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.


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