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Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation

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Educational attainment is one lever that can increase opportunity for economically disadvantaged families—especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Unfortunately, students from lower-income backgrounds often perform poorly and fail high school STEM courses, which are a necessary step in pursuing fast-growing and lucrative STEM careers, graduating high school, and matriculating to college. We reasoned that, because high school STEM courses often use high-stakes tests to gauge performance, and such tests can be especially stressful for lower-income students, interventions that help students regulate their negative emotions during tests should reduce the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students. In a large-scale ( n = 1,175) field experiment conducted in ninth grade science classrooms, students were asked to complete a control exercise, or they were given the opportunity to complete an exercise to help them regulate their worries and reinterpret their anxious arousal before their tests. We found significant benefits of emotion regulation activities for lower-income students in terms of their science examination scores, science course passing rate, and students’ attitudes toward examination stress, suggesting that students’ emotions are one factor that impacts performance. For example, 39% of lower-income students failed the course in the control group compared with only 18% of students failing the course if they participated in the emotion regulation interventions—a reduction in course failure rate by half. Our work underscores the crucial importance of targeting students’ emotions during impactful points in their academic trajectories for improving STEM preparedness and enhancing overall academic success.
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Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM
pipeline through student emotion regulation
Christopher S. Rozek
a,1
, Gerardo Ramirez
b
, Rachel D. Fine
c
, and Sian L. Beilock
d,e
a
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
b
Department of Educational Psychology, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306;
c
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109;
d
Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637;
and
e
Department of Psychology, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027
Edited by Jennifer A. Richeson, Yale University, New Haven, CT, and approved December 11, 2018 (received for review May 18, 2018)
Educational attainment is one lever that can increase opportunity
for economically disadvantaged familiesespecially in Science,
Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Unfortunately, stu-
dents from lower-income backgrounds often perform poorly and
fail high school STEM courses, which are a necessary step in pur-
suing fast-growing and lucrative STEM careers, graduating high
school, and matriculating to college. We reasoned that, because
high school STEM courses often use high-stakes tests to gauge
performance, and such tests can be especially stressful for lower-
income students, interventions that help students regulate their
negative emotions during tests should reduce the achievement
gap between higher- and lower-income students. In a large-scale
(n=1,175) field experiment conducted in ninth grade science class-
rooms, students were asked to complete a control exercise, or they
were given the opportunity to complete an exercise to help them
regulate their worries and reinterpret their anxious arousal before
their tests. We found significant benefits of emotion regulation
activities for lower-income students in terms of their science ex-
amination scores, science course passing rate, and studentsatti-
tudes toward examination stress, suggesting that students
emotions are one factor that impacts performance. For example,
39% of lower-income students failed the course in the control
group compared with only 18% of students failing the course if
they participated in the emotion regulation interventionsa re-
duction in course failure rate by half. Our work underscores the
crucial importance of targeting studentsemotions during impact-
ful points in their academic trajectories for improving STEM pre-
paredness and enhancing overall academic success.
academic achievement gaps
|
educational interventions
|
socioeconomic
status
|
emotion regulation
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test anxiety
In the United States, there are vast inequalities in educational
attainment based on family socioeconomic status with children
from lower-income backgrounds receiving worse grades, test
scores, and rates of college attendance compared with their higher-
income counterparts (14). In fact, the academic achievement gap
between students from higher- and lower-income backgrounds can
be two to three times as large as notable and persistent racial
achievement gaps, such as the White-Black achievement gap (2).
This lack of academic success reduces career opportunities,
thereby helping to maintain the intergenerational transmission of
poverty (2, 5).
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
fields are increasingly viewed as one way to open up career op-
portunities in the evolving US economy. STEM jobs are pro-
jected to grow faster, provide greater earning potential, and
produce lower rates of unemployment than non-STEM jobs over
the next decade (57). STEM training also provides individuals
with useful skills, such as numerical and computer literacy, which
are broadly marketable across a variety of careers and allow
students to pursue a variety of interests. High school science and
mathematics courses impart the foundational knowledge and
preparation for STEM careers as well as for STEM majors in
college (710).
