One simple writing exercise that boosts college enrollment

The achievement gap can seem like a problem that requires a monumental solution—but one small intervention seems to have helped, Sara Sparks reports for Education Week.

Researchers had black, Latino, and white middle school students write about their values in an essay, with follow up assignments throughout the year. Another group of their peers wrote more neutral writing assignments. The researchers then conducted follow-up studies with more than 500 of those students and recently published their study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

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The researchers found that students from racial minorities who wrote about their values closed the achievement gap with their white peers and felt more confident that they belonged at school.

Here's what they discovered about students who wrote about their values compared with those who wrote about neutral topics:

  • Black students were both more likely to attend college and more likely to attend more selective, four-year colleges;
  • Latino students were more than five times as likely to participate in a college preparatory program during the 8th grade; and
  • Students who wrote about their values felt a greater sense of belonging in school.

While the writing exercise did not have as profound an effect on white students, a related study showed that a similar introspective writing exercise did lead to greater academic achievements for disadvantaged white boys.

"Part of what the exercise could be doing is giving the message that 'you belong in school,' because the teacher is giving the exercise and thus showing they care about their values," says Geoffrey Cohen, an educational psychologist at Stanford University who co-led the study.

J. Parker Goyer, also an educational psychologist at Stanford and fellow study co-leader, says this message dispelled a stereotype in the minds of the minority students that they were not as successful at school and did not belong there, which could have undermined their performance. In this way, the writing exercise acted as an intervention, albeit an informal one, Goyer says.

Low-cost interventions like the writing exercise "are intended to be small, but build effects over time," Sparks writes (Sparks, Education Week, 6/20).

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