Values affirmation is an evidence-based classroom intervention that produces remarkable results for minimal effort. When students write for just a few minutes about their most important values, those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in the STEM disciplines - women of all races, racial and ethnic minorities of both genders - earn significantly higher grades, and in some studies completely close the "achievement gap" with their White male peers. Two studies illustrate this phenomenon, each involving hundreds of students in random, double-blind, controlled experiments.
Geoffrey Cohen et al. (2006) studied the effect of a fifteen-minute values affirmation writing exercise on the achievement of African American and European American middle school students. Students who were randomly assigned to the experimental group chose a core value - something they cared deeply about, from a list of possible choices - and wrote about why it was important to them. Students who were randomly assigned to the control group chose from the same list a value that was not important to them, but that they knew other people care deeply about, and wrote about why it might be important to other people. Neither students nor their teachers were told the purpose of the writing assignment. The results are, to me, nothing short of amazing. There was no effect on the grades of the European American students. However, African American students in the experimental condition - those who wrote about what they value and why - earned significantly higher grades than African American students in the control condition. This improvement was most notable for students whose previous academic performance was average or below average, but students whose previous performance was above average also benefitted. Moreover, African American students who wrote about their values also earned higher grades in other courses during the semester of the experiment. That is, the benefits of this writing exercise appear to transfer to other classes than the one in which the writing exercise occurred.
Akira Miyake and colleagues (2010) studied the effect of the same type of values affirmation exercise on the performance of women and men in an introductory-level college physics course. Interestingly, the course was designed for STEM majors, so one might assume that the students considered themselves to be good at math and science. In this study, students completed the values affirmation writing exercise twice: in class during the first week of the semester and as a homework assignment shortly before the first exam. Once again, the results are astonishing. In the control condition, men outperformed women on exams by an average of about 10 points out of a hundred (72% vs. 61%). In the experimental condition, this gender gap evaporated. Moreover, a similar gender gap in performance on the standardized Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation also disappeared in the experimental condition. Notably, the benefits of the intervention last for months; these performance measures are exams given throughout the semester and at the end of the semester.
How could such a simple, brief intervention have such a powerful effect? The authors of both of these articles offer several hypotheses about the mechanism connecting this intervention and its effects, and I encourage you to read the articles if you are curious about that. In short, both teams of authors propose that values affirmation buffers stereotype threat (Cohen et al., 2006; Miyake et al., 2010). However, at some level it really doesn't matter. Why not take fifteen minutes to level the playing field in your classroom?
Cohen, Geoffrey L., Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, and Allison Master (2006). Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science v. 313, 1 Sept 2006, pp. 1307-1310.
Miyake, Akira, Lauren E. Kost-Smith, Noah D. Finkelstein, Steven J. Pollock, Geoffrey L. Cohen, and Tiffany A. Ito (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, v. 330, 26 Nov 2010, pp. 1234-1237.