Voices in Education

Can Brief Interventions Help Reduce Achievement Gaps?
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 28, number 2). Copyright 2012 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Earlier last school year, while writing a book with a group of colleagues reflecting on our work on shrinking achievement gaps in Arlington, Virginia, I read a 2011 article in Science by Stanford University researchers Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen. They reported on an experiment in which, after a brief social-psychological intervention with college freshmen, the African American achievement gap with white students as measured by GPA after three years in college was cut by more than half. In addition, the African American students reported improved health and reduced doctor visits after the same three-year period.

The brief intervention involved exposing students, in the course of one meeting, to fictional survey results from upperclassmen reporting that they had experienced feelings of not belonging in their freshman year but subsequently overcame such feelings, indicating that the phenomenon was short-lived. The students were then asked to write personal accounts of their own experiences reflecting the results of the survey that would, they were told, be used with subsequent freshmen.

I had previously read reports of a few other studies by these scholars and other researchers in which similarly impressive results were reported for similarly brief interventions. Given the apparent complexity and intractability of the problem of reducing achievement gaps, and the scope and cost of major education reforms taking place across the country, my colleagues and I were more than a bit skeptical about the likelihood that such interventions would produce strong and lasting effects, yet we wondered if we should be paying attention to this kind of work to learn how we might apply it in public school settings.

Shortly after discussing the article in Science, I read a review of a number of such studies written by Walton and another Stanford professor, David S. Yeager. The review summarizes 11 studies of brief social-psychological interventions that met a fairly restrictive set of criteria for inclusion and includes a more detailed analysis of four of the studies. The articles all represent brief experimental social-psychological interventions featuring randomly selected treatment and control groups. They all also focus on student beliefs that might either impede or propel academic achievement. These beliefs include the perception that initial feelings of not belonging in a school is a temporary condition and the idea that intelligence is not a fixed trait that you are born with, or not. None of the interventions was done with the purpose of teaching actual academic content. Each of the experiments was also based on testing beliefs grounded in a clear theoretical formulation, such as attribution theory (e.g., attributing a successful or unsuccessful learning outcome to chance, to someone else, or to one’s own effort) or stereotype threat (i.e., fear or anxiety that one’s performance will confirm a negative stereotype about one’s group).

Yeager and Walton explicitly address responses to the studies they received, which ranged from rejection of the results as impossible to acceptance of the results as magical silver bullets, and attempt to explain how these kinds of interventions can produce such large and persistent results. They suggest that the strength and the duration of the effects could be attributed, in part, to the fact that the beliefs taught in the course of these experiments were related to students’ subjective school experiences, such as feelings regarding degrees of confidence about attacking a writing assignment. The beliefs taught were also likely to be reinforced by recursive processes found in schools, such as repeated opportunities to learn that they can perform well. Finally, the beliefs were taught by “stealthy methods.” The students were not told that their behaviors or beliefs were targets of the intervention, and there was no direct instruction of the beliefs themselves. The students also participated in creating interventions that they thought would be used to help their peers. For example, they were asked to write to younger students about the malleable nature of intelligence or to write brief descriptions of values that were important to them. Yeager and Walton conclude their review by discussing methods and helpful cautions to consider in applying brief social-psychological interventions in schools. They recommend that schools not simply implement the protocol used in the reviewed studies, because doing so might be inconsistent with local conditions, but that school people collaborate with scholars and researchers in the design of such interventions to help ensure that the methods used comport with the applied theory.

I believe teachers and administrators interested in reducing achievement gaps in schools will find Yeager and Walton’s review of interest and of possible utility in their work. Moreover, I intend to continue to discuss it with graduate students enrolled in my Using Research to Lead School Improvement class at George Mason University, in which students develop school improvement projects that they implement during a year-long administrative internship. I also plan to ask them to consider the careful and thoughtful implementation of brief social-psychological interventions. Combined with longer-term academic interventions, such as improved mathematics instruction, Yeager and Walton suggest that these brief social-psychological interventions hold promise for substantially accelerating the closing of achievement gaps.

About the Author: Robert G. Smith is a former superintendent of the Arlington (Va.) Public Schools and an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University.