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What If Students Could Relate to Their Teachers and Classes?

Note: This week Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education at Brown University, joins us as guest-blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft.

I'm thrilled to take a break from my research this week to reflect on what we might do differently to substantially enhance the quality of teaching and learning in K-12 public schools.  In this series of "What if..." blog posts, I share my thoughts on some of the big questions I hope we all consider asking. 


Ten years ago, I was hired by Jim Slemp to help teach in and develop a small freshman academy at Berkeley High School (California) for students at risk of dropping out as identified by their middle school counselors.  "Do something different" were our marching orders.  The one thing we knew for sure was that the status quo was not serving our students well.  My co-teachers and I tried a wide variety of approaches inside and outside of the classroom, many of which were ill-conceived, while others worked.  Along the way, we learned that time spent building relationships with our students and helping them connect school to their own lives was essential for engaging them in their learning.

I wrote about my experience and the instructional approaches that worked best with our students over five years ago.  Since then, a growing body of evidence in the social-psychology literature has further convinced me of the power and potential of these efforts. As a researcher, I approached this literature with caution given the methodological concerns that psychologists have raised and the perils of small samples. I find the studies I highlight below particularly compelling for several reasons: 1) they estimate the effect of simple interventions using the gold-standard of research designs — randomized control trials; 2) they were all conducted (at least in part) in schools with secondary students rather than in the lab or with college students in psychology courses; and 3) these interventions have the potential to be adapted at scale by educators.  As a former teacher, these studies also ring true with my own experiences in the classroom.

Hunter Gehlbach, Todd Rogers and their colleagues examined the power of informing 9th grade teachers and students (n=315) about real similarities they shared with each other based on a short survey — think "you both like baseball and appreciate friends that are good listeners."  This simple intervention caused students and teachers to perceive more similarities between each other and, over the course of a quarter, increased student performance by an average of one-fifth of a letter grade.  Their results also suggest that African-American and Latino students benefited most from the intervention.

David Yeager, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Geoffrey Cohen and their colleagues conducted three studies examining how building trust between students and teachers affect how students interpret and respond to feedback. In the first study, they found that attaching the note "I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them" to teachers' essay revisions substantially increased the odds that their 7th graders (n=44) submitted a revised essay. A second study of 7th graders (n=44) found that the same note increased African-American students' scores on the revised essay as judged by both teachers and independent graders. The third study of high school students (n=76) found that viewing three testimonials from older students affirming that critical feedback from teachers was due to their belief that students could meet these high standards, not due to stereotypes or discrimination, raised students' GPAs over the course of several months.

Chris Hulleman and Judith Harackiewicz studied the effects of prompting 9th grade students (n = 262) to write essays about how different science units related to their own lives. They found that doing so increased first semester science grades of students who started the semester with low science performance expectations by nearly a full letter grade (0.8 GPA points).  They also found that students who reflected on the relevance of science to their lives became more interested in their science class and were more likely to be interested in careers that involved science.

Finally, David Yeager, Dave Paunesku, Angela Duckworth and their collaborators tested an intervention designed to help students develop both a personal and a "self-transcendent" connection with their schooling via a series of activities that students completed in a computer lab. As part of the program, ninth grade students (n=338) were asked to describe ways in which the world could be a better place. They were presented with survey response data that showed most students are motivated to do well in school for pro-social ends; they read quotes from older students that reinforced this message, and they were asked to write brief testimonials to future students about their reasons for learning.  The researchers found that the intervention raised the fourth quarter math and science GPAs of all students by an average of one-tenth of a letter grade, with low-performing students experiencing the largest gains.

These studies are not perfect. But high school grades are strong predictors of the likelihood that students graduate from college — even more so than standardized test scores. And, as I've learned from my own work, conducting randomized field-trials in education with large samples is very difficult and expensive work. This research serves a critical purpose analogous to Tier-1 medical trials that can drive innovation in the education sector. Many scholars and educators including Tom Kane and Michael Goldstein have argued that rapid-cycle experiments such as these are the key to driving meaningful educational reform.

The challenge now is to evaluate the efficacy of these interventions when they are implemented by a wide range of teachers and taken to scale across different school contexts. As David Yeager and Gregory Walton explain, social-psychological interventions are "powerful tools rooted in theory, but they are context dependent and reliant on the nature of the educational environment."  New large-scale evidence on fostering students' sense-of-purpose for learning is an important step in this direction.

These studies and my experiences at Berkeley High make me wonder if schools should dedicate substantial time to promoting student-teacher relationships and helping students discover how school can be relevant to their lives and their dreams of changing the world. The brief interventions described above demonstrate the potential of these efforts, but I see them more as proof points rather than exact blueprints of what schools should do. Imagine the power of focusing on building trust and motivation the entire first week of school and then sustaining these investments with positive interactions and well-designed curriculum through the school year.

There is no doubt that there are teachers across the country who do these things naturally and purposefully. However, these teachers' individual efforts might be magnified substantially if schools took an organizational approach to supporting this work and providing dedicated time for these activities.  Early evidence suggests that such an approach stands to benefit all students, particularly those most at-risk of dropping out because they do not relate to their teachers or the curriculum.

--Matthew Kraft

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