Given the benefits of facilitating STEM preparation, high
school STEM course enrollment and success is one important
focal point for increasing opportunities for the most disadvan-
taged students. Underlining this point, a study by ACT found
that students who enroll in biology, chemistry, and physics in
high school, compared with students who complete fewer science
courses, are three times more likely to meet college readiness
standards for science (8). Unfortunately, students from lower-
income backgrounds are markedly less likely to enroll in the
full sequence of high school STEM courses (912), partially
because of low performance in those courses as they begin high
school (12), and are therefore less prepared for STEM careers
than their more advantaged peers (13).
The numerous structural barriers that stand between lower-
income students and STEM preparation in high schoolsuch as
neighborhood factors, types of schools available, systemic prej-
udice based on social classcreate the sense that the only ways
to help involve needed large-scale changes to schools and soci-
ety. However, targeting some of the downstream consequences
of disadvantage can be part of helping improve STEM achieve-
ment and course enrollment for lower-income students. For ex-
ample, students from lower-income backgrounds have been
found to have particularly high levels of stress and performance
anxiety during evaluative assessments in school (1315). One
reason for this is that individuals viewed as being lower in social
status, importance, or standing in society, such as lower-income
students, experience rejection sensitivity, which is a feeling of
Significance
Increasing access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and
Math (STEM) fields can create career opportunities. Yet many
students, especially those from lower-income backgrounds,
find the high-stakes exams in courses necessary for STEM
success to be stressful and anxiety provoking. Such experiences
of stress can lead to underperformance and compromise stu-
dentsability to advance in STEM. We show that lower-income
students given the opportunity to emotionally regulate their
worries and reinterpret their arousal go on to perform better
on their high school science exams and endorse a more adap-
tive interpretation of stress. Critically, emotion regulation inter-
ventions cut in half the course failure rate for lower-income
students. For many students, success is based on more than STEM
knowledgetheir ability to regulate emotions is important too.
Author contributions: C.S.R. designed research; C.S.R., G.R., R.D.F., and S.L.B. performed re-
search; C.S.R. analyzed data; and C.S.R. and G.R. wrote the paper with assistance from S.L.B.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
NoDeriv atives L icense 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND).
1
To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: crozek@stanford.edu.
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.
1073/pnas.1808589116/-/DCSupplemental.
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anxiety about being rejected in evaluative assessment situa-
tions that emphasis rank and status (1517). The additional
anxiety created by rejection sensitivity can burden the cogni-
tive resources that students rely on to perform well on tests
(18). Indeed, research has demonstrated that individuals who
experience rejection sensitivity have greater difficulty regu-
lating or managing their negative emotions (19) and worse
academic performance (15).
If anxiety associated with evaluative assessments undermines
academic achievement and is particularly problematic for lower-
income students, then intervening to help students to successfully
regulate their negative emotions during important tests could
improve test performance and course pass ratesespecially for
students from lower-income backgrounds. We tested this notion
in the current work.
Anxiety during evaluative assessments undermines perfor-
mance by eliciting two psychometrically distinct components: (i)
worried thoughts about the possibility of failure and (ii) stress
responses that heighten physiological arousal (see Fig. 1 for
conceptual model). Two emotion regulation interventions that
may reduce the negative effects of anxiety during evaluative as-
sessments are expressive writing and arousal reappraisal. Ex-
pressive writing interventions target the cognitive component of
anxiety (i.e., worries) by asking individuals to write about and
express their thoughts and concerns (20). Expressive writing may
help individuals develop insights that can aid emotion regulation
and perceived control of stressful situations, thereby offloading
worries and freeing cognitive resources that can be used to op-
timize performance. Arousal reappraisal interventions may help
individuals manage the physiological component of anxiety (i.e.,
arousal) by asking them to reinterpret the utility of heightened
arousal as a resource that can improve rather than harm per-
formance (21). That is, rather than a sign of anxiety or failure,
physiological arousal (e.g., a racing pulse) can be viewed as a
beneficial and energizing force.
