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Social factors impact academic achievement

A brief round-up of a few of the latest findings reinforcing the fact that academic achievement is not all about academic ability or skills.Most of these relate to the importance of social factors.

Improving social belonging improves GPA, well-being & health, in African-American students

From Stanford, we have a reminder of the effects of stereotype threat, and an interesting intervention that ameliorated it. The study involved 92 freshmen, of whom 49 were African-American, and the rest white. Half the participants (none of whom were told the true purpose of the exercise) read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school. The other subjects read about experiences unrelated to a sense of belonging. The treatment subjects were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students' experiences changed, with illustrations from their own lives, and then to rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students.

The idea of this intervention was to get the students to realize that everyone, regardless of race, has difficulty adjusting to college, and has times when they feel alienated or rejected.

While this exercise had no apparent effect on the white students, it had a significant impact on the grades and health of the black students. Grade point averages went up by almost a third of a grade between their sophomore and senior years, and 22% of them landed in the top 25% of their graduating class, compared to about 5% of black students who didn't participate in the exercise.

Moreover, the black students in the treatment group reported a greater sense of belonging compared to their peers in the control group; they were happier, less likely to spontaneously think about negative racial stereotypes, and apparently healthier (3 years after the intervention, 28% had visited a doctor recently, vs 60% in the control group).


Protecting against gender stereotype threat Stereotype threat is a potential factor for gender as well as ethnicity.

I’ve reported on a number of studies showing that reminding women or girls of gender stereotypes in math results in poorer performance on subsequent math tests. A new study suggests that women could be “inoculated” against such effects if their math / science class is taught by a woman. Although in these experiments, women’s academic performance didn’t suffer, their engagement and commitment to their STEM major was significantly affected.

In the first study, 72 women majoring in STEM subjects were given several tests measuring their implicit and explicit attitudes towards math vs English, plus a short but difficult math test. Half the students were (individually) tested by a female peer expert, supposedly double majoring in math and psychology, and half by a male peer. Those with a male showed negative implicit attitudes towards math, while those tested by a female showed equal liking for math and English on an implicit attitudes test. Similarly, women implicitly identified more with math in the presence of the female expert. On the math test, women who met the female attempted more problems (an average of 7.73 out of 10 compared to 6.39). There was no effect on performance — but because of the difficulty of the test, there was a floor effect.

In the second study, 101 women majoring in engineering were given short biographies of 5 engineers, who were either male or female, or descriptions of engineering innovations (control condition). Again, women presented with female engineers showed equal preference for math and English in the subsequent implicit attitudes test, while those presented with male engineers or innovations showed a significant implicit negative attitude to math. However, implicit identification with math wasn’t any stronger after reading about female engineers. However, those who read about female engineers did report greater intentions to pursue an engineering career, and this was mediated by greater self-efficacy in engineering. Again, there was no effect on explicit attitudes toward math.

In the third study, the performance of 42 female and 49 male students in introductory calculus course sections taught by male (8 sections) and female instructors (7 sections) were compared. Professors were yoked to same-sex teaching assistants.

As with the earlier studies, female students implicitly liked math and English equally when the teacher was a women, but had a decidedly more negative attitude toward math when their instructor was a man. Male students were unaffected by teacher gender. Similarly, female showed greater implicit identification with math when their teacher was a woman; male students were unaffected. Female students also expected better grades when their teacher was a woman; male students didn’t differ as a function of teacher gender (it should be noted that this wasn’t because they thought the women would be more generous markers; marking was pooled across all the instructors, and the students knew this). There was no effect of teacher gender on final grade (but there was a main effect of student gender: women outperformed men).

In other words, the findings of the 3rd study confirmed the effects on implicit attitudes towards STEM subjects, and demonstrated that male students were unaffected by the interventions that affected female students.

Now we come to engagement. At the beginning of the semester, female students were much less likely than male students (9% vs. 23%) to respond to questions put to the class, but later on, female students in sections led by women were much more likely to respond to such questions than were women in courses taught by men (46% vs 7%). Interestingly, more male students also responded to questions posed by female instructors (42% vs 26%). That would seem to suggest that male instructors are much more likely to engage in strategies that discourage many students from engaging in the class. But undeniably, women are more affected by this.

Additionally, at the beginning of the courses, around the same number of female students approached their instructors, regardless of their gender (12-13%). But later, while this percentage of female students approaching female instructors stayed constant, none of them approached male instructors. This could be taken to mean male instructors consistently discouraged such behavior, but male students did not change (an average of 7% both at Time 1 and Time 2).

The number of students who asked questions in class did not vary over time, or by student gender. However it did vary by teacher gender: 22% of both male and female students asked questions in class when they were taught by women, while only 15% did so in courses taught by men.

Some of these effects then seem to indicate that male college instructors are more inclined to discourage student engagement. What the effects of that are, remains to be seen.


Social and emotional learning programs found to boost student improvement

A review of 213 school programs that enhance students' social and emotional development, has found that such programs not only significantly improved social and emotional skills, caring attitudes, and positive social behaviors, but also resulted in significant improvement on achievement tests (although only a small subset of these programs actually looked at this aspect, the numbers of students involved were very large).

The average improvement in grades and standardized-test scores was 11 percentile points —an improvement that falls within the range of effectiveness of academic interventions.


Boys need close friendships

Related to this perhaps (I looked but couldn’t find any gender numbers for the SEL programs), from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference in New York, developmental psychologist Niobe Way argues that one reason why boys are struggling in school is that they are experiencing a "crisis of connection." Stereotypical notions of masculinity, that emphasize separation and independence, challenge their need for close friendships. She's found that many boys have close friendships that are being discouraged by anxiety about being seen as gay or effeminate.

