British Journal of Educational Psychology (2015), 85, 1–18
©2015 The British Psychological Society
Minding and mending the gap: Social psychological
interventions to reduce educational disparities
Brian Spitzer* and Joshua Aronson
New York University, USA
Background. Achievement gaps continue to garner a great deal of attention both in
academic and in popular circles. Many students continue to struggle despite broad
educational reforms aimed at narrowing these gaps in learning and performance.
Aims. In this article, we review a number of social psychological interventions that show
promise in reducing gaps in achievement, not by addressing structural barriers to
achievement, but by helping students cope with threats to their identity that impair
intellectual functioning and motivation. For example, interventions involving meditation,
role models, emotional reappraisal, growth mindsets, imagining possible selves, self-
afﬁrmations, belongingness and cooperative learning have been shown to ameliorate
threats to identity and raise achievement. We describe and evaluate these social
Arguments. Many achievement gaps involve a psychological predicament: a threat to
one’s social identity or to one’s sense of belonging. Students’ implicit theories –how they
mind the gap –can act as barriers to their success. By helping students cope with these
threats, these theory-based interventions represent a genuine advance in the way schools
may reduce gaps in achievement.
Conclusion. These interventions show how students’ educational success depends
partly on ﬂuid aspects of context –how tasks are framed, who else is in the room, or what
they believe about intelligence. Because of this ﬂuidity, these interventions may not work
in all settings. Achievement gaps are ultimately caused by a variety of factors, both
objective and subjective that produce inequality. The research reviewed here suggests
that even without changes in objective barriers to success, brief psychological
interventions can narrow what many see as intractable gaps in academic achievement.
Gaps in school performance have long been a concern in academic as well as in popular
circles. One is hard pressed to ﬁnd a piece in academic or popular writings in the past
century that does not use the word crisis to describe inequities in educational attainment.
Still, achievement gaps are generating unprecedented anxiety in the current era, where
well-developed cognitive skills are necessary for survival in a competitive global economy,
which increasingly require a higher education degree (Darling-Hammond, 2010;
Friedman, 2005). Every 3 years, the Programme for International Student Assessment
(PISA) tests the knowledge and skills of students in participating nations within the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ranking students on
*Correspondence should be addressed to Brian Spitzer, New York University, Steinhardt 196 Mercer, 8th Floor, New York, NY
10012, USA (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
mathematics, science, and reading performance. The results, which show United States
and United Kingdom students to score near the middle of the pack, are cause for concern
that both countries are losing their competitive edge to better scoring countries like
Finland and China (OECD, 2012). PISA scores for both countries have remained largely
stagnant over the years, although US students declined markedly in mathematics
performance, falling from 25th place in 2009 to 31st place in 2012 (OECD, 2012). The
United Kingdom is ranked 23rd for reading, 26th for mathematics, and 20th for science. In
2009, it was placed 25th, 28th, and 16th, respectively. The American pattern of stagnation
and slippage is notable in that it occurred during a massive push for academic
improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a testing and accountability
regime, which promised to make all children proﬁcient in basic skills by 2014. With
aspirations nowhere near as unrealistic, the United Kingdom has been similarly investing
in new reading and numeracy tests, new funding for education, and increased
accountability pressure on schools through ranking (e.g., secondary school banding)
since 2009 (Darling-Hammond, 2010).
Within their borders, both the United Kingdom and the United States share another
problem –serious gaps between racial groups and/or inequity of wealth and resources
(Department for Education & Skills, 2005; OECD, 2012). For example, according to
census data in the United Kingdom, only 38% of students eligible for free lunch earned at
least ﬁve grades in between an A and a C in their General Certiﬁcate of Secondary
Education (GCSE) scores, compared to 65% of their wealthier counterparts (Bush, 2005).
In the United States, achievement and test score gaps continue to persist between African
Americans and Whites, Hispanics and Whites, and Native Americans and Whites (U.S.
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).