Several studies have separately demonstrated the potential of
the expressive writing (2224) and arousal reappraisal interven-
tions (25, 26). However, neither intervention has been examined
in large-scale, real-world academic performance contexts with
economically diverse populations. Nor have the interventions
been tested in combination, which is potentially powerful given
the two psychometrically distinct components of anxiety on
which the interventions are hypothesized to operate. Such work
is crucial for targeting impactful points in lower-income students
academic trajectories for improving STEM preparedness and
enhancing overall academic success.
Current Study
We conducted a large-scale field experiment involving the above-
mentioned emotion regulation interventions in ninth grade sci-
ence classrooms in an economically diverse high school (total n=
1,175; lower-income n=285). We chose to intervene in ninth
grade science courses for several reasons. First, this course serves
as a foundational gateway course that is necessary to move on to
additional science courses. Second, students at the beginning of
high school often experience unexpectedly poor performance as
they adjust to a new setting, course difficulty, and expectations,
which is known as 9th grade shock,and is prevalent in high
schools across the nation (27). Finally, studentsgrades during
ninth grade are especially important predictors of overall high
school success, including the likelihood of dropout (28). Thus,
boosting performance in ninth grade may, in turn, help to in-
crease subsequent science participation and improve students
odds of success in high school and beyond.
All ninth grade students in a large Midwestern high school
were randomly assigned to engage in one of four writing exer-
cisesactive control, expressive writing, arousal reappraisal, or
both expressive writing and arousal reappraisalimmediately
before their first and second semester final examinations. Stu-
dents in our study were enrolled in a single freshmen biology
course for the academic year, and the same final examinations
were used across all classrooms. Our main performance outcome
consisted of studentsaverage final examination performance
across both semesters. We intervened before studentsfinal ex-
aminations because these tests were especially high-stakes, being
studentsfirst final examinations in high school and also ac-
counting for a significant proportion of their semester grade. We
additionally explored the benefits of our interventions in gen-
erally improving studentsoverall course success: in particular,
whether students passed the course and therefore were ready to
move on to the next course in the high school science sequence.
Lastly, we asked about the effects of the interventions on stu-
dentsattitudes toward anxiety during tests. We reasoned that
emotion regulation activities could help students to adopt more
adaptive views about their affective experience during difficult
examinations.
This study breaks ground in several ways. First, not only do we
investigate effects of emotion regulation interventions on ex-
amination performance, but we also ask whether benefits of
emotion regulation interventions generalize to additional stu-
dent outcomes beyond the testing experience, such as course
passing rate and attitudes about tests. Second, although the ef-
fects of expressive writing and arousal reappraisal have been
tested independently in one small field study each previously (24,
25), we test both as well as the combination of these interven-
tions, which enables us to conduct a test to directly compare the
effects of these two types of emotion regulation interventions as
well as to investigate the possibility that doing both interventions
is better than doing either one alone. Although we predict that
all of the interventions will be beneficial in comparison with the
control condition, it is important to understand whether effects
differ or are similar across interventions.
Third, by fielding these interventions across all biology class-
rooms in a diverse high school, our work helps address (i)
whether emotion regulation interventions can be implemented at
scale without heavy researcher oversight and (ii) whether there
are benefits for adolescent students from diverse socioeconomic
backgrounds. Not only is the current study larger than both prior
Worry
Arousal
Performance
Anxiety
Worry
Arousal Reducing worries
and reinterpreting
arousal as positive
Expressive
Writing
Arousal
Reappraisal
Poor Test
Performance
Fig. 1. Theoretical model of emotion regulation interventions that address
specific components of performance anxiety. Worry and arousal are the two
components of performance anxiety. There is a negative cycle between
performance anxiety and poor test performance in which each factor re-
ciprocally influences the other. Interventions that target the specific com-
ponents of performance anxiety can interrupt this cycle of anxiety and poor
performance.
