Sunday, June 26, 2011

Self-esteem that makes a difference

Throughout this blog I've critiqued self-esteem boosting strategies as either backfiring on unsocial children, and/or coming at the expense of academics--such that, for example, American school children have higher self-esteem about their math skills than their Japanese counterparts do, even though they perform significantly significantly worse on international math tests.


But I don't intend to rule out meaningful ways to boost self-esteem that actually raise academic performance. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on one highly successful strategy--one that addresses the "stereotype vulnerability" experienced by members of certain minority groups:
College freshmen read the results of what they were told was a survey of upperclassmen, together with ostensible first-hand reports of navigating college life. The stories detailed how, at first, the juniors and seniors had felt snubbed by their fellow students and intimidated by their professors, but their situation had improved as they gained self-confidence. The freshmen were asked to write essays explaining how their own experiences dovetailed with those of the upperclassmen; they then crafted short speeches that were videotaped, supposedly to be shown to the next generation of undergraduates. The exercise took about an hour. Meanwhile, a control group was reading and writing about an unrelated topic.

This simple experience didn't affect how well white students in the study performed academically. That's not surprising, because whites aren't hostage to stereotypes of inferiority. But it appeared to change the arc of the minority students' college lives. Over the next three years, their grade-point averages steadily rose, compared with the GPAs of a similar group of black undergraduates: the control group that didn't participate in the "social belonging" exercise.

At graduation, the grades of the students in the experiment were a third of a point higher than the grades of the students in the control group; that's the difference between a B-plus and an A-minus average. Twenty-two percent of the minority participants, but only 5 percent of the control group, were in the top quarter of their class; only a third of them, compared with half of the control group, wound up in the bottom quarter. What's more, they were substantially less likely to have become sick, and more likely to report being happy, during their undergraduate years than the other minority students.
The effects of this strategy are so heartening, and so powerful, that it should be tried at schools around the country. But notice how much more meaningful this sort of self-esteem boosting is--dramatizing, as it does, the power people have to overcome life's adversities--than are the more typical self-esteem boosting tactics of vacuous praise, "cooperation" over competition, and me-focused assignments.

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