Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions: Carefully Devised and Delivered Psychological Interventions Catalyze the Effects of High-Quality Educational Reforms, but Don't Replace Them

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions: Carefully Devised and Delivered Psychological Interventions Catalyze the Effects of High-Quality Educational Reforms, but Don't Replace Them

Article excerpt

Besides being researchers, each of us is also a teacher. Like anyone who has taught, we know the feeling of failing to connect with some students. It's disheartening. Before going into research, one of us (Yeager) taught middle school. He wanted to help kids in tough straits get a good education. Yet, looking at his gradebook at the end of his first year teaching 7th-grade English in Tulsa, Okla., he saw large gains for more advantaged students but much smaller gains for less advantaged students, including racial and ethnic minority students. He thought that he'd given these students just as much attention, if not more, and that he'd held them to equally high standards. He'd given them plenty of helpful critical feedback and cared about their success. What had gone wrong? And what could be done differently?

Many teachers have such experiences. Our research investigates why, sometimes, no matter how hard you work to create a good lesson plan or provide high-quality feedback, some students don't stay as motivated or learn as much as teachers would like. We also look at what can be done to improve their outcomes.

Take the student's perspective

When confronted with a problem in education--students falling behind in math, for example--we tend to focus on what teachers teach and how they teach it. We tend to prescribe solutions that take the perspective of the teacher, like How can we teach math differently?

That is an important perspective. But it can also help to adopt the vantage point of a student. How does the classroom look to a student sitting at a desk in the third row? What is he or she concerned about? How does the student feel about his or her potential? Does the student feel accepted by the teacher and fellow classmates? When you begin with questions like these, a different picture emerges--one that focuses on the psychology of students. This approach suggests that teachers should look beyond how they communicate academic content and try to understand and, where appropriate, change how students experience school. Even when a classroom seems to be the same for all students--for instance, when all students are treated similarly--different students can experience the class very differently. Understanding what school feels like for different students can lead to nonobvious but powerful interventions.

A common problem is that students have beliefs and worries in school that prevent them from taking full advantage of learning opportunities. For example, students who struggle in math may think that they are "dumb" or that teachers or peers could see them as such. Or girls in advanced math or minority students in general may wonder if other people will look at them through the lens of a negative stereotype about their group instead of judging them on their merits.

These beliefs and worries don't reflect low self-esteem, insecurity, or flaws in the student. From the students' viewpoint, they're often reasonable. If students are aware that negative stereotypes exist about their group, it makes sense for them to be alert to the possibility that stereotypes are in play (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Likewise, if a student has learned that many people see math ability as something that you either have or don't, it makes sense for that student to worry about being seen as "dumb" in math. Below we look at some of these beliefs in more detail and describe how they can be addressed.

Growth mindset. Carol Dweck has shown that some students think that people's amount of intelligence is fixed and cannot change (2006). Students who have this belief--called a fixed mind-set--who then struggle in math may find it hard to stay motivated. They may think, "I'll never get it" and avoid math. But countering this belief can have powerful effects.

Teaching students that intelligence can be developed--that, like a muscle, it grows with hard work and good strategies--can help students view struggles in school not as a threat ("Am I dumb? …

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