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related intervention studies combined, but in contrast to the
prior studies that only involved a small number of teachers and
classrooms in a school, this study intervened at the organiza-
tional level, including all teachers, students, and classrooms
within a school, providing a better test of scalability. Addition-
ally, the previous studies were not conducted in school contexts
with diverse groups of students, so studies with larger and het-
erogeneous samples of students are necessary to evaluate the
efficacy and generalizability of emotion regulation interventions
to reduce STEM retention problems. Such data provides helpful
evidence for educators and education policymakers that these
interventions should be included as one (of hopefully many
other) activities designed to improve student achievement and
emotional experiences in school.
Results
Overview of Analyses. The analyses of our primary outcomes
average examination performance (average percentage correct
across studentstwo semester final examinations), course passing
rate, and studentsreappraisal of test anxietyinvolved multiple
regression with a set of planned orthogonal contrasts. Because
very little of the variance in study outcomes was explained by
students being in different classrooms (2%), single-level re-
gressions were used for the primary analyses. Additional in-
formation about robustness checks involving multilevel modeling
is included in the SI Appendix. Given that our a priori expecta-
tion was that all three interventions would be beneficial com-
pared with the control group, the first contrast tested for the
effects of the students being randomly assigned to any of the
intervention groups, compared with students who were assigned
to the control group. Moreover, because we hypothesized that
the interventions would be particularly beneficial for lower-
income students, a key test of interest in each model was the
interaction between the intervention contrast and our indicator
of whether students came from a lower-income background,
which was based on being designated for free or reduced lunch
status by their school. If the interaction was significant, we tested
whether there was a significant intervention effect for students
from higher- and lower-income backgrounds, respectively. Each
model also included two additional orthogonal contrasts to test
whether there were differences in the effectiveness of each of the
interventions (e.g., was expressive writing more beneficial than
arousal reappraisal).
There were six base predictors in the model: studentsprior
achievement (middle school standardized test scores) as a con-
trol variable, the intervention contrast (coded with a centered
contrast as +1 for students in any of the three intervention
groups and 3 for students in the control group), students
economic background (coded with a centered contrast with +1
for lower-income students who were eligible for free/reduced
lunch and 1 for higher-income students who were ineligible for
free/reduced lunch), the interaction between these two variables,
a contrast that compared expressive writing and reappraisal
conditions to the combined intervention condition (coded +1 for
expressive writing and reappraisal, 2 for the combined in-
tervention condition, 0 for the control condition), and a contrast
that compared the expressive writing and reappraisal exercises to
each other (coded +1 for expressive writing, 1 for reappraisal,
and 0s for control and combined conditions). We reported ef-
fects of the main intervention contrast and studentseconomic
background here, and the full model, including effects of prior
achievement and comparing intervention conditions to each
other, in the SI Appendix (see also SI Appendix, Tables S1S3).
Generally, the interventions did not differ in effectiveness.
Experimental Balance. There were no significant differences in
studentsdemographic characteristics or on prior academic achieve-
ment across each of the experimental and control groups (all ps>
0.54), which suggests that randomization to condition was successful
(see SI Appendix for more details).
Effects on Examination Performance. Studentsfinal examination
performance averaged across both semesters was regressed on
the base predictors (Fig. 2A). Studentstwo semester final ex-
amination scores were averaged, providing a composite measure
of student examination performance. There was a significant
effect of student income, F(1,1174) =139.84, P<0.001, such
that students from lower-income backgrounds performed worse
on the examinations than students from higher-income backgrounds.
Furthermore, students in the intervention conditions scored
significantly higher on the examinations than those in the control
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
Lower-Income Students Higher-Income Students
TCERROCEG
A
T
NE
CREPMAXE
Control Group Intervenon Groups
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
100%
Lower-Income Students Higher-Income Students
COURSE PASSING RATE
Control Group Intervenon Groups
1
1.2
1.4
1.6
1.8
2
2.2
2.4
2.6
2.8
3
Lower-Income Students Higher-Income Students
YTEI
X
N
A
T
S
ETFO
LASIA
R
P
P
AE
R
Control Group Intervenon Groups
A
B
C
Fig. 2. Effects of emotion regulation interventions on examination per-
formance (A), course passing rate (B), and reappraisal of test anxiety (C).
