August 13, 2013

African-American Students May Improve Grades if Teachers Convey High Standards, Confidence in Students' Ability to Reach Them

Simple effort by teachers could have lasting benefits, research finds

WASHINGTON — African-American students who need to improve their academic performance may do better in school and feel less stereotyped as underachievers if teachers convey high standards and their belief that students can meet them, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. 

In three studies conducted at suburban or inner-city schools, African-American students improved their grades after receiving a simple, one-sentence note from their teachers or an online pep talk. The exercises were designed to dispel students’ fears that criticism of their academic work could be caused by different treatment of African-American students rather than their teachers’ high standards. The study was published online in August in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The findings contradict a common trend in education of praising students for mediocre work to help raise self-esteem before delivering critical remarks. That method may seem patronizing and could backfire and lower self-esteem, especially when white teachers praise African-American students, said lead researcher David Scott Yeager, PhD, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“We’ve learned that self-esteem isn’t the key reason why African-American students fail to utilize critical feedback from their teachers. They may not always trust the person who is criticizing them,” Yeager said. “Our studies are the first test of whether this approach can increase students’ motivation in the real world.”   

In the first study at a suburban public middle school in Connecticut, 44 seventh-grade students (22 African-American and 22 white) wrote an essay about a personal hero that was critiqued by their teachers for improvements in a second draft. The students were randomly assigned to two groups with the experimental group receiving a hand-written note with their critiqued essay that stated, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.” The control group got a note that stated, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” 

For African-American students who received the high-expectations note, 71 percent revised their essays, compared to 17 percent in the control group. The findings were even more pronounced for African-American students who had reported low trust in their teachers in surveys, with 82 percent revising their essays in the high-expectations group, compared to none in the control group. White students who received the high-expectations note also were more likely to revise their essays, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant compared to the control group.  

The second study, conducted a year later with a similar group of 22 African-American and 22 white seventh-grade students, carried the research a step further by analyzing grades for the revised essays. In the high-expectations group, 88 percent of African-American students received better grades on their revised essays, compared to 34 percent in the control group. More than two months after the exercise, African-American students who had received the high-expectations note also reported higher levels of trust in their teachers. White students in the high-expectations group also saw slightly higher grades, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant. 

The third study was conducted with 50 African-American and 26 white students at a New York City public high school where most children lived in low-income households. One group of students watched online testimonials that included photos of older students and their advice that academic criticism resulted from teachers’ high standards and their belief that students could reach them. One control group saw online testimonials with vague statements about teachers’ motives, while another control group completed some puzzles. 

Over the next 10 weeks, African-American students in the high-expectations group showed higher grades across four core subjects — math, science, English and history. The improvement averaged a third of a grade point increase on a standard 4.0 grade point scale, equivalent to moving from a C- to a C or a B to a B+. White students in the high-expectations group saw a slight improvement in grades, but the change wasn’t statistically significant.  

The researchers acknowledged that the size of the positive effects for African-American students in the high-expectations groups might vary in future research because of the small sample sizes in these studies, but the effects were statistically significant for African-American students, and not white students, across all three studies. 

Teachers should create daily routines that incorporate a strategy that conveys both their high expectations and a belief that students can meet those standards, but that approach isn’t a panacea, said study co-author Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Stanford University. 

“It's not a magic bullet that will work in isolation because everything hinges on good teachers who provide solid feedback for improvement,” he said. “It is a strategy to unleash the instructive potential of the classroom and students’ motivation to learn.”   

Article: “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide,” David Scott Yeager, PhD, University of Texas at Austin; Geoffrey L. Cohen, PhD, Stanford University; Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, PhD, and Patti Brzustoski, Columbia University; Julio Garcia, PhD, University of Colorado at Boulder; Nancy Apfel, Yale University; Allison Master, PhD, University of Washington; William T. Hessert, MA, University of Chicago; and Matthew E. Williams, MEd, principal of Bronx Design & Construction Academy; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, online Aug. 12, 2013.    

David Scott Yeager can be contacted by email or by phone at (281) 615-0156.

Geoffrey Cohen can be contacted by email or by phone at (650) 724-4602.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.