Almost a magic bullet

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.

Too good to be true?

About Joanne


  1. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the “women can’t do physics” example, but I always felt like, if someone thought I wasn’t as “good” at something because I was female, then by God, I was going to show them how wrong they were by being really good at it. So it motivated me to work harder…

  2. Yes, it’s too good to be true. The question is, did their test scores raise significantly?

    Stanford New Schools give kids great grades for writing about their feeeeeeeeeelings.

  3. Ricki –
    You likely weren’t taught to be a helpless victim like many of today’s children.