Why do the United Kingdom and United States stagnate while other nations like
Finland and China improve? One clear reason is the widening wealth gap in these
countries and the effects of this widening gap on achievement. For example, in the United
States, the achievement gap between those in the 90th percentile of wealth and those in
10th percentile has grown over the past ﬁve decades, and now is double the gap between
African Americans and Whites, which, itself, stopped closing after two decades of
antipoverty measures (Reardon, 2011). The success of countries such as Finland, who
used tax policy to reduce the impact of poverty on schooling, suggests that signiﬁcant
redistribution of wealth could narrow our academic achievement gaps as well.
Minding the gaps
The failure of UK and US policies and the success of Finland’s supports the school of
thought that holds that improving learning and motivation requires increased funding to
meet the needs for improved nutrition, early child care, and quality early home
environment (Nisbett, 2009; Nisbett et al., 2012; Protzko, Aronson, & Blair, 2013;
Ravitch, 2012a,b, 2014; Rothstein, 2004). There are two other prominent schools of
thought –both of which disdain public spending and wealth redistribution –but differ in
their rationales. Genetic determinists conceptualize achievement gaps as merely
reﬂecting group differences in endowed, ﬁxed, intellectual ability (e.g., Herrnstein &
Murray, 1994). As such, they see limited value in schooling or other interventions, like
college, for at least half the population, which is, after all, below average in intelligence
(Murray, 2008). Culturists, by contrast, tend to blame gaps on the values, habits, and
lacking work ethic among low-achieving children, their parents, and their teachers
2Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson
(Thernstrom & Thernstom, 2004). In this view, bad teachers should be ﬁred and parents
need to work harder, turn off the television, and raise expectations for their children. This
is the view that best represents the theory of change in the No Child Left Behind policy, yet
a decade of meager improvements despite intense pressures has done little to convince
culturists that pushing harder will not work. Genetic determinists see the lack of gap
closing as evidence that nothing will close it (Murray, 2008), whereas others insist that
nothing can work without signiﬁcantly greater investments (Ravitch, 2014). Whichever
the camp, educational stagnation has conﬁrmed a general pessimism about our ability to
improve learning among the disadvantaged (Kirp, 2013).
In this review, we argue that complete pessimism is unwarranted. Although
formidable structural and cultural barriers to universal proﬁciency certainly exist, there
are also psychological barriers to closing gaps that need to be recognized and addressed.
Quite often psychological factors can be intervened upon with far greater ease and better
effects than broad, expensive policy approaches required to change the culture of
underperforming groups. A more useful –and realistic –way of minding the gap
acknowledges the highly social and psychological nature of learning, performance, and
motivation (Lieberman, 2013; Vygotsky, 1978).
It may be precisely the failure to be mindful of the psychological consequences of high-
stakes testing and accountability that doomed the American reforms (Aronson, 2004;
Ravitch, 2014). Although some schools improved, threatening educators with negative
consequences often increased psychological and social stresses, particularly among
schools serving the minority groups that the policies were designed to help (Amrein &
Berliner, 2003; Madaus & Clarke, 2001). For example, a study of high-stakes testing in
California found that attaching high stakes to a high school exit examination widened the
gaps between minority and majority students and lowered the minority student
graduation rates substantially (Reardon, Atteberry, Arshan, & Kurlander, 2009). Another
found that sanctions corrupted the behaviour of adults, who cheated by excluding African
Americans, Hispanics, and other students expected to perform poorly from taking the test
(Vasquez-Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). The consequences of this kind of
exclusionary treatment can be particularly dire for males, who are more prone to drop
out and become jobless or imprisoned (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010; Holzman, 2010).
How we mind the gap can have serious consequences.
Despite the intense focus on income inequality, gaps based on race, ethnicity, and
gender persist and continue to concern educators. The racial gaps that narrowed with the
great society reforms of the 1960s and 1970s stopped narrowing in the 1980s (Magnuson
& Waldfogel, 2005). Gender gaps also shrunk considerably in science technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but remain signiﬁcant in the subﬁelds of computer
science, physics, and electrical engineering, which have remained starkly male dominated
despite efforts to encourage girls into these ﬁelds (Halpern, Aronson et al., 2007; Halpern,
Benbow et al., 2007). There is scant agreement on the evolutionary mechanism by which
males would be granted a biological superiority in these ﬁelds; early experiences and
preferences are generally considered more likely causes for the gender gap than biology
(Ceci & Williams, 2010; Halpern, Aronson et al., 2007; Halpern, Benbow et al., 2007;
Nisbett et al., 2012). Female students tend to earn better grades than males do in most
academic courses and have better writing and communication skills than boys have
(Halpern, Aronson et al., 2007; Halpern, Benbow et al., 2007; Shettle et al., 2007).
