Targeted writing exercises help reduce educational attainment gap

Fortunately, values affirmation seems to be a potentially effective antidote to stereotype threat.

A short series of precisely targeted writing exercises can significantly improve the academic attainment of school students from low-income families, according to a new study by a joint research team from LSE and the University of Sussex.

The study found that values affirmation writing exercises, where individuals are asked to write about a value that is personally important to them, offer a low-cost and effective way of reducing the socioeconomic attainment gap in schools.

In the study, published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, 562 students, aged 11–14, at a comprehensive secondary school in southern England took part during the 2015-16 academic year. Within the sample, 128 students were eligible for free school meals, an indicator that their family had a low household income.

On average, these students had substantially lower academic performance than their better-off peers. They also reported experiencing higher levels of ‘stereotype threat’ – the fear that people have of conforming to a negative stereotype of a group to which they belong. Research from elsewhere has shown that stereotype threat can limit performance in a wide range of contexts, including exams at school.

All students completed three short writing exercises over the course of the academic year. One group was randomly assigned to the values affirmation exercises; they were asked to choose ‘the most important things for you, personally’ and to write about ‘why these things are important to you’.

The other students – the control group – wrote about a psychologically neutral topic, such as values that are ‘the least important things to you, but might be important to someone else’, or about their morning routine that day.

The researchers looked at the effect of the values affirmation exercises on the students’ scores in a mathematics test taken towards the end of the school year. Their analysis showed that the exercises raised the academic performance of the students who were eligible for free school meals, but did not make any difference to the others. In fact, the exercises reduced the gap in performance between these two groups of students by 62%. The free school meal students who took the values affirmation exercises also reported feeling significantly less stress at school.

Ian Hadden, a researcher from the University of Sussex who led the study, said: “Many people in our society simply don’t expect young people from low-income households to do well at school. And when people are exposed day in, day out to these types of negative stereotypes, they can experience this phenomenon known as stereotype threat. It can be a surprisingly powerful force – it can stress you out, reduce your sense of control over life and make you lose confidence in yourself. This result suggests that in the UK it could be a particularly serious barrier for students from households with lower family incomes.

“Fortunately, values affirmation seems to be a potentially effective antidote to stereotype threat. It seems that by reconnecting more deeply with something important in their life, students who are experiencing stereotype threat can start to see the threat with more perspective and so reduce its damaging effects.”

Professor Paul Dolan, Head of Department for Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, said: “This result is extremely encouraging and we are excited by the possibilities that it suggests, though we can’t recommend that schools use values affirmation just yet. Before we can do that, we need to understand whether the exercises will have the same results in schools that might have very different social, cultural and economic contexts.

"There are other questions that we can’t answer yet, too, such as what age groups will benefit most and when in the school year is the best time for students to do the exercises. We’re really excited to be at the forefront of this important research in the UK and we’re looking forward to seeing it come to fruition as we continue to understand it better.”

Behind the article

Self-affirmation reduces the socioeconomic attainment gap in schools in England by Ian Robert Hadden, Matthew John Easterbrook, Marlon Nieuwenhuis, Kerry Jane Fox and Paul Dolan was published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology in June 2019.