Expert Voices

The Psychology of Success: Helping Students Achieve (Op-Ed)

A girl writes in a notebook in a classroom
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Timothy Wilson is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change" (Little, Brown and Co., 2011) and he contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Scientific practice is under intense scrutiny these days, including in research psychology. Due to some high-profile cases of scientific fraud, and concern by some about shoddy research practices, there is a lot of hand-wringing going on. This is ironic, because this should be a time for hand clapping, not hand-wringing.

In recent years, research psychologists — particularly in my subdiscipline, social psychology — have made great strides in addressing social and behavioral problems. Drawing on years of meticulous laboratory research on how the mind works, social psychologists have developed simple, inexpensive interventions that alter people's thinking with long-term beneficial effects — resulting, for example, in less child abuse, lowered racial prejudice and fewer teenage pregnancies. Some of the greatest successes are projects that have targeted educational problems, including closing the gap between minority and white students' academic achievement, increasing interest in science and helping people overcome math anxiety.

Consider the achievement gap. Although such a large problem requires many solutions, a team of social psychologists— including Geoffrey Cohen, Gregory Walton, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns and Julio Garcia — have discovered a simple intervention that has big effects. As reported in the journal Science, African-American middle school students who completed a "self-affirmation" writing exercise, which involved writing about an important value in their lives that was unrelated to academics, got significantly better grades than did those who were randomly assigned to a control group that did not perform the exercise.

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That study has been replicated with Latino-American middle school students and women taking college science courses. How does it work? Recent evidence, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that the writing exercise is particularly effective when people write about feeling close to other people, and that this increase in "social belongingness" buffers students against their anxiety about doing poorly in academic settings.

Another long-standing educational problem is how to get more students to take courses in science and mathematics. America is falling behind other countries in science education. One National Academies study in 2010 found that among 29 wealthy countries, the United States ranked 27th in the percentage of college students who received degrees in science or engineering.

These low percentages are due in part to choices students make in high school. For example, only 12 percent of high school students in the United States take calculus. Drawing on years of laboratory research on motivation, Judy Harackiewicz and Chris Hulleman designed simple interventions to convince students to take more science courses and do better in them. In one study in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers sent parents of 10th graders and 11th graders brochures discussing the relevance of science education to everyday life and career choices, as well as suggestions about how to talk to children about those topics. It worked: The students of the parents who received the brochures took more math and science courses in high school than did students in a randomly assigned control group.

In another studyin Science, the researchers targeted the students themselves. Ninth-graders in science classes were randomly assigned to either write essays about how the material in their class connected to their everyday lives or to a control group in which they wrote summaries of the course material. The students wrote their essays every three to four weeks throughout the school year. As it turned out, students who already had high expectations of the course were unaffected by the topic of the essays because they were already motivated and didn't need an extra boost. The intervention had a dramatic effect, however, among students with low expectations. By the end of the semester, students with low expectations who completed the "science is relevant" essays were more interested in science, and achieved better grades, than did control students with low expectations.

Here's another educational issue that will be familiar to many — math anxiety . How many of us felt a knot in our stomachs on final-exam day in our high school math class, convinced that there was no way we could understand all those numbers and formulas? Math anxiety is common among students, particularly girls, and can lead students to avoid science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes and underperform in the ones they do take. Importantly, math anxiety is not the same as low ability — rather, it is the belief that one will do poorly, which isn't always true.

Psychologist Sian Beilock and her colleagues discovered some fascinating things about math anxiety and how to fix it. Their first finding is frightening: Elementary school teachers, who are predominantly female, often have math anxiety themselves, and if they do, they tend to pass it on to their students — especially the girls. A second grader who is perfectly good at math may learn to fear it because of her teacher's anxieties.

Fortunately, Beilock and colleagues also discovered a way to ameliorate the debilitating effects of anxiety about math and science. Students randomly assigned to write about their feelings about a math or science test — right before taking the test — performed better than those assigned to write about an unrelated topic, and this was especially true of students with high test anxiety. Although it might seem thatthe worst thing one could do is to ask an anxious student to write about his or her feelings, doing so appears to cause them to compartmentalize their anxiety and avoid excessive rumination during the test.

Each of these impressive studies was based on social psychological theory developed in the laboratory and each was rigorously tested in field experiments. Rather than assuming that their interventions would work, the researchers put them to the test. And there are many more examples of successful interventions. This is why I am bullish on the field: Social psychologists are uniquely positioned to address many real-world problems, armed with sophisticated theories about how the mind works and the methodological tools to test these theories in real-world settings. Let's stop the hand-wringing and stand up and give these researchers a round of applause.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on