However, girls appear to lose interest and conﬁdence in STEM subjects as they move
through school and perform increasingly poorly on timed tests in these subjects, which
may reﬂect sociocultural factors at work. For example, girls but not boys are more likely to
Minding and mending the gap 3
‘inherit’ math anxiety from their early teachers (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine,
2010), suggesting that stereotypes, norms, and roles play a part in the math gap, making it
a prime target for psychological intervention.
Psychological processes in achievement gaps
Recent research suggests the utility of ‘minding the gap’ as a social psychological process.
How do students see themselves in the school context? How accepted and valued do they
feel by others? What are the students’ academic goals and underlying beliefs about their
ability to reach them? A new wave of simple interventions has addressed this subjective
experience and found that addressing such social concerns or threats –or simply treating
the stresses such processes engender –can make signiﬁcant differences in learning and
performance (Yeager & Walton, 2011; Wilson, 2006, 2011). This is because many
achievement gaps involve a psychological predicament: a threat to one’s social identity
(Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002) or to one’s sense of belonging (Baumeister & Leary,
1995; Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007). Both predicaments of social
identity can interfere with performance and motivation under certain circumstances,
particularly when the stakes for performance are high. Pyschological interventions work
by helping students cope with threats to identity, which can impair intellectual
functioning and motivation identity.
Nearly all countries have subpopulations of students stereotyped as academically
inferior. Examples include Latinos and African Americans in the United States, the Hans in
China, or Muslim immigrants in Denmark, and women in many countries are considered
less mathematically able (Steele, 1997). This fact underlies the burden of ‘stereotype
threat,’ the uncomfortable suspicion that a student’s social identity marks them as ill-
suited for academic success –whether in reality or in the eyes of others (Steele & Aronson,
1995; Shapiro, Aronson, & McGlone, in press). This sense of threat has been shown to
impair performance both in laboratory and in ﬁeld settings (Aronson & Dee, 2012;
Beilock, 2010; Inzlicht & Schmader, 2012; Steele, 1997; Steele et al., 2002) on tasks of
performance as well as learning (Appel, Kronberger, & Aronson, 2011; Aronson & Steele,
2005; Beilock, 2010; Willingham, 2009).
Stereotyped students also contend with ‘belongingness uncertainty’ the fear, often
signalled by one’s identity, that one does not belong in a setting where academic ability is
prized (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Although the research on belonging and its relation to
achievement is less voluminous, it is clear that situations that question one’s belonging
can impair intellectual performance, while contexts that foster a sense of belonging can
nurture it (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; Good et al., 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007;
Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer, 2012).
Social identity processes like stereotype threat and belongingness uncertainty create
markedly different subjective experiences for students targeted by stereotypes, which in
turn can lead to signiﬁcant differences in performance despite being in an objectively
similar environment. For example, presenting a task as a measure of intelligence tends to
impair the scores of African Americans, female mathematics students, and Hispanics,
while having little effect on non-stereotyped students with similar skills and preparation
(Inzlicht & Schmader, 2012; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Furthermore, the
effects of the stereotype threat can create a vicious cycle that can play out over time, with
students withdrawing effort and disengaging in response to the discomfort of performing
under the burden of high expectations (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999; Wilson,
4Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson
Frequently, it is the students who care most about achievement who are most
prone to stereotype threat and its effects (Aronson et al., 1999). One study (Osborne
& Walker, 2006) found that minority students who cared most about doing well in
academics were the most likely to withdraw from school; in contrast, White students’
level of caring was unrelated to dropping out. Hundreds of studies (and two meta-
analyses) have found that conditions that induce the stereotype threat undermine test
performance, indicating that high-stakes-standardized tests systematically underesti-
mate the abilities of stereotyped students (Nguyen & Ryan, 2008; Walton & Spencer,
2009). Minding the subjective experiences of students who underperform, psychol-
ogists’ interventions address these predicaments with surprising simplicity and
power, representing one of the most exciting developments in psychology and
education in the past few decades (Wilson, 2006; Yeager & Walton, 2011). Our aim is
to describe and evaluate these interventions.