Comparisons are between students given any of the three interventions and
students given the control exercises. Students are defined as lower- or higher-
income based on free or reduced lunch status. Error bars represent ±1SEof
the mean.
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condition, F(1,1174) =8.39, P<0.01. However, there was a
significant interaction between student income and the in-
tervention contrast, F(1,1174) =8.96, P<0.01. There was no
significant effect of the interventions for students from higher-
income backgrounds, F(1,889) =0.07, P=0.79, but the inter-
ventions significantly improved examination performance for
students from lower-income backgrounds, F(1,284) =6.07, P=
0.01, d=0.51, 95% CI =[0.09, 0.61].
Thus, the intervention significantly reduced the raw examination
achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students by
29% (P<0.01). The gap in the control group between higher- and
lower-income students was 24% points, and the income gap among
students given the interventions was reduced to 17% points. Both
of those performance gaps were significantly different from 0 (ps<
0.001), suggesting that helping students manage their emotions is
just one factor of many to intervene on to reduce these achieve-
ment gaps. Finally, tests showed that the effectiveness of the in-
terventions did not significantly differ from each other (see SI
Appendix for these tests across models and dependent variables).
Effects on Course Passing Rate. In addition to examination per-
formance, the base predictors were used to predict students
course passing rate, which was defined as whether students
passed both semesters of the course as opposed to failing at least
one semester of the course (Fig. 2B). Logistic regression was
used for this analysis because of the binary nature of the data.
We found that a significantly higher proportion of students from
lower-income backgrounds failed the course than students from
higher-income backgrounds, χ
2
(1, n=1175) =29.46, P<0.001.
Although there was no significant main effect of the interven-
tions on course passing rates, χ
2
(1, n=1175) =0.34, P=0.56,
there was a significant interaction between student income
and the intervention contrast, χ
2
(1, n=1175) =4.31, P=0.04
indicating that the course passing rate gap between higher-
and lower-income students was significantly reduced by the
interventions.
The interventions did not significantly affect the course pass-
ing rates of higher-income students, χ
2
(1, n=890) =0.48, P=
0.49, but the interventions did significantly increase the pro-
portion of students from lower-income backgrounds who passed
the course, χ
2
(1, n=285) =7.73, P<0.01, odds ratio: 2.87, 95%
CI =[1.62, 5.10]. In raw proportions, 39% of lower-income
students failed the course in the control group, but this failure
rate was cut in half for lower-income students who were given
one of the interventions (18% failure rate for lower-income
students in intervention groups). This represents a 58% re-
duction in the higher- and lower-income student gap on course
passing rate. However, the course passing rate gap between
higher- and lower-income students was significantly different
from 0 for students who received the control and intervention
exercises (ps<0.001), suggesting that these interventions re-
duced but did not eliminate this course passing gap. Finally, tests
showed that the effectiveness of the interventions did not sig-
nificantly differ from each other (SI Appendix).
