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.