Gap reducing interventions
Traditional approaches to gap closing target the objective features of schools and colleges,
such as curriculum, incentives for teachers and students, or time spent in school and on
task (Fryer, 2010; Thernstrom and Thernsstrom, 2003). In contrast, social psychological
interventions aim to improve the student’s subjective experiences in school (Wilson,
2011). Such interventions can take a variety of forms, from a simple writing exercise
completed in a few minutes, to a regular programme of stress-reducing meditation, to
rearrangements of the classroom structure into cooperative groups. Despite the
differences, each technique targets the socio-emotional experiences paradigm in a way
that reduces anxieties and distractions, which can interfere with performance and can
prompt maladaptive responses to failure.
This study seeks to explain and assess several social psychological interventions in the
United States that are likely candidates for reducing educational disparities across the
globe. We also acknowledge the importance of other types of educational interventions
that speciﬁcally target learning/intellectual processes such as self-regulation, executive
control, and working memory, which have been shown to have lasting effects on school
performance (Ritter, Anderson, Koedinger, & Corbett, 2007).
Our focus is on psychological interventions designed to alter perceptions of threat,
students’ responses to it, or the stresses that such threats engender. These interventions
have generated both excitement and controversy due to their remarkable cost-
effectiveness, and therefore deserve and need to be tested more broadly in a variety of
For students of low socio-economic status, stress is an extremely relevant factor in
achievement. Many students live with toxic amounts of stress and threat, which can act as
major barriers to success. Educators working in these high-poverty neighbourhoods are
also at higher risk of burnout than their peers who work in more afﬂuent areas. Recent
research has highlighted the beneﬁts of meditation in schools. Broadly, meditation
involves a variety of practices used to control consciousness.
Studies have shown that meditation can reduce anxiety, as well as improve executive
functioning such as working memory, self-awareness, and self-control (Flook et al.,
Minding and mending the gap 5
2010; Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013; Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005;
Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010; Zylowska et al., 2008). It also inﬂuences physiological
markers, decreasing blood pressure and cortisol levels (Black, Milam, & Sussman, 2009;
MacLean et al., 1994, 2010). Additionally, meditation has been shown to reduce
misbehaviour and aggression in schools (Barnes, Treiber, & Johnson, 2004; Black et al.,
2009; Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010). As more schools are incorporating a meditation
programme, the body of research supporting their use continues to grow.
One particularly successful intervention, Quiet Time, is a stress-reduction programme
in which students spend the ﬁrst and last 15 min of every day either sitting quietly or
practicing transcendental meditation. Prior to the implementation of the Quiet Time
programme, Visitacion Valley Middle School was a threatening environment, with high
rates of violence and drug use. Moreover, 88% of the students received free or reduced-
price lunch and had some of the lowest test scores in the state of California. After 3 years
of Quiet Time, the school saw dramatic drops in both its suspension and truancy rates as
well as increases in academic achievement.
Since its implementation in 2007, students’ GPA improved, suspensions have been cut
in half, truancy rates have dropped by 61%, attendance rates climbed to 98%, and students
who had unexcused absences or were tardy for three or more days dropped from 18% to
7%. Furthermore, teacher turnover, which had been a persistent problem for the school,
dropped from more than half the staff quitting every year to staff members leaving only
due to retirement or promotion.
Role model exposure
When people know that a member of their group has succeeded in a domain, they are
less likely to buy into a stereotype alleging their group’s inferiority and will be less likely
to attribute their own difﬁculties to an identity-linked lack of ability. Marx and Roman
(2002), for example, found that when women taking a math test did so under the
supervision of a female test proctor presented as a math expert, they performed better
on the examination and reported higher levels of self-esteem. Female students also
performed better when taking a math test under stereotype threat conditions after
reading a newspaper article about an intelligent female student who excelled in math
(Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005).
