Self-affirmation Boosts Some Students' GPA

African-American Students Taking Self-esteem Exercises See Gains in Academic Achievement, Study Says

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 16, 2009
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April 16, 2009 -- Encouraging children to remember what they like about themselves could have a big impact on their academic achievement.

Self-affirmation exercises can have a significant and lasting impact on academic performance, especially among minority children, according to a new study.

Beginning early in seventh grade, students at a suburban school completed structured writing assignments about their personal values. Students wrote about their relationships with family and friends, their creativity, their musical interests, or other personal values. The idea was that such self-affirmation would reduce stress and improve performance, especially among minority children dealing with negative stereotypes.

“This exercise essentially gives kids the chance to say this is what I believe in, this is what makes me a good person,” researcher Geoffrey Cohen says in a Science podcast. “It takes the sting out of potential failure. ‘I feel like, Even if I do poorly here on this test or in school, I am still fundamentally a good person. It anchors my sense of self-integrity.’”

Fall-term grades improved for African-American students who participated in the self-affirmation writing exercises. White students’ grades were not affected.

The follow-up, published in the April 17 issue of Science, was meant to examine whether the positive impacts would have staying power. GPAs were re-evaluated at the end of eighth grade. The grade point average among participating African-American students was raised by an average of 0.24 points, compared to a control group that participated in neutral writing exercises about topics such as their morning routine. Low-achieving students were affected even more significantly, with a GPA increase of 0.41 points. The exercise had no impact on the GPA of white students.

Researchers hypothesized that positive results of the self-affirming writing exercises set in motion a series of positive reactions. Good grades built confidence and self-esteem, which resulted in more good grades.

“Early outcomes set the starting point and initial trajectory of a recursive cycle and so can have disproportional influence,” the researchers write in the study.