Effects on StudentsReappraisal of Test Anxiety. Students completed a
survey at the end of the school year to assess their attitudes about
whether test anxiety could be reappraised as enhancing rather
than debilitating (i.e., with self-report items in which participants
were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements
such as, A test will go well if I am a little nervous before taking
it; completion rate: 73%). In particular, we were interested in
whether students would reappraise test anxiety as enhancing after
receiving the interventions (Fig. 2C). There was not a significant
effect of income on reappraisal of test anxiety in our model,
F(1,860) =0.62, P=0.43, though we note a raw gap between
higher- and lower-income students when not controlling for prior
performance, F(1,860) =6.28, P=0.01. Students in intervention
conditions more positively appraised test anxiety compared with
students in the control condition, F(1,860) =7.98, P=0.01. Ad-
ditionally, there was a significant interaction between student in-
come and the intervention contrast, F(1,860) =4.86, P=0.03,
indicating a significant reduction in the gap between higher- and
lower-income students. There was no significant intervention effect
for students from higher-income backgrounds, F(1,685) =0.38, P=
0.54, but the intervention significantly increased reappraisal of test
anxiety for students from lower-income backgrounds F(1,174) =
7.93, P=0.01, d=0.46, 95% CI =[0.12, 0.79]. This reduced the raw
reappraisal of test anxiety gap between students from higher- and
lower-income backgrounds by 81%. Among control group students,
there was a significant gap between higher- and lower-income
students on reappraisal of test anxiety (P<0.01), but among in-
tervention group students, there was no student income gap (P=
0.28). Finally, tests showed that the effectiveness of the interven-
tions for reappraisal of test anxiety did significantly differ from each
other (SI Appendix).
Discussion
To succeed in school, students in todays educational landscape
must perform at a high level on a variety of evaluative assess-
ments despite the academic performance anxiety that often
permeates these high-stakes situations. Students from lower-
income backgrounds may shoulder an unequal burden as they
must perform at a high level even though they experience in-
creased anxiety about academic performance in testing contexts,
which can undermine the cognitive resources available to devote
to the task at hand (13, 14, 16, 18). Additionally, the stakes of
failure can be higher for lower-income students because they
have less margin for error than their better-resourced higher-
income peers who often have more accessible alternative path-
ways to success in school (e.g., hiring a tutor) and beyond (2). We
ask whether intervening during important ninth grade evaluative
assessments might improve examination performance and open
additional educational opportunities for students from lower-
income backgrounds. We find that students from lower-income
backgrounds who are given the opportunity to adaptively regu-
late their emotional experience before an examination (with ei-
ther expressive writing, reappraisal, or both) outperformed
lower-income students who were not given a similar opportunity.
The benefits of improving examination performance extended
beyond high-stakes test scores, particularly in terms of the proportion
of students who passed their gateway science course, which is a key
predictor of success in high school and progress in STEM. Many
students from lower-income backgrounds are at a high risk for failure,
so even a small boost in performance can have a substantial impact
on the important distinction between passing or failing a course. In-
deed, this is what we find: students from lower-income backgrounds
in our active control group failed the course at a 39% rate. However,
that rate was cut in half for students from lower-income backgrounds
who received the interventions (18% course failure rate).
Looking beyond academic performance, small changes in
studentslives can help shape the personal narratives that stu-
dents tell about common sources of stress. Previous work sug-
gests that students possess particular stories (29), interpretations
(30), or appraisals (31) that they draw on to make sense of
themselves and the situations they are in. One particular story
that people carry with them is that stress and heightened arousal
during examinations harms performance (21). We found that
lower-income students were, in general, less likely to view ex-
amination stress in an adaptive fashion, which could shape their
interpretation of stress and preferred manner for regulating
emotion during examinations (32). However, after being given
the opportunity to regulate their emotions with targeted interventions,
lower-income students in our study were more likely to report
seeing adaptive benefits in experiencing stress during exami-
nations. This finding underscores the potential for emotion
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regulation interventions to change studentspersonal narra-
tives about academic stress. Theories of emotion regulation
posit that changing how students perceive or appraise one
stressful event (e.g., a test) can lead to long-term changes in
the likelihood of viewing future stress more positively in pre-
cisely this way (31, 33).
The current large-scale study shows that brief emotion regu-
lation interventions can be implemented in diverse contexts, at
scale, and without heavy researcher oversight. This is especially
important because it helps address whether emotion regulation
interventions are effective among students from diverse socio-
economic backgrounds, which could not be assessed in the pre-
vious smaller and homogenous studies (24, 25). When other
types of psychological interventions have been tested at a larger
scale, the effects have not always generalized as predicted from
the smaller-scale studies (3436). The larger and heterogeneous
sample of this study is a necessary next step to rigorously eval-
uate the efficacy and generalizability of these interventions.
