Close the Achievement Gap with One Simple Writing Exercise

17 Feb
Achievement gap in the United States

Image via Wikipedia

Did you know that, by as early as third grade, nearly 25% of African-American boys believe that they lack the innate ability to succeed in school?

While many policymakers blame the minority achievement gap on income disparities, public school inequity, and different extra-curricular learning opportunities (and rightly so), recent research suggests that one of the most important factors in student success is actually a factor that takes very little time and money to affect: the expectations that students have for themselves. Luckily, there is a simple one-hour lesson that can alter low expectations and prepare minority students for success.

The Lesson

Psychologists Geoffrey L. Cohen and Gregory M. Walton have invented a method to help students overcome their fear (and expectation) of failure. Here is what you do:

Step One: Have students read essays by minority students who have overcome academic challenges and succeeded as students (particularly ones that focus on feelings of “not belonging” in an academic situation, such an essay by a student who felt unprepared for AP classes because none of her friends family have ever taken one before, but who then learned to overcome that feeling of alienation). I would suggest asking former students of yours to pitch in and write these speeches for you.

Step Two: Ask students to spend 20 minutes writing their own short speeches to the next year’s freshman (or 7th-graders or seniors) detailing how their own experiences dovetail with those of the essays they just read.

Step Three: Videotape or record students presenting these speeches.

The Results

Here is how an article from the LA Times summarizes the results of the initial Walton and Cohen experiment, performed on a group of college freshman:

“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.”

Try this with your students, and then let me know how it goes by commenting below!


4 Responses to “Close the Achievement Gap with One Simple Writing Exercise”

  1. teeceecounsel February 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Great post! Believing is the first step towards achieving. The moment a person is convinced that a thing can be done, doing the thing becomes possible for the person. You just shared one of the ways of making people believe that they can achieve. Good one!


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