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Could One Hour of Therapy Boost Black Student Achievement?

A new study suggests confidence building psychological exercises can help close the achievement gap

Could one hour—the amount of time it takes to watch American Idol—make black college freshman more likely to succeed in college and close the racial achievement gap? Two Stanford University professors say yes, as long those students spend that hour doing confidence building psychological exercises that make them feel like they actually belong on campus.

In a new paper published in the March 18 edition of Science, Gregory Walton, an assistant professor of psychology, and Geoffrey Cohen, a professor of psychology and education, say a sense of belonging is especially essential for black students who are underrepresented on campus and face a slew of negative stereotypes about their intelligence. Walton told the Stanford News that when a student comes from a minority background,

"being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don't belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn't belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well."


In the study, the two professors selected 90 black and white freshman from a top university, told them they wanted to understand college life, and then divided them into two racially mixed groups. The "control" group read about unrelated college experiences, but those in the "treatment" group read first-person narratives about the challenges diverse students had with freshman year—being ignored by professors, having a hard time making friends, and feeling like they didn't belong.

The stories then illustrated how, as time went on, life on campus improved and the students ended up finding their niche. Cohen and Walton then had the treatment group "write essays about why they thought the older college students' experiences changed" and "illustrate their essays with stories of their own lives, and then rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students."

The researchers say exercises that frame "social adversity as common and transient" and then help students internalize positive messages are beneficial to all groups, but they found that the psychological impact is more significant on black students. They tracked the "treatment" students over three years and found that black students' GPA's rose every single year, cutting the gap between their performance and that of their white peers in half.

I remember how isolating it felt to hear my freshman year roommate tell me the only black person she'd ever known was a drug dealer, and how discouraging it was when my freshman advisor told me during our first meeting that I didn't have what it took to be an economics major. Far too many minority students overcome great odds to get to college, only to have those kinds of experiences, get discouraged, and drop out. Although the Stanford study is small, with such significant results, maybe a little targeted group therapy addressing the psychological needs of minority students could help close achievement gap and boost graduation rates.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Black History Album

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