April 30, 2019

Social-Class Achievement Gaps in Higher Education: Can Values Affirmation Interventions Help?

by Lily Van Cheng, PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

As an underrepresented minority (URM) and first-generation (FG) college student, the psychosocial factors that influence one’s success at the collegiate level of education is both fascinating and frightening. FG college students comprise roughly 15-20% of students in American universities today.1 FG students are more likely to come from working-class backgrounds and face significant economic and psychosocial barriers that create performance discrepancies called the “social-class achievement gap.”2 The performance gap might be the result of poverty, the rigor of high school preparation, parenting practices, and/or cultural mismatches. None-the-less, it is arguable that the gap between FG students and continuing-generation (CG) students are merely the results of differences in baseline academic preparation or readiness.

Martin Leon Barreto for The Chronicle Review

A tool that some educators have used to address these challenges has been the values affirmation (VA) intervention.3,4 VA interventions are designed to address the students’ perceived “stereotype threat.”  FG students are more likely to be confronted with stereotypes that threaten their identity and self-esteem which affect their academic performance. The VA intervention technique addresses stereotype threat by asking students to reflect and write about their most important values. It is hypothesized that this practice enhances the student’s ability to cope with internal identity threat and reaffirms their core values to reestablish their personal integrity and worth. In one study conducted with middle school students, a VA intervention significantly improved the grades of Latino students. The grades of white students were not impacted. The VA intervention thereby partially closed the achievement gap for URM students.5

In a more recent study conducted at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, researchers evaluated the role of a VA intervention comparing the performance of FG versus CG college students in a double-blinded randomized experiment in an introductory biology course.6 Outcome measures included confidence in their innate academic abilities and perceived concern about their generational background on academic success.  In addition, the researchers compared final course grades, overall GPA in other courses (excluding the biology course), and rate of continuation in the second-semester biology sequence. Students were randomized in blocks based on a variety of characteristics, including generational and URM status. In both the VA intervention and control groups, there were FG and CG students.  All students in the VA intervention were instructed to identify and write about values that were most important to them.  Students in the control group were instructed to identify values least important to them and write about why these values would be important to someone else.

The results?  The researchers found a significant generational status effect. While FG students obtained lower grades than their CG counterparts in the same biology class (p < 0.01), the VA intervention led to significant improvements in the FG students grades (p < 0.05), resulting in a 50% reduction in the social class achievement gap. In terms of progression into the second-semester biology course, in the control group, CG students (77.7%) were significantly more likely to enroll in the second course in comparison to FG students (66.2%).  Conversely, in the VA intervention group, FG students (85.7%) were more likely to enroll than CG students (74.8%). This represents a 20% increase in enrollment for FG students (p < 0.01) who participated in the VA intervention.  In contrast, CG students were no more likely to enroll regardless of whether they were in the intervention or control group (p = 0.41). The results suggest that a VA intervention can indeed narrow the social class achievement gap, improve the success for FG students in an introductory biology course and other college classes, and help keep them on track to progress in the science sequence.

Factors that threaten a student’s motivation or ability to learn vary from classroom to classroom, but it is vital that educators identify the variables that might influence a student’s success. In addition to the generational differences, other variables such as ethnicity, sex/gender, stress, and cultural mismatch may influence a student’s ability to academically succeed.7,8 Learners come from different backgrounds and have individual struggles. Some are pretty obvious such as ethnicity and language. But others, like generational differences in educational attainment, are harder to identify and trickier to address. Supporting our learners so they can succeed to the best of their ability starts with acknowledging that barriers exist and doing our best to address those barriers. Whether an achievement gap is the result of stereotype threat or a cultural mismatch, VA interventions can play a positive role in influencing our learners’ success.

As healthcare providers, we strive for ways to bridge the health disparities that exist between people of different social classes. As health professional educators, shouldn’t we be striving for ways to bridge the academic disparities that exist? Taking a 10-minute check-in with our students using a VA intervention could be the difference that a student needs to succeed. I challenge every educator to try this in their classroom. Take 10 minutes at the beginning of class every month to have your students identify and write about what positive traits they value. Is it empathy? Compassion? Athleticism? It doesn’t matter if it’s for a grade or not. But portray it in a way that the students realize it is important to really give it honest thought. We spend so much time teaching what they lack or don’t know. It’s time we start reminding and reaffirming our students that what they currently know or possess is just as important. When we help our students reaffirm interdependent values they perceive as integral to their self-worth, we will see positive improvements in and out of our grade books.

  1. Saenz, VB.; Hurtado, S.; Barrera, D.; Wolf, D.; Yeung, F. First in my family: A profile of first-generation college students at four-year institutions since 1971. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute; 2007. http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/TFS/Special/ Monographs/FirstInMyFamily.pdf
  2. Snibbe AC, Markus HR. You can’t always get what you want: Educational attainment, agency, and choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2005; 88:703–720.
  3. Cohen GL, Garcia J, Apfel N, Master A. Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science 2006; 313:1307–1310.
  4. Sherman, DK.; Cohen, GL. The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In: Zanna, MP., editor. Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 38. San Diego, CA: Academic Press; 2006. p. 183-242.
  5. Sherman DK, Hartson KA, Binning K, Purdie-Vaughns V, Garcia J, Taborsky-Barba S, Tomassetti S, Nussbaum AD, Cohen G. Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self- affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2013; 104:591–618.
  6. Harachiewicz JM, Canning EA, Tibbetts Y, Giffe CJ, Blair SS, Rouse DI, Hyde JS. Closing the Social Class Achievement Gap for First-Generation Students in Undergraduate Biology. Journal of Educational Psychology 2014; 106(2): 375-389.
  7. Smart-Richman L, Leary MR. Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychological Review  2009; 116:365–383.
  8. Steele CM, Aronson J. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology 1995; 69:797–811.


