A Stanford study published in Science magazine earlier this month suggests that a simple one-hour session in confidence building can boost both the academic and emotional well-being of African-American college freshmen—perhaps even enough to curb the nation’s achievement gaps.
The study’s co-authors, psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen and assistant professor Greg Walton, conducted their intervention program at a “selective university” over a seven-year period ending in 2008. Walton declined to identify the institution for confidentiality reasons.
The intervention’s one-hour exercise provided 49 African-American and 43 European-American students with a narrative that described anxieties as “shared and short-lived,” before requiring them to write essays and deliver speeches expressing this sentiment. Participants also completed daily surveys for a week thereafter.
Walton and Cohen focused on avoiding the implication that students were in need of help, and instead encouraged participants to view the problems of freshman year as challenges faced by everyone.
“It’s normal for students to have ups and downs,” Walton said.
He emphasized that the transition is difficult for everybody, “not just members of groups that aren’t represented well in academic settings.”
But the researchers said minority students are more likely to blame themselves, rather than environmental factors, for problems they encounter.
After tracking academic performance, for which students gave researchers access to their transcripts, results showed an increase in the academic performance of black students participating in the intervention over the first three years of college compared to the control group.
More importantly, by senior year, the achievement gap between the African-American and European-American experimental groups had been reduced by almost 80 percent.
However, more than 80 percent of the intervention’s participants were skeptical, and only 8 percent even remembered it when they were evaluated at graduation three years later. Walton said these reactions were good, because the beneficial effect did not require “conscious awareness.”
“The intervention affects how people encode ongoing personal experiences, preventing them from having global responses to events,” he said.
Walton added that the study raises fundamental questions as to how freshman orientations should be conducted, stressing that an emphasis on school pride at some universities can actually stand in the way of these programs.
This is especially true because freshman year can “set the tone for the rest of one’s academic experience,” Cohen said.
“It’s important to identify with your school,” he said. “But if that’s the only thing that people get from orientation, it doesn’t prepare them well when problems arise.”
Such sentiments are heard loud and clear on the Farm, where Walton and Cohen’s study may lead to changes in Stanford’s annual freshman welcome, New Student Orientation (NSO).
“We are very excited about professor Walton’s research and have actually been in conversation with him over the past few years about how to augment our programming efforts,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshman and transfer students. “Whether NSO is the right venue or not is an open question. The concept of a ‘Stanford 101 curriculum,’ currently in the developmental phase, may be a better vehicle for delivering such messages [and] experiences.”
Meanwhile, Walton said similar interventions, which are already showing the same promising results, are currently in progress for women in engineering and Hispanic-American students.