Way says that having close friendships is linked to better physical and mental health, lower rates of drug use and gang membership, and higher levels of academic achievement and engagement. When asked, she encouraged teachers to allow boys to sit next to their best friends in class.


High rate of college students with unrecognized hearing loss

On a completely different note, a study involving 56 college students has found that fully a quarter of them showed 15 decibels or more of hearing loss at one or more test frequencies — an amount that is not severe enough to require a hearing aid, but could disrupt learning. The highest levels of high frequency hearing loss were in male students who reported using personal music players.



Walton, G. M., & Cohen G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science. 331(6023), 1447 - 1451.

Stout, J. G., Dasgupta N., Hunsinger M., & McManus M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: using ingroup experts to inoculate women's self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(2), 255 - 270.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg R. P., Dymnicki A. B., Taylor R. D., & Schellinger K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development. 82(1), 405 - 432.

Le Prell, C. G., Hensley B. N., Campbell K. C. M., Hall J. W., & Guire K. (2011). Evidence of hearing loss in a ‘normally-hearing’ college-student population. International Journal of Audiology. 50(S1), S21-S31 - S21-S31.

Why your knowledge of normal aging memory matters

I’ve discussed on a number of occasions the effects that stereotypes can have on our cognitive performance. Women, when subtly reminded that females are supposedly worse at math, do more poorly on math tests; African-Americans, when subtly reminded of racial stereotypes, perform more poorly on academic tests. And beliefs about the effect of aging similarly affect memory and cognition in older adults.

Your beliefs matter. In the same way that those who believe that intelligence is fixed tend to disengage when something is challenging, while those who believe that intelligence is malleable keep working, believing that more time and effort will yield better results (see Fluency heuristic is not everyone’s rule and Regulating your study time and effort for more on this), older adults who believe that declining faculties are an inevitable consequence of aging are less inclined to make efforts to counter any decline.

Moreover, if you believe that your memory will get progressively and noticeably worse as you get older, then you will tend to pay more attention to, and give more weight to, your memory failures. This will reinforce your beliefs, and so on, feeding back on itself. Bear in mind that we all, at every age, suffer memory failures! Forgetting things is not in itself a sign of age-related decline.

It’s important, therefore, that people have a realistic idea of what to expect in ‘normal’ aging. In the course of writing a short book on this topic (it will be out, I hope, early in the new year), I came across the Knowledge of Memory Aging Questionnaire (KMAQ). Research using this questionnaire has revealed the interesting finding that people know more about pathological memory aging than they do about normal memory aging.

You may find it interesting to know some of the questions, and how likely people are to get them right. So, let's look at one of these studies, involving 150 people, divided evenly into three age-groups (40-59; 60-79; 80+).

The oldest-old scored significantly more poorly than the other two groups, although the differences weren’t great (65% correct vs 70% and 69%). There was no overall difference between genders, but males were significantly more likely to answer “Don’t know” to questions about pathological memory.

But if we focus only on the subset of four questions that relate to stereotypes about normal aging in memory, there is much greater difference between the age groups (78% correct, 69%, 52%, for middle age, young-old, and oldest-old, respectively). These are the four questions (the answers are all “false”):

  • Regardless of how memory is tested, younger adults will remember far more material than older adults.
  • If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact (e.g., remembering a person’s name), then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help.
  • When older people are trying to memorize new information, the way they study it does not affect how much they will remember later.
  • Memory training programs are not helpful for older persons, because the memory problems that occur in old age cannot be improved by educational methods.

Only one of these questions was reliably answered correctly, and that only by the middle-age adults (If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact, then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help.)

Looking at the individual questions, it’s interesting to see that the different age-groups show different patterns of knowledge. Middle-age adults were most likely to answer the following questions correctly (between 45 and 42 of the 50 answered correctly):

  • [Q18] Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease show up gradually and become more noticeable to family members and close friends over time. (true)
  • [Q17] Memory for how to do well-learned things, such as reading a map or riding a bike, does not change very much, if at all, in later adulthood. (true)
  • [Q1] “A picture is worth a thousand words” in that it is easier for both younger and older people to remember pictures than to remember words. (true)
  • If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact (e.g., remembering a person’s name), then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help. (false)

Young-old adults also scored highly on Q17 and Q1, but their other top-scorers were:

  • [Q21] If an older person has gone into another room and cannot remember what he or she had intended to do there, going back to the place where the thought first come to mind will often help one recall what he or she had intended to do. (true)
  • Confusion and memory lapses in older people can sometimes be due to physical conditions that doctors can treat so that these symptoms go away over time. (true)

The oldest-old agreed that Q21 and Q18 were easy ones (indeed, 48 and 47 got these questions right), but after that, their next top-scorer was:

  • Lifelong alcoholism may result in severe memory problems in old age. (true)

Although average education levels were similar for the three age-groups, there was greater variability within the oldest-old — 9 didn’t finish high school, but 20 had tertiary degrees. In comparison, only one middle-aged and one young-old adult didn’t finish high school. The finding that the oldest-old were more likely to answer according to stereotypes of aging memory may therefore reflect, at least in part, the lower education of some individuals.

But let’s go back to my earlier comment that those who believe poorer memory is inevitable with age give more weight to their failures while being less inclined to deal with them. This study did indeed find that changes in memory test performance over five years were correlated with subjective memory complaints, but not with use of external aids. That is, people who were forgetting more, and noticing that they were forgetting more, did not engage in greater use of strategies that would help them remember.

Something to think about!

My Memory Journal


Hawley, K. S., Cherry K. E., Su J. L., Chiu Y. - W., & Jazwinski M. S. (2006). Knowledge of memory aging in adulthood. International Journal of Aging & Human Development. 63(4), 317 - 334.