Several other studies have demonstrated that exposure to role models can combat
stereotype threat (Blanton, Crocker, & Miller, 2000; McIntyre, Paulson, & Lord, 2003),
although role model effects like the so-called Obama effect, whereby exposure to Barack
Obama’s success supposedly led to test score gains among African Americans (Marx, Ko,
& Friedman, 2009), appear not to replicate (Aronson, Jannone, McGlone, & Johnson-
Studies suggest that the most effective role models are those who play up their own
early struggles and who impart the idea that struggle itself is normal. By contrast, role
models who are believed to be naturally gifted superstars who succeeded by talent rather
than persistence are less inspiring than the hard worker who gains competence through
grit and tenacity (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997, 1999). In one study, self-doubting ﬁrst-year
college students watched videos in which an elder student confessed to having early
academic problems, which are common, and stated that most students’ performance
improves over time (Wilson & Linville, 1985). Immediately after watching this video, the
ﬁrst year students clearly were emboldened by their ‘role model’; compared to a control
group, they solved signiﬁcantly more questions on a challenging test. The effects were
6Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson
long lasting; 1 year after participating in this brief intervention, these students had
signiﬁcantly better grades (.3 to .4 points higher) than controls and were signiﬁcantly
more likely to remain enrolled in college. These studies are thought to work by changing
the narrative by which students interpret their difﬁculties, such as ‘this is hard even for
smart, successful people; I need to relax and try harder.’ (Good, Arons on, & Inzlicht, 2003;
Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2012; Jesse & Gregory, 1987; Nelum-Hart, Schooler, Wilson, & Myers,
1999; Wilson & Myers, 1999).
For some students, anxiety can be so debilitating that they perform poorly despite
knowing the material being tested. They might worry so much about the consequences of
the task at hand that the greater portion of their cognitive resources are spent on these
worries, leaving the students unable to perform up to their true abilities. Individuals who
are anxious about their abilities may even back away from challenging material to avoid
feeling distressed (Hembree, 1990).
Researchers have found that students can help regulate these negative emotions and
free up their cognitive resources by writing about fears. When individuals are given a free
writing task to write freely for 10–15 min about a speciﬁc upcoming stress, they are able
to process these fears. One study found that writing about fears before a ﬁnal examination
raised students’ grades on average from a B-to a B+(Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). In fact,
simply telling students that physiological reactions such as sweaty palms or a rapid
heartbeat are natural reactions to anxiety signiﬁcantly improved their scores on a practice
GRE (Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010 ). Additionally, students who were
told to frame a test as a challenge rather than a threat had lower levels of salivary cortisol,
which was associated with higher performance (Mattarella-Micke, Mateo, Kozak, Foster,
& Beilock, 2011).
Other interventions work on a more cognitive level, asking students to create
narratives that raise expectations, redeﬁne threats as challenges, or encourage
healthier attributions. Students’ beliefs about the nature of their intelligence have
been shown to inﬂuence their performance and their response to threats. Those who
believe that intelligence is ﬁxed and cannot be improved tend to have worse long-
term outcomes because they believe that performing poorly or struggling with
difﬁcult material is a sign that they are not smart enough to handle the task at hand. If
they think there is nothing they can do to get smarter, they are more likely to give up
than to persist in that task. Similarly, they are more likely to choose tasks that will
allow them to demonstrate their ability rather than tackling more difﬁcult tasks that
would teach them something new. In contrast, students who see intelligence as
something that can be changed through effortful learning and deliberate practice tend
to be more resilient in the face of challenges and opt for difﬁcult tasks they can learn
from, rather than easier tasks at which success is guaranteed.
The so-called growth-mindset interventions reduce performance anxiety and mal-
adaptive responses to failure, with a similar approach to the ‘normality of struggle’
message, which emphasizes the importance of the effort. Many students believe their IQ is
an endowed entity that is ﬁxed, rather than a dynamic capacity that is expandable. When
Minding and mending the gap 7
students believe their abilities cannot improve with practice they become invested in
protecting their sense of competence rather than taking on academic risks and challenges
that in reality could improve it. This belief in ﬁxed intelligence magniﬁes the anxiety
around evaluation and increases negative responses to stereotype threat (Dweck, 2006).
