A brief round-up of a few of the latest findings reinforcing the fact that academic achievement is not all about academic ability or skills.Most of these relate to the importance of social factors.
Improving social belonging improves GPA, well-being & health, in African-American students
From Stanford, we have a reminder of the effects of stereotype threat, and an interesting intervention that ameliorated it. The study involved 92 freshmen, of whom 49 were African-American, and the rest white. Half the participants (none of whom were told the true purpose of the exercise) read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school. The other subjects read about experiences unrelated to a sense of belonging. The treatment subjects were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students' experiences changed, with illustrations from their own lives, and then to rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students.
The idea of this intervention was to get the students to realize that everyone, regardless of race, has difficulty adjusting to college, and has times when they feel alienated or rejected.
While this exercise had no apparent effect on the white students, it had a significant impact on the grades and health of the black students. Grade point averages went up by almost a third of a grade between their sophomore and senior years, and 22% of them landed in the top 25% of their graduating class, compared to about 5% of black students who didn't participate in the exercise.
Moreover, the black students in the treatment group reported a greater sense of belonging compared to their peers in the control group; they were happier, less likely to spontaneously think about negative racial stereotypes, and apparently healthier (3 years after the intervention, 28% had visited a doctor recently, vs 60% in the control group).
Protecting against gender stereotype threat Stereotype threat is a potential factor for gender as well as ethnicity.
I’ve reported on a number of studies showing that reminding women or girls of gender stereotypes in math results in poorer performance on subsequent math tests. A new study suggests that women could be “inoculated” against such effects if their math / science class is taught by a woman. Although in these experiments, women’s academic performance didn’t suffer, their engagement and commitment to their STEM major was significantly affected.
In the first study, 72 women majoring in STEM subjects were given several tests measuring their implicit and explicit attitudes towards math vs English, plus a short but difficult math test. Half the students were (individually) tested by a female peer expert, supposedly double majoring in math and psychology, and half by a male peer. Those with a male showed negative implicit attitudes towards math, while those tested by a female showed equal liking for math and English on an implicit attitudes test. Similarly, women implicitly identified more with math in the presence of the female expert. On the math test, women who met the female attempted more problems (an average of 7.73 out of 10 compared to 6.39). There was no effect on performance — but because of the difficulty of the test, there was a floor effect.
In the second study, 101 women majoring in engineering were given short biographies of 5 engineers, who were either male or female, or descriptions of engineering innovations (control condition). Again, women presented with female engineers showed equal preference for math and English in the subsequent implicit attitudes test, while those presented with male engineers or innovations showed a significant implicit negative attitude to math. However, implicit identification with math wasn’t any stronger after reading about female engineers. However, those who read about female engineers did report greater intentions to pursue an engineering career, and this was mediated by greater self-efficacy in engineering. Again, there was no effect on explicit attitudes toward math.
In the third study, the performance of 42 female and 49 male students in introductory calculus course sections taught by male (8 sections) and female instructors (7 sections) were compared. Professors were yoked to same-sex teaching assistants.
As with the earlier studies, female students implicitly liked math and English equally when the teacher was a women, but had a decidedly more negative attitude toward math when their instructor was a man. Male students were unaffected by teacher gender. Similarly, female showed greater implicit identification with math when their teacher was a woman; male students were unaffected. Female students also expected better grades when their teacher was a woman; male students didn’t differ as a function of teacher gender (it should be noted that this wasn’t because they thought the women would be more generous markers; marking was pooled across all the instructors, and the students knew this). There was no effect of teacher gender on final grade (but there was a main effect of student gender: women outperformed men).
In other words, the findings of the 3rd study confirmed the effects on implicit attitudes towards STEM subjects, and demonstrated that male students were unaffected by the interventions that affected female students.
Now we come to engagement. At the beginning of the semester, female students were much less likely than male students (9% vs. 23%) to respond to questions put to the class, but later on, female students in sections led by women were much more likely to respond to such questions than were women in courses taught by men (46% vs 7%). Interestingly, more male students also responded to questions posed by female instructors (42% vs 26%). That would seem to suggest that male instructors are much more likely to engage in strategies that discourage many students from engaging in the class. But undeniably, women are more affected by this.
Additionally, at the beginning of the courses, around the same number of female students approached their instructors, regardless of their gender (12-13%). But later, while this percentage of female students approaching female instructors stayed constant, none of them approached male instructors. This could be taken to mean male instructors consistently discouraged such behavior, but male students did not change (an average of 7% both at Time 1 and Time 2).
The number of students who asked questions in class did not vary over time, or by student gender. However it did vary by teacher gender: 22% of both male and female students asked questions in class when they were taught by women, while only 15% did so in courses taught by men.
Some of these effects then seem to indicate that male college instructors are more inclined to discourage student engagement. What the effects of that are, remains to be seen.
Social and emotional learning programs found to boost student improvement
A review of 213 school programs that enhance students' social and emotional development, has found that such programs not only significantly improved social and emotional skills, caring attitudes, and positive social behaviors, but also resulted in significant improvement on achievement tests (although only a small subset of these programs actually looked at this aspect, the numbers of students involved were very large).
The average improvement in grades and standardized-test scores was 11 percentile points —an improvement that falls within the range of effectiveness of academic interventions.
Boys need close friendships
Related to this perhaps (I looked but couldn’t find any gender numbers for the SEL programs), from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference in New York, developmental psychologist Niobe Way argues that one reason why boys are struggling in school is that they are experiencing a "crisis of connection." Stereotypical notions of masculinity, that emphasize separation and independence, challenge their need for close friendships. She's found that many boys have close friendships that are being discouraged by anxiety about being seen as gay or effeminate.
Way says that having close friendships is linked to better physical and mental health, lower rates of drug use and gang membership, and higher levels of academic achievement and engagement. When asked, she encouraged teachers to allow boys to sit next to their best friends in class.
High rate of college students with unrecognized hearing loss
On a completely different note, a study involving 56 college students has found that fully a quarter of them showed 15 decibels or more of hearing loss at one or more test frequencies — an amount that is not severe enough to require a hearing aid, but could disrupt learning. The highest levels of high frequency hearing loss were in male students who reported using personal music players.
Walton, G. M., & Cohen G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science. 331(6023), 1447 - 1451.
Stout, J. G., Dasgupta N., Hunsinger M., & McManus M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: using ingroup experts to inoculate women's self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(2), 255 - 270.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg R. P., Dymnicki A. B., Taylor R. D., & Schellinger K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development. 82(1), 405 - 432.
Le Prell, C. G., Hensley B. N., Campbell K. C. M., Hall J. W., & Guire K. (2011). Evidence of hearing loss in a ‘normally-hearing’ college-student population. International Journal of Audiology. 50(S1), S21-S31 - S21-S31.