Two 15-minute writing exercises, administered to an intro physics class early in the semester, could substantially boost the scores of female students.

Lab-BeakersLast week, researchers at the University of Colorado published a psych experiment that seems almost too good to be true. They showed that two 15-minute writing exercises, administered to an intro physics class early in the semester, could substantially boost the scores of female students. Even more curious: the exercises had nothing to do with physics. Instead, students were asked to write about things that mattered to them, like creativity or relationships with family and friends. How could a few paragraphs on personal values translate into enduring better mastery of pulleys and frictionless planes?

When it comes to math and science classes, women can be subtly hampered by negative stereotypes about their gender. This is the idea of stereotype threat, advanced by psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele, and now solidly established, as I’ve written in Slate before. Stereotype threat can roar into action when members of any stereotyped group are primed to think about belonging to it—in other words, when women focus on being female or African-Americans on being black. It causes performance problems, but stereotype threat can also be countered, often in simple ways. As the Colorado writing exercises show, getting women to focus on things they care about can buck them up. The lesson is that small doses of affirmation can do a lot of good.

Here’s what we know about how stereotype threat works: In the 1990s, researchers found that women taking a math exam who were told that the test had “shown gender differences in the past” scored lower than other women with equivalent math backgrounds. Similarly, women asked to watch commercials in which ditzy ladies gushed about brownie mix afterward expressed less interest in quantitative pursuits. Stereotype threat is a universal offender: It can sabotage white men on the basketball court or men more broadly on a test of social sensitivity. Whenever people are made to worry that they might confirm a negative assumption—for instance, that girls can’t do math or that white men can’t jump—they may be less likely to do their best. Frustratingly, the stereotypes they want so badly to avoid instead may instead become self-fulfilling. For women on a math-and-science track, the threat is likely to worsen the further along they get, both because they will have fewer female classmates and role models, and because they may have stronger “math-equals-males implicit associations,” as psychologist Cordelia Fine points out in her terrific new book, Delusions of Gender.

At the same time, in 2007, psychologists handily proved that stereotype threat isn’t intractable with a study of top-tier calculus students at the University of Texas. At the beginning of one exam, half the students read a statement that said, in part: “Analysis of thousands of students test results has shown that males and females perform equally well on this test.” The women who read this statement scored significantly higher on average than other women in the class. They also scored higher on average than the men.

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Source: Amanda Schaffer | Slate