This reasoning has led to some very promising interventions for ‘at-risk’ students.
Speciﬁcally, when students are taught and encouraged to remember their intelligence is
expandable through effort, students can make signiﬁcant gains in GPA, their enjoyment of
school (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007), and
even year-end test scores (Good et al., 2003).
In a growth mindset intervention, students are taught that the brain is a dynamic,
malleable organ and, like a muscle, grows when they work hard to learn something new.
Blackwell et al. (2007) ran a study with low-achieving seventh-grade students. Half of the
subjects were taught that intelligence is malleable and can be developed, while the other
half learned about memory and discussed academic issues of personal interest to them.
The experimental group had more of a growth mindset theory after the intervention
(d=.47) and did not display the continuing downward trajectory in grades that the
control group experienced. Recent research has suggested that believing that personality
is malleable can also have positive effects. A brief intervention that taught an incremental
theory of personality –the belief that people can change –led to fewer negative reactions
to social adversity, lower reported overall stress and physical illness 8 months later, and
achieved better academic performance over the year (Yeager, Johnson et al., 2014).
Overall, it appears that students’ mindsets play a pivotal role in their motivation and
resilience. Those with more adaptive mindsets are more likely to understand that their
abilities can grow with effort, by new strategies when they get stuck, and persisting
In the process of forming their own identities, adolescents may think about the
different versions of themselves that they are and could be, their ‘possible selves’.
For example, possible selves might include the clever student who aces tests, or the
fat self who cannot lose weight, and so on (Oyserman & Markus, 1990). Simply
thinking about attaining a positive possible self has been associated with greater well-
being (King, 2001) and persistence (Ruvolo & Markus, 1992), while not becoming a
desired future self has been linked with depression (Strauman, 2002; Strauman &
Higgins, 1988). Students’ motivations may suffer when they notice discrepancies
between idealistic and realistic views, or their current and their possible selves.
However, if these incongruent views and possible selves can be made to coexist,
students may beneﬁt. Oyserman, Bybee, and Terry (2006) found that changing how
students think or teaching them how to move towards their ideals, led to increased
academic achievement and self-reported motivation, and what is more remarkable,
these improvements were sustained over 2 years. As students think about who they
hope to be in the future, they are likely to consider the relevance of what they are
currently learning to those possible selves (Oyserman & Fryberg, 2006). In fact,
students with purposeful work goals had higher levels of meaning in life, d=.22, a
greater sense of purpose, d=.23, and said that studying was more meaningful to
them d=.27 (Yeager & Bundick, 2009).
8Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson
In a purpose for learning intervention, students wrote an open-ended essay response
promoting a self-transcendent purpose. Speciﬁcally, they explained how learning in high
school would help them be the kind of person they want to be, or help them make the kind
of impact they want on others. Results showed the self-transcendent purpose for learning
increased STEM-course grades for students, particularly the low performers who were on
track for being underprepared for higher education (Yeager, Henderson et al., 2014).
Thus, while students are presumably in school to prepare for their lives after graduation,
either in the working world or in higher education, many struggle to ﬁnd personal
meaning in their day-to-day schoolwork. Research suggests that helping students make
their schoolwork more relevant to their identity may increase intrinsic motivation and
academic engagement (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004;
Yeager & Bundick, 2009).
Students’ values are just as important as their beliefs and attributions. Adolescence in
particular is a time when students struggle to build a narrative about who they are and who
they would like to be in the future. During this period of individuation, threats to one’s
identity can make it difﬁcult to generate a secure sense of adequacy (Aronson & Good,
2003; Eccles, Lord, & Midgley, 1991; Sherman et al., 2013). According to self-afﬁrmation
theory, people are motivated to think of themselves as globally capable, moral, and good –
as being ‘adaptively adequate’ or having ‘self-integrity’ (Steele, 1988). Thus, when they
encounter threats to their self-integrity, people try to restore their self-worth in other
ways. Self-afﬁrmations allow people to reinforce their self-integrity and worth by thinking
about things that are important to them, but unrelated to the threat at hand (Aronson
et al., 1999; Sherman et al., 2013; Steele, 1998). Engaging in self-afﬁrmation activities is
thought to reduce stress, which can improve performance (Creswell et al., 2005).
Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006) conducted a ﬁeld experiment of a self-
afﬁrmation intervention with seventh-grade students of a suburban school in which half
the students were identiﬁed as African American. Students completed a series of
structured writing assignments in which they wrote about a personally important value,
such as friends or family. This intervention reduced the GPA gap between African
American and White students by 40% in the fall term. Follow-up data revealed that, 2 years
later, the overall GPA gap between African American and White students was still reduced
by 30%. Different self-afﬁrmation interventions have improved performance, although
with weaker effects, in situations where participants experienced identity threats (Cohen
et al., 2006; Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009; Martens, Johns,
Greenberg, & Schimel, 2006; Miyake et al., 2010; Shapiro, Williams, & Hambarchyan,
2013). Recently, Hanselman, Bruch, Gamoran, and Borman (2014) replicated the
afﬁrmation effect across an entire school district; the racial achievement gap was reduced
by over 12%, but only in schools where there was signiﬁcant identity threat.
Still, self-afﬁrmation interventions yield complicated results. For example, Dee (2011)
found that although a self-afﬁrmation programme improved the performance of Hispanic
students, it had no impact on African American students and instead seemed to undermine
the performance of female students. Further, when students were aware the intervention
was intended to help them, it appeared to be less effective (Sherman et al., 2009).
Although the replication record is growing, afﬁrmations have occasionally been found to
backﬁre, apparently if they serve to remind the individual that he or she is not living up to
Minding and mending the gap 9
personal standards. Alternatively, Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009) found that repeating
positive statements helped those with higher self-esteem, but left those with lower self-
esteem feeling more depressed and self-critical. Similar to overly positive praise, when
afﬁrmations conﬂict with a person’s identity, they may seem so unbelievable that they
reinforce negative self-perceptions.
When students encounter a new environment, they may worry about whether others will
accept them, particularly when they belong to an underrepresented, stereotyped, or
devalued social group. Retaining a sense of belonging and feeling socially connected is a
fundamental human motivation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1985). Student
belonging reliably predicts achievement, engagement, and perseverance (Freeman,
Anderman, & Jensen, 2007; Goodenow, 1993; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Patrick, Ryan, &
Kaplan, 2007). Social-belonging interventions are intended to change how students think
about negative experiences and adversity. Feelings of belonging can buttress students
against negative events and allow them to work their way through challenges. On the
other hand, lacking this sense of belonging can make students more likely to disengage or
withdraw. Belongingness is especially important when students begin their college
careers. The transition to college can be stressful and associated with various difﬁculties
such as struggling academically and feeling lonely and out of place. However, the
experience of these difﬁculties can be harnessed to increase students’ feelings of
belonging. Recontextualizing these experiences as common challenges faced in a new
environment can strengthen students’ motivation, persistence, and even their academic
In an hour-long intervention, Walton and Cohen (2011) asked students to interpret
the results of a survey about the transition to college. These results emphasized that
most upperclassmen of all ethnicities worried about their social belonging in college
when they ﬁrst got there, but their concerns dissipated with time and eventually
almost all students came to feel at home. The study included narratives focused on
how at ﬁrst, freshmen students felt different and concerned about whether they ﬁt in,
but gradually their conﬁdence increased, they established friendships, adapted to the
academic work, and felt accepted. In the second part of the intervention, each student
wrote a short essay about his or her own college experiences and were asked to
incorporate examples similar to the ones they read about in the survey. Finally, each
student made a video recording of his or her essay, which the researchers explained
would be used to help members of future incoming classes of students understand
what it is like to make the transition to college. Results showed that the intervention
reduced the African American/White gap in students’ 3-year GPA by 52%. These
improvements contributed to tripling the number of African American students in the
top 25% of their class. Interestingly, when asked about their participation in this study
later, few students remembered its content, and most said it had no effect on their
Although the importance of belongingness is rarely questioned, educators often debate
the value of competitive versus cooperative classrooms. Competitive learning,
10 Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson
