1-hour exercise raises blacks’ GPAs

After an hour discussing the fact that the college transition is tough for everyone, black students earned significantly higher grades, shrinking the minority achievement gap by 52 percent, report Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, Stanford psychologists, in a paper published in the March 18 Science. The exercise stressed that it’s normal for new college students to worry that they don’t belong and that it gets better over time.

“When your group is in the minority, being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don’t belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn’t belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well.”

Twenty-two percent of black freshmen who participated ended up in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, compared to 5 percent of blacks in the control group. One third of blacks in the experimental group graduated in the bottom 25 percent compared to half of the control group.

The experiment was conducted at a “top university,” presumably Stanford, so these were very competent students. But it’s scary to go from being a star student in high school to being nothing special in college. I faced that as a Stanford freshman — without having to worry that I’d been held to lower standards because of affirmative action.

Black and white students in the experimental group “read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different races and ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school.” The upperclassmen emphasized that they grew more confident eventually and were able to make good friends and develop  strong relationships with professors.

“Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar,” one older student – a black woman – was quoted as saying. “Since I realized that, my experience . . . has been almost 100 percent positive.”

The test subjects in the treatment group were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students’ experiences changed. The researchers asked them to illustrate their essays with stories of their own lives, and then rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students. The point was to have the test subjects internalize and personalize the idea that adjustments are tough for everyone.

The exercise had virtually no impact on white students’ academic careers, but made a significant difference for blacks. In addition to higher grades, blacks who participated reported being happier, healthier and less likely to think about negative racial stereotypes compared to the control group.

Walton and Cohen believe similar exercises may help first-generation college students and immigrants succeed in college.

About Joanne


  1. I remember when I was in school some black friends told me how racist they thought the university community was. They’d had people shout racial epithets at them while walking down Main St. on a Friday night. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that those same frat-bastards and townies would have yelled homosexual slurs at me in the same situation. Looking back at it, I probably should have.

  2. I once had a non-traditional student come to me after taking my class and tell me that I was the person who encouraged her to continue on to earning her degree. Because I acknowledged that college was tough for everyone at times, and that lots of people sometimes have the feeling of being a “fraud.” (I know I did). I guess she felt like she didn’t fit in, and my comments somehow helped her.

    I generally write off things like this as “feel good” exercises, but it looks like in this case it actually helps. Maybe more of an acceptance of “Things are difficult sometimes for everyone” and “Some people are just jerks, it’s not YOU” may be one of the things that’s more needed…

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    This follows up on similar research (also at Stanford) on “stereotype threat.” Studies have shown that, for example, if women take a difficult math test that, they are told, is equally difficult for males and females, the women will score as well as the men. But if they take the same test without being told anything, the women do worse than men. Similarly, black students do better on GRE samples if they are first told the test doesn’t measure intelligence. On a social sensitivity test, men score worse if they are told men score worse.

    By now, stereotype threat has been discovered in many situations. The most amazing thing is how easy it is, in some cases, to make the stereotype threat effect go away. The black students in the cited experiment improved their GPA by a third of a grade, just from this tiny intervention.

  4. Studies have shown that, for example, if women take a difficult math test that, they are told, is equally difficult for males and females, the women will score as well as the men.

    This is incorrect. Studies have shown that if women take a difficult math test after being asked to signify their gender, they will do worse than expected–that is, the gender gap will be larger than usual. But if the women aren’t asked about their gender, the gap will be the usual size.

    The “stereotype threat” does not explain the gap. It merely makes it worse.

  5. Exercise is very important….Participating in PE and recess daily has shown to help with stress and increase test scores….

  6. Cal, your statement does not contradict the statement you quote.