Closing gaps: “Lay theory” interventions

27 Nov noun_688775_cc

A report from from November’s CEI journal club discussion of the May 2016 PNAS article:
Yeager, David S., et al. “Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 201524360.

The transition to college can be difficult for students. First year students with social or economic disadvantages are at a greater risk of receiving lower grades and dropping out than advantaged students. This is true even when they enter with identical academic qualifications.

A possible way to help close this gap is to introduce students to a “lay theory” about learning and learners. In this case, a lay theory is an intervention built from the growth mindset framework designed to engage college students in understanding that the challenges they will face in the transition to college are:

  • common
  • improvable
  • not permanent
  • not an indication of future belonging or potential

“Lay theory”

Lay theory interventions are designed to break a negative feedback cycle that exists for some disadvantaged students when they experience an academic setback. When faced with a low score on an exam or receiving critical feedback from a professor, disadvantaged students may react by thinking that people like them don’t belong or can’t succeed at college. This can lead to withdrawal from the social and academic environment which in turn results in worse achievement and lower persistence which reinforces the original thought that people like them don’t belong or can’t succeed at college.

Lay theory interventions are designed to break that cycle by creating a different narrative. This interpretation instructs students to view challenges as a common part of the transition to college that everyone experiences, and that they can be overcome by steady work and taking advantage of academic resources. This leads to continued engagement in the social and academic environment which results in higher achievement and greater persistence, reinforcing the message that challenges are common and they can be overcome.

Lay theory interventions work

So what are these interventions? They are surprisingly short, easy to administer, and effective. In a previous study looking at the achievement gap between first generation and continuing generation students, the intervention consisted of senior students providing advice to beginning students on how to survive in college. The senior students draw on their own unique backgrounds when framing their advice. For instance a senior student might say “As a first generation student my parents couldn’t help me or give advice, but I found the tutoring center really helpful.” This intervention resulted in closing of the achievement gap in GPAs between disadvantaged students and advantaged students.

There are multiple studies that show that small interventions like the one described above can result in significant gains for disadvantaged students, with effects lasting for a year or longer. [See the related blog post “On achievement and difference: Valuing backgrounds matters.”] The question is, can these interventions be applied at scale to an entire class of first year students? That’s what was tested in the article we discussed at the November Pedagogical Innovations Journal Club.

The study

In “Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors wanted to see if lay theory interventions could work on a large scale. They reported the results of three randomized, double-blind experiments designed to test the effectiveness of pre-preparatory lay theory interventions for a total of more than 9,500 students. Incoming students were provided an intervention in the form of an online activity included with other online orientation activities like how to register for classes and order text books. The intervention took the form of narrative advice from a senior student. The senior students shared their own wondering whether they would, on first getting to college, fit in, and later coming to realize that everyone feels uncertain at first, making this something more common, something that everyone goes through. The intervention was designed to create a feeling of belonging and develop a growth mindset in students. [See also the blog post “Mindsets, Learning and Classroom Conflict: The Importance of Incremental Thinking.”]

The results

In one of the three experiments, 7,335 incoming students at a high quality public 4-year university were either provided the online intervention similar to the one described in the previous paragraph or a control condition. The authors looked at completion rates of these students at the end of the first year. They found that disadvantaged students in the control group were less likely to persist compared to advantaged students. This is a typical result highlighting an achievement gap. However, disadvantaged students in the intervention group showed a 40% reduction in this gap in completion rates.

Similar interventions were introduced to all incoming students at a selective private university. Because so few students drop out of this school, the authors looked at cumulative GPAs at the end of the first year. An achievement gap existed between disadvantaged students in the control group with an average GPA of 3.33 compared to advantaged students with an average GPA of 3.62. The intervention group of disadvantaged students, however, showed a significant increase in average GPA to 3.42, a 31% decrease in the GPA achievement gap.

Why this works

So why does this simple intervention work? The authors suggest one reason that it works is because disadvantaged students who receive the intervention are more likely to engage with institutional resources. In two of the studies they show that students who received the intervention were more likely to use academic support services than the control students who did not receive the intervention. This is in alignment with the social-class achievement gap study mentioned at the beginning of this piece. In that study first generation students who received the intervention sought out more college resources on average than students in the control group who did not receive the lay theory intervention.

The authors conclude that preparatory lay theory interventions at scale have the potential to reduce social inequality for disadvantaged students. In fact, the public institution studied in the article later introduced the lay theory intervention to all of their incoming students and reported increased full-time enrollment for disadvantaged students.

Implications for our teaching?

The ideas behind lay theory interventions might also apply in the classroom. Participants in the journal club described lay theory interventions that are currently being used in their college with new students. For instance when you introduce difficult course material you could tell your students in advance that previous students have found this material challenging but found support by studying in groups outside of class, or using institutional tutoring support, or the study resources you provide.

If a struggling student comes to talk to you, you can mention that it is common for students to struggle with this course material, but you have confidence that they will be able to master it with hard work and persistence. You could ask students about their study strategies and offer advice for more effective ways to learn the new material. You could also share your own experience as a student when you have struggled with course material, how it felt, and how you worked to overcome the difficulties you faced.

A brief statement can be added to your course syllabus indicating that many students have been challenged by the material in your class, but were able to master it by doing the reading, coming to class and keeping up with the homework. This statement could act as a lay theory intervention. This may be especially important if your class has a “reputation” among students of being particularly difficult.

With results like those described here, perhaps it is time to ask why more institutions aren’t providing lay theory interventions for their students.

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