Low-Stakes Writing to Help Close the Minority Achievement Gap?

A recently published article in Science (April 17, 2009) has me rethinking the notion of “low stakes” writing. The article by Cohen, et al. entitled “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” reports on the longitudinal effect of low stakes, structured writing on the academic performance of African-American middle school students.

In an effort to counter negative stereotype effects, researchers administered a series of values writing prompts aimed at helping the subjects articulate and affirm their values. “Beginning early in seventh grade, students reflected on an important personal value, such as relationships with friends and family or musical interests, in a series of structured writing assignments.” One fascinating aspect of the study is that the writing was not directly connected to academic pursuits, or to the development of communication competencies. Most important, it seems, is the payoff!

The intervention appears to have had amazing consequences. “First, early poor performance was less predictive of later performance and psychological state for affirmed African Americans than for nonaffirmed ones, suggesting that the intervention reset the starting point of a recursive cycle. Second, the affirmation not only benefited GPA, but also lifted the angle of the performance trajectory and thus lessened the degree of downward trend in performance characteristic of a recursive cycle. Third, the affirmation’s benefits were most evident among low-achieving African Americans. These are the children most undermined by the standard recursive cycle with its worsening of performance and magnifying of initial differences in performance. Fourth, the affirmation prevented the achievement gap from widening with time. Fifth, treatment boosters were not needed to sustain its impact into Year 2.”

Who would have thought that brief, structured, values writing assignments could have such academic career-altering effects?

My own pedagogy has tended not to explore the ground on which the prompts in this study are built. Needless to say I’m rethinking some of my own practice in light of this work. These seemingly low stakes prompts, assignments with little or now direct connection to students’ grades in a course, are anything but low stakes when one considers their impact on long term academic performance.