The life of African-American middle-school students can be pretty stressful. From the moment they step into the classroom, some must contend with not only coursework but also the anxiety that performing badly might confirm negative stereotypes. That fear can itself lead to poor performance, researchers have known for a while; now they’ve come up with a simple antidote: getting students to reflect on their sense of self-worth by writing a personal essay about what they value.
Geoffrey Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his colleagues tested the strategy among 243 seventh graders at a northeastern U.S. school that had a roughly 50:50 ratio of African-American and white students. Each student was asked to complete a 15-minute writing assignment that included a page with a list of values such as one’s relationships with friends, athletic ability, and creativity. Students circled their top two or three values. On the next page, they wrote a few sentences explaining their choices and describing moments when they had felt the importance of the chosen values. The researchers designed a similar assignment for a control group in which students had to circle the value they thought was least important to them and explain why that value could be important to other people. The students were not told the purpose of the assignment.