However, there is more to do. Future studies should in-
vestigate whether differences between schools might moderate
the effects of these interventions. In the school context of the
current study, lower-income students were a minority group in
the school, and there were sizable achievement gaps. Contexts
like this might make social class salient and therefore could give
rise to rejection sensitivity and feelings of performance pressure,
making emotion regulation interventions particularly effective
for lower-income students. In other school contexts, such as re-
medial community college math courses, which can send the
signal that students lack math ability and tend to include mostly
math anxious students, research has shown that all students
benefited from a reappraisal intervention (25). Theory on re-
jection sensitivity and identity threat posits that student factors
(e.g., student socioeconomic status [SES], gender, or race) and
school context interact to create heightened stress and anxiety
when an important aspect of studentsidentities is salient and
undermined in some way. Future studies should continue to in-
vestigate how context can create more highly pressurized situa-
tions for particular groups of students to understand better when
and for whom these interventions yield a boost in performance.
One way to interpret the effectiveness of the interventions is in
the context of the extended process model of emotion regulation
(31). This model posits that emotion regulation occurs in three
stages: (i) identification of the emotion, which involves noticing
and evaluating whether to regulate the emotion, (ii) selection of
an emotion regulation strategy if necessary, and (iii) imple-
menting the emotion regulation strategy. Since both expressive
writing and reappraisal were effective as singular interventions,
both may be helping students to regulate their emotions effec-
tively. However, this theoretical model points to differences in
the underlying focus and mechanisms of each intervention. The
reappraisal intervention focuses on selecting and implementing
an emotion regulation strategy that instantiates the cognitive
change necessary to reinterpret a situation in such a way that the
meaning of that situation invokes a different emotional experi-
ence. Expressive writing focuses more on noticing, experiencing,
and identifying ones emotions and is less specific on structuring
the particular ways in which individuals should react to and
manage their emotions. Prior research suggests that those who
engage in expressive writing regulate their emotions by creating
distance (37) and insight about their emotional experiences, but
ultimately, expressive writing allows individuals to choose their
own strategy for managing their emotions.
The lack of additional benefits of combining both expressive
writing and reappraisal interventions was surprising since we
hypothesized that allowing students to experience and identify
their emotions through expressive writing and then scaffolding
an effective reappraisal strategy would facilitate the emotion
regulation process. It may be that since each intervention helps
students regulate their emotional experience, combining them is
redundant. Alternatively, there may be different ways to struc-
ture the combination of these interventions that could be ef-
fective. For instance, giving students the goal to reappraise their
emotions before expressing them on paper could be more ad-
vantageous than asking students to express and then reappraise
their emotions (as we did here). Structured in this way, students
would have reappraisal in mind while writing about their emo-
tions in the expressive writing exercise.
In conclusion, the recent research on applying psychological
theory to improve student outcomes in educational settings has
demonstrated potential to generate substantial and lasting
change as one of many tools policymakers can use in the fight
against inequality (18, 30). However, few studies have focused
specifically on helping students regulate their emotions more
adaptively during critical evaluative assessments that hold a great
degree of influence over course grades. In this large-scale study,
we show that such brief but psychologically precise emotion
regulation interventions can benefit studentsexamination per-
formance, the rate at which they pass their courses, and the at-
titudes they hold about the efficacy of stress during tests.
Importantly, there are considerable and seemingly intransigent
gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged stu-
dents on these outcomes, and the emotion regulation interven-
tions tested in this study reduced the size of those gaps. Of
course, the current interventions are only targeting one part of
the problem of student underperformance. Nonetheless, emo-
tion regulation interventionswhich are implementable at the
school levelappear to be one tool that can help students from
lower-income backgrounds participate in STEM fields that can
increase opportunities for success.
Materials and Methods
Participants. Participants were 1,175 ninth grade students taking the fresh-
man biology course at a large, diverse public school across 2 y of data col-
lection. The students were 53% female, 24% were from lower-income
backgrounds (as indicated by free or reduced lunch status), 56% were White,
21% were African American, 15% were Latino, 7% were Asian, and the
remaining 1% of students identified as being members of other groups (e.g.,
Pacific Islander).
