Cognitive Daily

[This article was originally posted in February, 2007]

ResearchBlogging.orgThe setting was an integrated suburban middle school: nearly evenly divided between black and white students. As is the case in many schools, white students outperformed black students both in grades and test scores. But how much of this difference is attributable to real differences in ability? After all, black kids grow up “knowing” that white kids do better in school. Perhaps this was just an example of kids living down to expectations.


At every performance level, this chart (adjusted for covariates) shows that black students who completed the 15-minute affirmation exercise got better grades than students who did not (control). Interestingly, there was no similar effect for white students, suggesting that the effect of the exercise may have been to remove the handicapping of those students due to racial stereotyping. Even this short intervention asking students to reflect on their personal values appears to cause a significant effect.

How significant? 70 percent of African American students benefited from the intervention. The chances of this effect occurring due solely to chance are less than 1 in 5,000. But why would the effect of such a short exercise be so dramatic? The authors speculate that the benefits are cumulative: when students faced challenges shortly after they participated in the exercise, those who had reflected on their values performed slightly better. This gave them the confidence they needed to do better the next time a challenge was faced. Each successive success prepared students to face future challenges; in the end, this all added up to better performance.

In the second year of the study, the researchers kept more frequent tabs on students, checking grades ten times over the course of the year. They found that students who had affirmed their values did indeed rebound more quickly from setbacks and avoided the downward spiral that students in the control condition often fell into.

Does this study demonstrate that only small interventions are necessary to solve the racial disparity in educational achievement? No. Many black students are in districts that receive less funding than white students, or have parents with less education than white students. For these kids, much more is required than a quick exercise. And these results don’t appear to be as effective for the lowest-performing students in this group. But when other factors are equal, it may not take much to eliminate entirely the effects of racial stereotyping for many children.

For more on stereotype threat, see here, here, and here.

G. L. Cohen (2006). Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention Science, 313 (5791), 1307-1310 DOI: 10.1126/science.1128317


  1. #1 mary dreyer
    December 29, 2008

    This is off top8c, but I can’t find a relevant email address. So: I’m on a winter break and have several projects lined up. They include listening to tapes of a Spanish newsmagazine to improve my Spanish comprehension. This will be very challenging for me since I only know a little spanish, but I want to stop being a permenant beginner, dependent on the kindness of strangers… I also want to start to paint. I have been drawing seriously in my spare time since last summer and it takes so long and then, it’s just pencil. Even colored pencil doesn’t have the intensity, and nothing does if it takes hours. So these are two tasks that presumably draw on completely different cognitive resources. It would not occur to me to try to do both at once. Am I mistaken? Would my brain switch between tasks? How much depends on the relative easiness of the tasks? (Both take a lot of focus at this point.) Are they really totally different tasks– what aspects do they have in common, and what different? This is not really like the cellphone while driving scenario, because both of those at least seem to tasks we can do with some automaticity, even though they obviously take attention. What would a fMRI look like? Would I remember the Spanish ‘sort of’ and in spots, like I remember the news that wakes me up on my radio but I keep dozing for 20 minutes? Is it easier to multitask if the tasks are similar or different?

  2. #2 thisdude415
    December 29, 2008

    I find that for me, passively listening to Spanish has helped me (though not as much) as very active listening. I like the BBC’s “Mundo Hoy” Program, as it includes many different accents. Anyway, when I have time, i try to listen multiple times… once or twice while I’m doing something else, then again very intently, with rewinding and pausing to look up words, then again to see if I can understand the whole thing. Typically, it works pretty well, and usually I feel pretty good knowing that I just understood a significant chunk of news in Spanish.

    I would suggest that you NOT try to translate to English in your head. Just listen and try to visualize what the speaker is talking about; don’t listen concurrently to your mental English voice say the news.

  3. #3 roog
    December 29, 2008

    This is why there are no permanent structures to speak of in subsaharan africa, aside from those built by whites.

    Those nasty whites were keeping blacks in conditions of primitivism.

    It’s also completely our fault that they chop each other up with machetes at the drop of a hat.

  4. #4 Rebecca
    December 30, 2008

    As a future teacher who has student taught in a high-minority school, I find this study to be really interesting. It’s a shame that even today students don’t grow up seeing themselves as equal to their peers. I hope I can create a completely integrated classroom when I start full-time in 2009.

  5. #5 Dan S.
    December 30, 2008

    This is why there are no permanent structures to speak of in subsaharan africa, aside from those built by whites.

    As the very first (but by no means the only) thing to leap to mind, see Great Zimbabwe (and note that it’s called ‘Great’ Zimbabwe to distinguish it “from the many hundred small [ruins], known as Zimbabwes, spread across the Zimbabwe highveld.” Of course, it was an article of faith (and cultural propaganda by the Rhodesian white minority government) that it simply couldn’t have been built by black people, despite the fact that professional archaeological research had made it quite clear, since the early 20thC., that this was indeed the case.


  6. #6 toby
    December 30, 2008

    “This is why there are no permanent structures to speak of in subsaharan africa, aside from those built by whites.”

    roog also seems ignorant of the beautiful Swahili-speaking trading cities on the East African coast like Kilwa and Mombasa.

    Sub-saharan Africa had many fine and resilient social structures suitable for agricultural peoples. However, you can learn their fate from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs & Steel”.

    African leaders are not blameless in the current situation. But the region has never recovered from the ravages of Arab slave-traders and white land-grabbing colonialists.

  7. #7 Tony Jeremiah
    December 30, 2008

    It would be interesting to see if there’s an Obama effect, such that the school performance of African American kids rises significantly relative to the pre-Obama presidency. Such a study would probably require an assessment concerning individual differences in sentiments toward Obama (e.g., whether racial identity supersedes political or gender identity).

    @Mary: Check out Dave’s posting about task-switching.

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