On achievement & difference: Valuing backgrounds matters

24 Nov

The article “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition” (Nicole Stephens, MarYam Hamedani, and Mesmin Destin, 2014) was the focus of the Center’s November Pedagogical Innovations Journal Club.

Definitions from the article

  • First-generation students are college students who do not have parents with 4-year college degrees.
  • Continuing-generation students are students who have at least one parent with a 4-year degree.
  • The social-class achievement gap describes the difference in achievement between first-generation students and continuing-generation students. First-generation students typically receive lower grades and drop out at higher rates than continuing-generation students.

The difference-education intervention for this study consisted of a panel of senior students providing success tips to new freshmen attending college orientation sessions. These tips were linked to panelist’s status as either a first- or continuing-generation student. For example a panelist might say “Because my parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t have anyone at home to ask for study advice. I had to rely on my advisor who suggested that I go to the tutoring center.” The control group had the same panelists answer questions, but they did not mention their first- or continuing-generation status.

Findings: When the authors compared the GPA of first-generation students in the experimental group to the first-generation students in the control group, the students who participated in the difference-education session had a significantly higher GPA than those in the control group. In fact, this was enough improvement to close the social-achievement gap.

The authors also examined the number of campus resources the students took advantage of. They found that the first-generation students in the experimental group used significantly more campus resources than first-generation students in the control group. And once again, this brought the level of the first-generation students up to the level of the continuing-generation students, closing the social-achievement gap.

The authors also looked at psycho-social effects with a survey and found significant differences between intervention and control group participants of both first- and continuing-generation students. When asked the questions below, the students in the intervention group scored significantly higher than the students in the control group.

Measure Sample item
“At present, how satisfied are you with your life?”
Social fit “I expect that I will belong as a student at [this university].”
Academic identification “How important is being a college student to you?”
Maintain relationships “Number of hours talking on phone to family and friends from home.”
Appreciation of difference “Students with different backgrounds can find their own way of being successful at [this university].”
Perspective taking “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”

How can this information be used to improve student retention? In our discussion some participants were interested in methods to improve retention of first-generation students. How can we use this information in our classes? One suggestion was to discuss your first-generation status (if you were a first-generation student) and what that meant for you as a student. Other personal examples might motivate other at-risk students. One of the key recommendations from the article is that whether first-generation or continuing-generation, honest appraisals of both the challenges and the benefits of a particular status was helpful to illustrate how a person’s background shapes their college experience.

The authors suggest that it is the increased use of campus resources that was responsible for the increase in GPA of first-generation students. If so, one thing instructors can do is mention and recommend campus resources. Perhaps, even provide feedback from former students who found particular resources useful for doing well in your class.

What is the explanation for the effect on continuing generation students? Though most could see how this intervention might be useful for first-generation students, there was some surprise that the intervention had an effect on continuing-generation students. We discussed possibilities including that continuing-generation freshmen, in seeing successful first-generation senior students, might change some preconceived ideas about this group, might discover new ways to build alliances with peers, and might have learned strategies for mediating their own other, personal identity differences as these became salient in negotiating a first year college experience.

Personal stories about participants’ experiences as first-generation students. Several participants shared their own stories as first-generation students. Many faced some of the same obstacles described in the article, including not taking advantage of campus resources that were available to them. Some also said that an intervention like the one described in the paper might have made a difference for them as an undergraduate.

How does this work? And can it be that easy? Additional Research – It seems like such a small intervention (one hour at the beginning of the school year) for such a big impact. However there is a great deal of literature that supports implementing small social psychological interventions for big impact. In “Social-psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic” (Review of Educational Research, 2011), David Yeager and Gregory Walton describe a set of studies that employ simple social-psychological interventions designed to address stereotype threat and other concerns students hold regarding intellect and identity. These interventions, the authors note in their analysis, had significant impact on student performance, based on ways the interventions involved a threat-reduction approach to difference. In their discussion section, Stephens, Hamedani, and Destin

“Several successful interventions take a threat-reduction approach, which seeks to protect students from threats that can arise from having a potentially stigmatized background or particular social identity….  

“A common assumption in this literature is that difference is a source of threat for students from stigmatized groups; therefore, the most effective way to intervene is to shift attention away from difference [as a source of threat…

[F]urther, we challenge the notion that difference-blind approaches are the optimal way to reduce threat. Indeed, our difference education approach reveals that engaging students about difference can be empowering if students have the opportunity to learn about the significance of their backgrounds in a supportive, constructive, and identity-safe manner.”

In the approach used in the article we discussed, highlighting difference worked to reduce threat, and the authors suggest that a difference-education approach may be empowering for students. Indeed, as successful academics, highlighting our own differences and describing how they influenced our education may be an important encouragement to students who share traits with us, whether first-generation status, cultural, age, race, or sexual orientation.

Sharing these research findings with students – in first year courses, in related disciplinary courses, or in teaching professional development settings – may also be helpful. In one example, a local faculty member includes the Yaeger and Walton article in required course readings to underscore similar interventions and discussions in her classrooms, and in the students’ on-going personal learning as well as professional interactions.

Combined together, these approaches further reinforce the idea that the role of college instructors can be so much more than content-deliverer. We may never know the positive impact our comments about our own differences may have on our students.

Articles Cited

Stephens, Nicole M., MarYam G. Hamedani, and Mesmin Destin. “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition.” Psychological Science 25.4 (2014): 943-953. Available as a PDF by clicking this link.

Yeager, David S., and Gregory M. Walton. “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic.” Review of Educational Research 81.2 (2011): 267-301. Available as a PDF by clicking this link.

[Note: This article awarded the 2012 Review of Research Award from the American Education Research Association, and 2012 Distinguished Research Award from Division E (Human Development) of the American Education Research Association.]



2 Responses to “On achievement & difference: Valuing backgrounds matters”


  1. Host to post grades, and readings for procrastination whilst grading. | Chalk and Pixels - 30 November 2015

    […] Case You Missed It: A summary of the ground-breaking article on how one-hour chats with upper-class students increased the […]

  2. Closing gaps: “Lay theory” interventions | TILT - 27 November 2016

    […] 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 […]

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