Writing about Values

This project will use writing exercises to try to increase the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It draws on some interesting research in America and elsewhere which suggests that people in groups that are stereotypically seen as underachieving (e.g some ethnic minorities and disadvantaged groups) perform worse when they are aware of that stereotype (a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”). There is evidence that this “stereotype threat” can be addressed, indirectly, through some activities. These involve pupils completing an exercise which reaffirms their personal integrity, such as writing about values which are important to them. The aim of the exercises is to reduce negative thoughts sparked off by the stereotype, allowing them to focus on the task at hand.

The proposal here is to offer GCSE students the chance to complete brief “Writing about Values” exercises at several points in Years 10 and 11. The University of Sussex will design and deliver the intervention. 

Why are we funding it?

A handful of influential psychology studies in the US have used similar methodologies with positive results. Adolescent students in socially and racially mixed schools were randomly assigned to undertake either short intervention writing activities, or very similar control activities, including writing about people’s values. The results suggest the intervention either improves grades, or at least slowed the downward trajectories, of target underachieving groups (African American and Latino American students, in the two biggest studies), but had no impact on white pupils – thereby narrowing the achievement gap.

This first trial in England will assess whether we find similar effects for pupils from groups that tend to be underperforming academically, focusing on the outcomes for pupils eligible for Free School Meals. 

How are we evaluating it?

Durham University will work with the University of Sussex project team to deliver an “efficacy” study. Efficacy trials aim to test whether an intervention can work under ideal conditions (e.g. when being delivered by the intervention’s original developer).

The project team will recruit 25 secondary schools in the South East of England. Individual pupils will be randomised to the “treatment” or “control” groups. In English lessons, all pupils will undertake a 10-15 minute written exercise, but with different pupils writing slightly different essays. Teachers and pupils will be told that the exercises are short creative writing essays, which will not be marked, and they will not know who is in the intervention and control groups. The University of Sussex will deliver the printed exercises to schools, which will be in individually named envelopes. Teachers and pupils will be blind to which arm they are in.

Year 10 and 11 pupils will complete the exercises three times a year, in the academic year 2016/17. The GCSE data for both cohorts will be collected, allowing us to assess the immediate impact of the intervention, and observe whether any difference from the intervention for the Year 10 cohort lasts into Year 11.

The independent evaluator will also assess whether the exercises have been implemented correctly. The trial has been registered. If you would like to view the evaluation protocol, please contact Anneka Dawson.

When will the evaluation report be due?

The evaluation report on both cohorts will be published in Summer 2019.