Among the various theories about why the achievement gap between African-American students and white students is the belief of lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” Cohen and others set out to decrease that gap with a fifteen-minute writing activity. Grace Rubenstein, writer for Edutopia on their website, reports in the article “Overcoming Underachievement: Separating Fact From Fiction” that the results were quite surprising to the researchers.
Students from a 50% African American student population of mostly middle or lower middle class families from a middle school with a dedicated staff, adequate resources, and academically prepared students were the subjects of this research. Despite these advantages, a persistent gap remained. Researchers sought to find out what the intangible element is that made higher achievement elusive for minority students. Half of the participants were asked to write about one attribute—from a list that included their relationships with friends and being good at art—that they valued. The other half of the randomly chosen participants write about things on the list that mattered the least to them and why they might be important to someone else.
The results? African American students who wrote the affirming essay (the first group) earned final term grades that were an average 0.26 points higher than their African American classmates. To ensure that this was not a fluke, the researchers tried this experiment again the next year with a different group of students. This time, their averages were 0.34 points higher than their African American peers. Cohen suggested, “the exercise changed their perception of bias at school and shifted how they interpret their academic successes and failures—steps that protected them from feeling discouraged and plunging further into the downward spiral.”