Affirming Their Way to the Top: How A Small Intervention Could Help Close the Social Class Achievement Gap

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Almost a fifth of all undergraduate students in America are the first in their families to go to college. These first-generation students represent a critical minority, but they continue to lag behind their peers in grades, graduation rates, and success in the math and sciences.

Social psychologist Judith Harackiewicz and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are working to understand and hopefully close this gap. Their research, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, showed that a simple writing intervention helped reduce the gap between first-generation students and their continuing-generation peers by 50 percent.

In two introductory biology courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harackiewicz’s team administered two rounds of writing exercises—once at the beginning of the semester and once in the middle—that asked students to write a few sentences about their personal values.

In the experimental condition, students were asked to choose two or three personal values from a list of twelve—learning and gaining knowledge, independence, athletic ability, etc.—and then write a few sentences on why these values were personally important to them. Students in the control condition were asked to choose two or three values from the same list that they thought were the least important and then instructed to write briefly on why these values might be important to someone else.

For a seemingly trivial writing task—students only spent 10 to 15 minutes on the assignment for which they did not receive grades—the intervention was remarkably successful. The researchers’ analysis shows that the first-generation students who wrote about the values most important to themselves received significantly higher grades in the biology course than their first-generation peers in the control group. These students didn’t completely catch up with their continuing-generation counterparts, whose performance was nearly identical in both conditions. Still, the intervention was able to close the gap in grades by 50 percent, as well as increase the retention of first-generation students in the course’s next section by 20 percent.

For a first-generation student, this intervention could mean getting a B instead of a C—a significant boost, especially in an introductory course in the sciences, which are notorious for weeding out students early on in their college careers.

For a first-generation student, this intervention could mean getting a rewarding B instead of a disappointing C. That’s a significant boost, especially in an introductory course in the sciences, which are notorious for weeding out students early on in their college careers.

The success of Harackiewicz’s intervention fits within a larger body of research on self-affirmation or values affirmation, which has been shown to have similarly positive results for non-white and female students. Values affirmation theory emerged from social psychologist Claude Steele’s now-famous work in the 1990’s on stereotype threat. His research initially showed that black students’ performance is undermined when they fear confirming negative stereotypes about their identities. Numerous studies in the intervening decades have shown that simply being aware of such stereotypes can have a severe impact on how well these students perform on cognitive tasks and academic assignments. The same has been shown to be true for female students in challenging math and science classes.

Values affirmation interventions—usually short written exercises like Harackiewicz’s that ask students to reflect on their personal values—have been shown to help counter this added pressure. Researchers believe these interventions work by helping students become more resilient and self-assured. Students interpret adversity and setbacks as isolated events rather than as representative of an inadequacy inherent to their identity group. These interventions can also have long-lasting effects, with ‘affirmed’ students performing better over a number of years. So while such interventions may seem “objectively small”—said leading values-affirmation theorist Geoffrey Cohen at a recent lecture at Columbia University—they are “subjectively large” for disadvantaged students.

While values affirmation theory has been tested in over 300 field and laboratory experiments over the past few decades, Harackiewicz’s study is the first to apply an affirmation intervention to first-generation college students.

Applying past thinking about values affirmation to Harackiewicz’s study may not be so easy, however. Yoi Tibbetts, an author on the study and a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted, “With first-generation students, I can’t go into a classroom and point out: this guy’s first-generation, this woman is first-generation.” (Full disclosure: Tibbetts is a founding member of The Psych Report). In other words, negative stereotypes about first-generation college students may be less common, in part because it is impossible to identify someone as first-generation.

While a significant number of first-generation students are black or Hispanic, Harackiewicz’s population was largely white: 92 percent of the nearly 800 students they studied self-identified as white. Stereotype threat, at least in its traditional understanding, may therefore not be what’s leading to diminished performance for these students. This realization led Harackiewicz and her colleagues to suspect that something else might be at work.

An alternative explanation is that there is a ‘cultural mismatch’ between first-generation college students and their college environment. American universities traditionally champion ideals of independence, such as thinking for oneself, expanding one’s personal knowledge, and finding one’s own interests. But first-generation students are more likely to hold interdependent values, such as giving back to one’s family, respecting authority, and maintaining strong ties to one’s community. Indeed, the first-generation students in Harackiewicz’s study were more likely to endorse interdepedent values than independent ones.

When that mismatch comes to a head, when the interdependent values of first generation students meet up with the independent norm of traditional American universities, you can get a discrepancy in performance.

This cultural disparity may lead first-generation students to feel like they don’t belong in college, creating a similar burden for them as stereotype threats do for women and non-white individuals. Just as these students may not be able to devote 100 percent of their brainpower to a given task when distracted by negative stereotypes, first-generation students struggle to perform at their best when feeling like outsiders in the university setting. In a survey Harackiewicz et al. administered to participants, first-generation students generally reported lower feelings of belonging in college and greater worries about not having the background necessary to succeed.

“When that mismatch comes to a head, when the interdependent values of first generation students meet up with the independent norm of traditional American universities, you can get a discrepancy in performance,” Tibbetts said.

Other social psychologists have tried to close the social class achievement gap through different interventions. Northwestern psychologist Nicole Stephens and her colleagues found that a ‘difference-education intervention’ also improved first-generation students’ academic performance. This intervention educated incoming first-generation and continuing-generation college students on the merits of their differing backgrounds; it increased first-generation students’ tendency to meet with professors and seek out other sources of academic support. While this difference-education intervention did not include a values affirming writing exercise, it is possible that its success operated by the same mechanism as did Harackiewicz’s study—that is, by highlighting the importance of personal values, even when these values differ from others’.

Further exploration of the essential components of interventions like those led by Stephens and Harackiewicz will aid colleges and universities in employing such exercises to improve the higher education experience. However, researchers warn against hopes of a panacea.

“You’re not going to be able to implement it and then—boom—all of your achievement gaps are gone and everyone’s performing up to par,” Tibbetts said. “It’s not the case that these interventions are going to work all the time in every population. One thing that I think is very important to keep in mind is that you’ve got to have the right context. There has to be the right support system there to enable the interventions to help students.”

The fact that these interventions are working raises new questions about how and why these intervention succeed in the particular settings that they do. Are students responding to describing feelings of belonging? Or, do the interventions help by having students reflect on their reasons for pursuing a college degree?

Alternatively, Cohen remarked that, like the classic 1977 study which saw remarkable health benefits for nursing-home residents who were reminded of their autonomy and given a plant to tend to, affirmation interventions may be achieving such great successes solely because they are operating in systems starved of much-needed support structures.

“We have to identify reasons why it works and when it works,” Tibbetts said. “Then we can tailor these interventions to be even more effective, to produce even greater benefits.”

Disclosure: Yoi Tibbets is a founding member of The Psych Report.