Essays On Achievement Gaps
In the current study, the researchers looked at how essay themes varied among the writers.
They found that African American boys and girls emphasized social relationship terms slightly more often than white girls, and significantly more often than white boys.
One puzzling result to emerge from the study was how students handled the topic “problem solving,” defined by words like “creative” “solution” and “mind.” The researchers found that African American girls and white boys used more similar problem solving terms than African American boys and white girls.
Riddle wonders if their creative efforts my have been reinforced in similar ways during childhood.
“This psychological foothold may motivate them to challenge themselves and live up to their potential.” To understand why the writing intervention works, Riddle and his colleagues developed an algorithm to explore the content of several thousand essays written by students in middle school and college during earlier research experiments.
Amid the jumble of words, they extracted 50 overarching themes, or topics, and found that students focused most on “social relationships,” indicated by words like “support” “family” and “friends.” Though all students, regardless of race and gender, emphasized social relationships in their writing, the earlier experiments showed that the writing exercise improved academic performance among African American girls and boys as well as white girls.
In the current study, the researchers found that African American girls and boys were more likely than white girls and boys to use racial terms in their essays, which was not a surprise considering African Americans make up a smaller part of the population, making their identity more distinct.The researchers will continue to use text-mining techniques to explore Cohen’s essays as well as essays written by older students at Yale and Columbia, among other universities.Next they will look at whether topics changed two years later, when the same students were asked to write essays again, and if those changes led to improved grades.Evidence that negative stereotypes can hurt academic performance was established in the 1980s by pioneering social psychologist Claude Steele, formerly the provost of Columbia, now the provost at University of California at Berkeley.Steele and his colleagues showed that women’s math scores improved if they were told that gender made no difference in test results, and that African Americans did worse on a verbal test if first asked to identify their race.It turns out that a simple intervention—having students write a short essay affirming values important to them—can ease the anxiety and improve academic performance.In the first computational analysis of essays used in this earlier research, researchers at Columbia University find that social themes dominate the students’ writing, providing insight into how the so-called “values affirmation” effect works to counteract stress.Meanwhile, despite some successes in individual schools and programs, the nationwide achievement gap has narrowed only slightly in the past decade.But recently, a group of social and cognitive psychologists have come at the problem in a different way.“One of the ideals of American society is that everyone should get an equal chance at success,” said Riddle.“Educational interventions like these can help us get part way there.” Other study authors: Sowmya Sree Bhagavatula, Weiwei Guo, Smaranda Muresan and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, of Columbia University; Geoff Cohen, Stanford University; and Jonathan Cook, Pennsylvania State University.