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How a Simple Writing Exercise in Middle School Led to Higher College Enrollment

A little push at the right time can help move disadvantaged black and Latino students onto the path to college years later, according to two new experimental studies.

In several studies over the last decade, researchers led by Stanford University education psychologists J. Parker Goyer and Geoffrey Cohen randomly assigned some black, Latino, and white students to explore their values in a brief series of writing assignments in middle schools. In two recent follow-up studies of more than 500 students, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, the researchers say they found that Latino students who were assigned to the writing exercises at the beginning of middle school were more than five times as likely to enroll in a challenging college preparatory program in 8th grade. Black students, who were followed longer, were significantly more likely to both attend college and attend more-selective four-year colleges than their peers who did not participate in the writing exercise. 

"For [disadvantaged] students, when you are feeling under threat, your sense of yourself is narrowed to that stereotype"—of, for example, minority students not performing as well academically, Goyer said. "Thinking about values can broaden that sense of self. It doesn't have to be a formal intervention; teachers can be affirming to students every day."

The intervention is one of a growing set of so-called "nudges," low-cost, short-term interventions that prod students to make positive changes in their attitude or behavior. These interventions are intended to be small, but build effects over time.

For example, in both of the experiments, middle school students were randomly assigned writing exercises at the beginning of the school year. Some of the students were given a neutral writing task, but others were given a list of values—integrity, creativity, cultural identity, connection to family, and so on—and asked to write about the two or three they considered most important to their own identity. Over the course of the year, students in the values group wrote two to five similar assignments that built on the values they had chosen. 

Moving to a Higher Academic Track

"It's meant to be a brief exercise, but one that's well timed and well targeted to ... connect students to the powerful channels that already exist in schools," Goyer said. She and her colleagues found that students from racial minorities who wrote about their values not only closed academic achievement gaps with white peers in the short term, but reported a greater feeling of belonging in their schools than peers who had written about neutral topics. 

Forty-four percent of Latino students who had written about their values in middle school enrolled in AVID, a college preparatory program for first-generation college-goers, in 8th grade, versus only 8 percent of Latino classmates who had not written about their values. Moreover, 9 in 10 of the values-writers enrolled in a mainstream district high school rather than an alternative school for low-performing students, compared to only half of the control group students. 

"The transition to middle school is an embryonic moment," said Cohen,a  professor of education and psychology at Stanford University.. "It is a time when kids start to form their identity ... It is a fork in the road in a lot of ways, and a lot of kids end up taking a negative turn."

Many students encounter academic tracking for the first time in middle school, and it also shapes how students begin to define themselves, Goyer said; in 6th or 7th grade, the difference between entering a higher or lower academic track might be the difference between a D-plus and a C-minus, so students who feel slightly less performance anxiety in their early middle school years can end up on significantly different tracks.

"I think the message is, there's more potential than meets the eye;—more potential in the kids and more potential for adults to do some good in kids' lives," Cohen said.

Interestingly, the writing exercise had no effect on white students' course or college selection in either study, though separate research has found similar affirmation exercises led to higher achievement for disadvantaged white boys.

"Part of what the exercise could be doing is giving the message that 'you belong in school,' because the teacher is giving the exercise and thus showing they care about their values," Cohen said.

 "[Students] are encouraged to do the self-work of figuring out who they are, so they can feel like their values are bigger than the problems in front of them," he said.


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