Willingham: Close to a magic bullet in education
My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
By Daniel Willingham
No one talks about “magic bullets” in education, except to warn that something is not one.
Recent work in social psychology may bring us as close to a magic bullet at we’re likely to get.
The intervention concerns gender and achievement gaps, those groups of students who persistently perform worse than we would expect.
For example, women represent only about 25% of the PhDs in the physical sciences. There’s no evidence that they are any less capable than men, but they earn worse grades in college physics courses, and thus are less competitive for spots in graduate school. Many are likely discouraged from even applying.
The discrepancy in ability and performance is thought to be due to stereotype threat. This occurs when a member of a stereotyped group is, however subtly, reminded of the stereotype.
Concern about fulfilling the stereotype leads to anxiety which, in turn, negatively affects performance.
A recent experiment examined the impact of a brief self-affirmation writing exercise. Students selected from a list the value that meant the most to them, and wrote for 15 minutes about why it was so important.
Control subjects picked the value they thought least important, and wrote about why it might be important to others.
This brief writing exercise occurred once during the first week of classes and again in the fourth week. (The physics professor and teaching assistants did not know which students were in the experimental or control groups.)
When scores on class tests (three midterms and a final examination) were examined, there was a gender gap, but it had been reduced in the values-affirmation group by about 60%.
At the end of the semester, researchers also administered a standardized test of conceptual ideas in physics. For this test the gender gap disappeared altogether.
This is the sort of intervention that sounds too good to be true. A mere half hour of student time seems to have a significant impact on the gender gap in physics.
This sort of brief self-affirmation exercise has been shown effective in at least one other group—African-American middle school boys.
How could such a brief intervention have such a profound effect? Consistent with the steretotype threat hypothesis, there is evidence that self-affirmation reduces stress. In this study, college students who performed the self-affirmation exercise before a stressful examination showed normal levels of epinephrine—a sign of sympathetic nervous system activity--after the exam.
Control subjects showed elevated levels of epinephrine.
Self-affirmation is not the sort of magic bullet that eliminates a problem. But an intervention that can attenuate gender and achievement gaps at such low cost to students and educators seems magical indeed.
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| December 6, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Achievement gap, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research | Tags: achievement gap, daniel willingham, education research, gender gap, school reform
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