Schools are social places. Students thrive on relationships, cultures and multiple interactions between multiple actors every day, and social processes are fundamental to teaching and learning. One approach to understanding these complexities is to use social psychology, the study of how people think about, influence and relate to each other.
A social-psychological intervention starts with the subjective experience of the student in school. It doesn’t increase their academic ability and isn’t subject or content-focused. Instead, social-psychological interventions changes the way that students think or feel about themselves in school.
These social-psychological interventions might include a very specific way of praising a student, or a short lesson that teaches students that their brain can grow. These small acts can make a significant difference in a student’s achievement, as measured by test scores. They can raise students’ confidence in their work and boost willingness to try harder, while improving their feelings of belonging in their school, as measured by self-evaluation and qualitative feedback. These kinds of improvement in achievement and in feelings of belonging are key components to raising student achievement and reducing the persistent achievement gap.
A 2007 study tested the impact that theories of intelligence had on mathematics achievement among seventh and eighth graders in an urban school. The study followed several hundred students in New York City as they transitioned to middle school. In the study, students were divided into two groups. The control group was assigned to a workshop that taught study skills. The other students were taught study skills as well as a “growth mindset” theory. A growth mindset is the belief that the brain can grow and get stronger when a person works on challenging tasks. At the end of the two years, the students with a growth mindset achieved higher than the control group. As time passed and as the math became increasingly more difficult, the growth mindset group showed more persistence than the control group, leading to higher grades. Additionally, they had more positive motivational beliefs which were related to increasing grades.
“Stereotype threat” refers to the risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s own group. Studies on stereotype threat show that academic performance suffers when students are aware their performance could be viewed as a racial stereotype. In a study to test the impact of stereotype threat on African American students in seventh grade at a suburban middle school, the researchers implemented a values-affirmation writing exercise to test whether it reduced stereotype threat and whether it affected academic performance. Prior to starting a class, the students were asked to write about values. One set of students was randomly assigned to write about values that were personally important to them, and in the control group, students were assigned to write about a neutral value that did not relate to them personally. After one semester, the value-affirmation intervention had significantly increased African American student achievement and reduced the achievement gap between white students and African American students in the classroom by 40%.
Social-psychological interventions do not create student ability. The interventions won’t work without broader positive forces in the school environment that create optimal opportunities for student learning and performance. Multiple factors have to come together to close the achievement gap. Schools need to provide teachers and classrooms that enable the average student to gain more than a grade level of mathematical skill and knowledge per year for multiple years. At the same time, students need to show up, behave well, and put in the effort to learn.
Teaching and learning are often measured by student test results, graduation rates and other academic milestones. But recent research shows that other factors not directly linked to intellect -- those related to identity and its effects on psychological belonging and stereotype threat -- can play a role in student motivation and academic achievement. Remembering that school is a social experience and responding to students’ psychological needs can lead to small, but significant, changes in a classroom setting that promote greater academic achievement. In short, students who feel better perform better.