SAGE Musings: Implementing a Values Affirmation Intervention

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
published Jan 10, 2019 3:15pm

As I've written before (SAGE Musings: the Power of Affirming Your Values), values affirmation interventions produce extraordinary results for extremely modest investments of classroom time (e.g. Cohen et al., 2006; Miyake et al., 2010; Jordt et al., 2017). The differences in academic achievement documented in these studies are so remarkable that if I were still teaching, I would incorporate a values affirmation intervention in every class. Yet many faculty with whom I've discussed values affirmation interventions express uncertainty about how, exactly, to implement one. This may be because the details of the interventions are often relegated to supplemental materials published in association with the research articles describing their effects, thus making the implementation a bit of a mystery. I went digging into those supplemental materials for this blog post, in the hopes of de-mystifying values affirmation interventions.

Jordt and colleagues, in their 2017 study of the effects of a values affirmation exercise in undergraduate biology classes, modeled their implementation after Cohen et al., 2006. Indeed, the implementation was quite similar in all of the studies I examined. In Jordt et al.'s study (2017), students were given a "writing exercise" with the instructions, "In this assignment you will be answering several questions about your ideas, beliefs, and life. There are no right or wrong answers; instead, participation points will be awarded based on effort." The writing exercise was composed of four questions. The supplemental materials include the exact wording of each of the questions: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5589421/bin/supp_16_3_ar41__index.html. I am not reproducing the verbatim questions here because of copyright considerations. However, the gist of each question is shown below; if you are considering implementing a values affirmation exercise in your own classes, follow the link above to see the exact wording.

  1. Students were asked to consider a list of 14 possible personal values, and to select two or three that they valued the most. The values they chose from were athletic ability, confidence, creativity, empathy, independence, leadership, membership in a social group (such as a community, ethnic group, or club), music, patience, perseverance, politics or government, relationships with friends or family, religious or spiritual values, and sense of humor.
  2. Students were asked to explain why they chose those particular values. They were encouraged to think about specific times in their lives when those values were important to them and to include those personal experiences if they wanted to.
  3. Students were asked to list the top two reasons those values were important to them. This question seems somewhat redundant to me, but nonetheless that's what Jordt et al. (2017) asked.
  4. Finally, students were asked to rate their level of agreement with several statements, on a 6-point Likert scale: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Somewhat Disagree, Somewhat Agree, Agree, Strongly Agree. When I read the statements, I get the impression that they are designed to assess how strongly the students feel about the values they selected. For example, the first statement they are asked to rate is "The values I selected have influenced my life" (Jordt et al., 2017, supplementary materials). All of the statements are available, verbatim, in the supplement to the article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5589421/bin/supp_16_3_ar41__index.html.

One thing I find super-interesting in discussing values affirmation interventions with faculty members is how many people want to turn it into an exercise where students write about how much they value academic achievement, or how important it is to work hard in school. That really isn't what this particular intervention is about. Notably lacking from the list of values is any mention of academic performance or grades. Rather, my understanding is that this intervention is designed to remind students of who they are. We each draw strength from our identities; this intervention reinforces students' identities, in a way that (somewhat surprisingly, I'll admit) buffers them from stereotype threat. The intervention also conveys a subtle message: that you, their instructor, care about who they are, and that you care about it enough to want to read about each of them, in their own words. This idea -- that your students' identities matter to you -- can be an extremely powerful message.

The results -- significantly improved academic performance, particularly for groups underrepresented in the STEM disciplines, with the improvement persisting for months after the intervention -- are extraordinarily compelling (e.g. Cohen et al., 2006; Miyake et al., 2010; Jordt et al., 2017). It seems to me that we can't afford NOT to do this. What questions do you have about implementation, that I haven't answered here? Ask in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer them.


References

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.

Jordt, Hannah, Sarah L. Eddy, Riley Brazil, Ignatius Lau, Chelsea Mann, Sara E. Browned, Katherine King, and Scott Freeman (2017). Values Affirmation Intervention Reduces Achievement Gap between Underrepresented Minority and White Students in Introductory Biology Classes. CBE Life Sciences Education; 16(3): ar41. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5589421/. Supplemental materials -- including the handout given to students -- available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5589421/bin/supp_16_3_ar41__index.html.

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.




SAGE Musings: Implementing a Values Affirmation Intervention -- Discussion  

Carol- thank you for sharing this! Sometimes activities can have unforeseen outcomes and I suppose for me this falls under that category. I went back and looked at the articles you cited and I thought it was really interesting that the group most affected in the Miyake et al., (2010) study were female students who were particularly prone to gender stereotyping. Maybe the opportunity for introspection was a rarity for these students.

I've been reading up on the importance of motivating through altruism, particularly for students from underrepresented minority groups (eg. Gibbs and Griffin, 2013; Thoman et al., 2015; McGee et al., 2016; Bernard and Cooperdeck, 2018). It seems as though this may provide a similar connection to community or self that can provide students with some foundation when a lesson is presented in context.

I'm going to try to incorporate this into my classes in the coming semester- at the very least the idea of making students feel like I care about their opinions/thoughts is significant.

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Thanks, Caitlin! I'd love to know how it goes!

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