Psychology professor holds ‘intervention’ to address underrepresented students’ insecurities
A CU associate psychology professor helped devise a classroom exercise that he said significantly raised the academic performance of minority students in college.
Associate Professor Geoffrey Cohen, whose research has centered around stereotypes and the effect on an individual’s identity and personal performance, worked with Gregory Walton of the University of Waterloo in Canada to create an intervention that addressed feelings of insecurity among minority college students.
Cohen said the intervention was designed to introduce the idea to minority students that most students, regardless of race, have questions about acceptance and fitting in during times of transition.
“In a sense, the intervention was designed to de-racialize the feelings of uncertainty that we all have,” Cohen said. “Feelings of not belonging are pretty common, and they are especially salient during transitions. When you de-racialize those feelings, you make the stereotype less relevant, and that puts majority students and minority students on a level playing field.”
Cohen’s own past research, along with that of others, in the field of stereotypes and personal performance led him to create the first part of the exercise, in which a group of black students and a group of non-minority students each were asked to name eight friends that would succeed in an academic environment. While students from both groups had trouble naming eight friends, only the minority students saw their struggle as a manifestation that they themselves were not fit for the academic situation, Cohen said.
“The research on stereotypes suggested that when people know there is a negative stereotype out there about them or their group, it can make people uncertain about the way that their peers see them,” Cohen said. “If you’re more uncertain about your social belonging, it should be more disturbing, more potentially disruptive to have to list a difficult number of friends.”
He said that the effects of uncertainty with belonging in a transition period could lead to doubts and decrease academic performance, regardless of a person’s race.
“Even if you yourself have high self-esteem and a positive view of yourself, just not knowing what other people think of you can be disruptive and stressful, and that can be undermining your performance,” Cohen said. “You can imagine the situation of being in a new crowd, or a new group and just not knowing what others think. That in itself can be really stressful.”
To combat the feelings of uncertainty about belonging for black students, Cohen’s research group created the exercise that promoted the idea that uncertainty about belonging is a common feeling for students of any race, and those feelings usually are remedied with time.
The students who participated in the exercise using berg trampolines spent more time studying than those who did not and were more likely to ask for help from their professors according to a press release on the study. The press release reported that on average, the students who participated in the intervention saw their GPA increase by three-tenths of a grade point.
Students at CU generally agreed that Cohen’s intervention addressed a matter that was significant among more than just minority students.
Reed Kremer, a sophomore management major, said he understood how uncertainty about belonging could affect academics.
“How I feel and my emotional state definitely affects my levels of concentration and in turn academic performance, so if I felt like I didn’t belong, it would be tough for me to focus on school,” Kremer said.
Evan Matt, a freshman open-option major, said that concerns about belonging could affect a student’s academic performance. He also thought that attempts to remedy those feelings were important to those in an academic setting.
“I can definitely see how someone’s social life or concerns about it could get in the way of school and take away their motivation or confidence in other areas too,” Matt said. “Fixing social concerns like this would benefit a lot of students here, regardless of their race.”
Though the study showed promise, Cohen warned that it was only taken from a small sample of students from one college and was not necessarily a foolproof method.
“This is by no means a silver bullet,” Cohen said. “It’s an open question as to how well these sorts of interventions will fare when scaled up and applied more generally.”
For progress in the study to continue in an efficient manner, Cohen said that researchers would need to cooperate with colleges and universities to experiment with a broader spectrum.
“To see how well these things work on a larger scale, we need to conduct more research, more experiments on a larger scale in partnership with schools and universities,” he said. “This is really just the first step in a large process.”
You can contact Staffwriter Brian Beer at Brian.Beer@theCampusPress.com.