April 9, 2019

Values Affirmation: Reducing the Gender Gap in STEM Disciplines

by Samantha McBryde, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

Policy makers and the educational community have debated for decades ways to address the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In high school, male and female students enroll in advanced science courses at about the same rates. Indeed, females are slightly more likely to enroll in some STEM courses than males.1 However, the rates of women taking science and engineering courses drop in college and significant disparities begin to emerge in the workplace, especially for minority women.1

The gender disparity in the STEM fields in the United States is wide! In 2016, women made up half of the total college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.1 While women receive over half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%), and mathematics (43.1%).

One issue of concern that could jeopardize women’s decisions to go into these fields is that in some STEM disciplines men outperform women on in-class exams and standardized tests.2,3 Numerous interventions, such as tutorials, peer instruction, and context-rich problems have been used to address the gender gap in STEM courses. While these approaches likely work, a novel approach known as values affirmation was recently studied in a college-level introductory physics class.2

Values affirmation is a psychological intervention whereby students engage in structured reflection on self-defining values. In this study, 399 students (283 men and 116 women) were randomly assigned to either a values affirmation group or a control group. Students in the values affirmation group were asked to select their most important values from a list and write an essay about why these values were important to them. This group would write about things such as friends and family in response to a series of structured prompts. The control group selected their least important values from the same list and were instructed to write an essay about why these values might be important to other people. Therefore, both groups wrote about values and their importance, but the exercise was self-relevant only for the values affirmation group.

This assignment was completed twice during the semester, in the first week of the course and shortly before the first midterm exam. Both groups were given 15 minutes for this writing exercise during the physics class. Students were assigned to the same group for both essays. The course instructor and teaching assistants were unaware of students’ group assignments. Moreover, the teaching assistants and students were blinded to the purpose of the writing exercises.1

To assess the effect of values affirmation on learning, the researchers examined scores on three in-class exams, the in-class final, and a nationally-normed standardized test [the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE)].2
 Previously, men substantially outperformed women on the exams in this course and the FMCE.3 Specifically, 58% of females versus 35% of males fell into the lowest two pretest quintiles on a FMCE pretest, while 22% of females and 44% of males scored in the highest two quintiles.3 After taking the course, the post-test scores for males and females increased, on average, 10.7 points. Moreover, 64% of the males and 49% of the females scored above 60% on the post-test.3 If the difference in the FMCE scores after this intervention shrank, values affirmation might prove to be a promising way to address the STEM gender gap.2

The FMCE exam was administered twice during the introductory physics course, once during week 1 of the semester and once at the end of the semester. In the control group, men improved their FMCE scores more than women. However, in the values affirmation group, the gender performance gap disappeared.

Stereotype beliefs also appear to impact student performance. In the first weeks of the introductory physics course, students were asked to indicate their endorsement of the stereotype: men perform better than women in physics.2 Women in this study, as a whole, did not strongly endorse the stereotype; however, even a moderate level of stereotype endorsement was costly for women in the control group. Their FMCE exam scores were significantly lower as a function of stereotype endorsement.2 The values affirmation activity buffered women against this identity threat.2 The intervention eliminated the negative relationship between the exam scores and stereotype endorsement.2 On the other hand, men’s FMCE exam scores were not impacted regardless of whether they endorsed the gender stereotype or not.2

The results suggest that female students positively benefited from the values affirmation activity. Among women in the control group, there was a negative relationship between stereotype endorsement and end-of-semester FMCE scores.
2  In other words, as stereotype endorsement went up, FMCE scores went down. Among women in the values affirmation group, this relationship was not found.2

Looking at the average of the four exams in the course, men substantially outperformed women. However, the difference in the average scores between men and women was much smaller in the values affirmation group. The improvements in performance was also evident in the distribution of final letter grades. More women earned B’s in the values affirmation group than in the control group. Conversely, more women in the control group earned C’s than women assigned to the values affirmation group.2

The results of this study suggest that the values affirmation activity reduces the gender gap and women who endorsed the gender stereotype benefitted the most.2 Values affirmation is an intervention that could be used in an effort to lessen evaluative stress and also improve the performance of stereotype-threatened students.2 Values affirmation activities offer a promising intervention to reduce the gender achievement gap in STEM courses.

  1. Britsch B, Carter G, Gustafson J, et al. “Statistics.” National Girls Collaborative Project. 2016. Available from: https://ngcproject.org/statistics. Accessed April 6, 2019.
  2. Miyake A, Kost-Smith LE, Finkelstein ND, et al. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science 2010; 330: 1234-37.
  3. Kost LE, Pollock SJ, Finkelstein ND. “Characterizing the gender gap in introductory physics.” Physics Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research. January 2009. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.010101. Accessed April 8, 2019.