New social psychology research “may bring us as close to a magic bullet” in education as we’re likely to get,” writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. When students are worried about fulfilling a stereotype — women can’t do physics, for example — their anxiety hurts their performance, he writes.
In a recent experiment, introductory physics students selected from a list the value that meant the most to them, and wrote for 15 minutes about why it was so important. Students in the control group were told to pick their least important value and write about why it might be important to others.
This brief writing exercise occurred once during the first week of classes and again in the fourth week. (The physics professor and teaching assistants did not know which students were in the experimental or control groups.)
When scores on class tests (three midterms and a final examination) were examined, there was a gender gap, but it had been reduced in the values-affirmation group by about 60%.
At the end of the semester, researchers also administered a standardized test of conceptual ideas in physics. For this test the gender gap disappeared altogether.
In another study, black middle-school boys who wrote about their values raised their grades significantly over a two-year period.