SAN FRANCISCO, July 4 (Xinhua) -- A new study targeting two ethnic groups of students in the United States indicates that leveraging self-affirmation intervention with existing institutional channels can lead to academic success.
Detailed in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study focused on a group of middle school Latino students living in the Mountain West, a sub-region of the Western United States, and another group of African American students living in the U.S. Northeast.
The African American students completed writing a series of self-affirmation exercises in the seventh grade while the Latino students were given the exercises in the sixth, seventh or eighth grades. They chose two to three core values that were personally important such as relationships, creativity or humor, and wrote a few sentences about why they were important.
The exercises took place during stressful times over the course of a single year in middle school, including at the beginning of the school year and right before exams. Students in the control group did a neutral writing assignment.
The researchers then tracked the African American students through college enrollment and Latinos through high school enrollment, using official school records.
For Latinos, long-term follow-ups revealed that they took more challenging courses, such as a college readiness elective. They were also less likely to be placed in remediation. African Americans were more likely to enroll in college seven to nine years later, including in relatively more selective colleges.
"Once students feel affirmed, a whole series of forces in the environment exist to help propel them forward: teachers noticing their potential more, giving them more challenging work, directing them to advanced courses," J. Parker Goyer, the study's lead author and post-doctoral scholar at Stanford University said in a news release.
"The effects can be powerful, but the intervention itself plays a subtle role as an initiator of this larger process."
Previous work has found that social-psychological interventions, such as self-affirmation, can improve academic performance in so-called vulnerable groups in the United States.
The interventions tend to have the biggest effect when people face a looming stressor, such as an upcoming exam, or find themselves at a more broadly stressful transition, as many early adolescents do.
They can also help minority students cope with the threat of negative stereotypes in school. Earlier research by Stanford faculty has shown that such stress over being seen or treated as intellectually limited, the new study states, "may drain cognitive resources that could otherwise be expended on learning."
This stress can lead to lower grades, which breed more stress, setting off a cycle that can be difficult to escape.
Goyer said the team's recent work illustrates how interventions can trigger powerful long-term effects, and the students who begin to perform better are poised to take advantage of resources and opportunities their schools already provide, including supportive teachers, advanced courses and college preparation electives.
And a primary reason the intervention succeeded is because it was given in middle school, which is the first time student performance determines educational tracks.
The tracks can also be psychological. Teachers may see students who happen to perform well early on as having more potential, and give more encouragement and attention to such students.
"The tracks we don't see -- the way we are categorized in the minds of others -- can affect us too," said Geoffrey Cohen, the study's senior author and a professor of education and psychology at Stanford.
Noting that academic success depends on much more than just affirmation, including attentive teachers and access to advanced courses, the authors caution that applying similar interventions in every school is imprudent, as this writing exercise was specifically designed for students feeling under threat because of stereotypes; and how they would fare at schools with varying levels of infrastructure and resources is unknown.