Procedure. All students in the biology courses completed two writing exercises
and a survey at the end of the school year. Parents were sent a letter
informing them of the study and how they could opt out of sharing their
students data with researchers. Students were similarly allowed to opt out
of sharing their data with researchers. In total, 17 students opted out of
sharing their data, leaving the study with a highly representative sample of
the student population (more than 98% of the population participating).
The reported analytic sample does not include the 17 students who opted
out of the study. These procedures were approved by the Institutional Re-
view Board at the University of Chicago.
During the school year, students completed the following activities: (i)
short writing exercises before their first semester final examination in Jan-
uary and second semester final examination in May and (ii) a survey on the
last days of school. For 10 min directly preceding each semester final ex-
amination, students completed a writing exercise as part of the study. Stu-
dents were randomly assigned to the following conditions: (i) an expressive
writing intervention in which students wrote freely about their thoughts
before the test, (ii) a reappraisal intervention in which students were asked
to evaluate their symptoms of stress as helpful for test taking, (iii )anin-
tervention that combines the expressive writing and reappraisal interven-
tions, and (iv) a an active control condition that instructed students to ignore
symptoms of their stress and nervousness. Students received the same type
of writing exercise before both finals.
Data were collected over 2 y. The control condition had 346 students, the
expressive writing condition had 347 students, the reappraisal condition had
345 students, and the combined expressive writing and reappraisal condition
had 137 students (a smaller number in this group because this condition was
only included in 1 y of the data collection). See SI Appendix for more detailed
information on the interventions and procedure.
Rozek et al. PNAS Latest Articles
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PSYCHOLOGICAL AND
COGNITIVE SCIENCES
Writing Exercises. The writing exercises were created by modifying exercises
used in the two previous field studies in schools. The expressive writing
exercise asked students to think about their emotions and thoughts before
the examination and express them in writing (24). The reappraisal writing
exercise was a modified version (adapted for high school students) of the
intervention developed by Jamieson et al. (25). This writing exercise asked
students to answer brief comprehension questions after completing a
reading ostensibly written by scientists that explained that the anxious
arousal felt before stressful events is actually meant to be helpful instead of
harmful. The combined intervention involved slightly shortened versions of
each exercise with the expressive writing component first and the reap-
praisal component second. The active control condition asked students to
ignore their anxiety, which has been shown to be helpful compared with a
neutral control condition in prior studies (e.g., ref. 38) and was based on
prior research (25). Students in the expressive writing condition received the
exact same prompt before each examination whereas students in the
reappraisal, combined, and control conditions received different prompts in
semester 1 compared with semester 2, but the prompts gave a similar
message. The difference in these prompts from semester to semester was to
avoid repetition since reappraisal and control writing exercises involved a
longer reading component that would be repetitive if it were exactly the
same reading selection used in each semester.
Survey Measures. A postintervention survey of reappraisal of test anxiety (39)
was given to students at the very end of the school year to assess whether
they viewed anxiety during tests as potentially enhancing (example item
rated on a 15, never true about me-always true about me, scale: A test will
go well if I am a little nervous before taking it). The four-item scale had
high reliability (α=0.87), and the majority of students completed the survey
measure (73%).
Academic Records. Academic records were collected from the school district to
assess effects of the interventions on examination performance and course
passing rate.Further, to increase statistical precision, prioryear MAP (Measures
of Academic Progress) standardized test scores were collected to use as a
covariate in the analyses.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank Megan Garrad, Marjorie Schaeffer, Ryan
Svoboda, and Barbara Viso for assistance during the project. We are very
grateful to the teachers, administrators, and students at the school for their
support and cooperation in this project. This research was supported by a
grant from the Spencer Foundation (201600039) (to C.S.R. and S.L.B.). The
opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of
the Spencer Foundation.
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