen’s co-authors were Julio Garcia of Colorado; Valerie Purdie-Vaughns of Columbia University; and Nancy Apfel and Patricia Brzustoski of Yale.

The authors found, too, that those who benefited from the exercises felt more adequate as students on average than those struggling peers who did the control assignment. One reason black students benefited more than whites may be that they have more anxiety over academic performance because of racial stereotypes, the authors suggest.

The writing exercise did not mention race, but previous research has found that reminding minorities of stereotypes can worsen their performance on a variety of tests.

“But there’s no reason to think that it couldn’t benefit kids who are highly anxious about tests, of any race,” Dr. Cohen said. “We haven’t looked at that yet.”

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