sometimes referred to as individualistic learning, generally entails students’ studying and
producing schoolwork individually, with little help or input from their peers. Advocates
argue that because it is based on the free enterprise system, competitive learning helps
students prepare for life in the real world. On the other hand, cooperative learning
involves students working with one another to achieve shared learning goals (Johnson &
Johnson, 1999). Cooperative learning environments can positively facilitate ethnic
relations, improve student performance, and nurture socioemotional, or ‘soft,’ skills
(Aronson, Stephan, Sikes, Blaney, & Snapp, 1978; Sharan & Hertz-Lazarowitz, 1980;
The jigsaw classroom technique was developed to help weaken racial cliques in the
classroom. Activities are organized so that groups work cooperatively on a project,
which is divided into several parts. Each student in the group is assigned a unique part
of the project to work on, which he or she must then teach to the other members of his
or her group. Success of each individual depends on the success of every other group
member (Aronson et al., 1978). Students participating in jigsaw classrooms have
beneﬁted from increased self-esteem, greater liking for other classmates and school, as
well as improved performance on tests (Aronson & Gonzalez, 1988; Aronson et al.,
In most countries, people recognize the importance of breaking the links between socio-
economic disadvantage and academic achievement. Countries like Finland and Singapore
have been remarkably successful in minimizing the ‘poor tax’ on academic and social
advancement. However, in many countries, a variety of gaps in achievement remain.
Without denying the importance of structure, resources, or important policy changes
needed to address the persistent and growing gaps in learning, we believe that
recognizing the signiﬁcance of social psychological factors offers the possibility of
developing interventions that do not depend upon structural or political change, but
rather can empower teachers and students to make the best of unequal opportunities
(Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014).
The research reviewed here suggests several ways of doing this, but we believe it also
makes a larger point that bears repeating: how we conceptualize gaps will determine
which steps, if any, we take to narrow them. If we accept the dogma that children cannot
become smarter, nicer, or develop positive character traits without massive changes in the
social order, we may fail to explore the ways they can thrive in the present social order.
Likewise, if we attribute the gaps to unchangeable defects in the low-achieving groups
themselves, we may be similarly pessimistic about prospects for improvement. How we
think about gaps matter, and we believe these interventions encourage a view that
achievement gaps are partly about structure, but also, importantly, about our subjective
experience of that structure.
For example, meditation, role models, emotional reappraisal, growth mindsets,
imagining possible selves, self-afﬁrmations, belongingness, and cooperative learning can
help ameliorate threats to identity and raise achievement. A majority of these work by
changing students’ interpretations without changing the curriculum, the quality of
instruction, or anything about the objective environment. Small changes to students’
perceptions of how they think about themselves and others can spur cascading results in
achievement. It is clear that students’ implicit theories can promote their success, by
Minding and mending the gap 11
reducing threats –or their effects –in the educational environment. We therefore regard
these theory-based interventions as genuine advances in the way schools address
achievement gaps. These interventions tend to work subtly, but can prompt continued
growth if they engage recursive processes, positive spirals that are self-reinforcing. Still,
because these interventions do not always work as planned, it is also clear more research is
needed to address the nuances and complications that confront the educator interested in
As Yeager and Walton (2011) point out, these interventions are not magic, despite
their sensational effects. Rather, they are a demonstration of the way people’s
educational experiences depend on details of the social context –how tasks are
framed, who else is in the room, what one believes about intelligence, and so on.
Overall, it appears that alleviating psychological threats improves academic achieve-
ment in real-world environments. Yet, because contextual details matter, it necessarily
follows that these interventions will not work in all settings (e.g., the success of these
interventions is best tested with experimental designs with random assignment).
Further research is needed before we can know with conﬁdence which interventions
are most appropriate in which settings. Schools clearly cannot solve inequality on
their own; large-scale economic changes are needed and the success of Finland lies as
much in its tax code as it does in the quality of its schools and teachers. Still, these
interventions demonstrate that signiﬁcant gains can be made by focusing on the
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Received 12 March 2014; revised version received 2 January 2015
18 Brian Spitzer and Joshua Aronson