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      Reducing the Socio-Economic Status Achievement Gap at University by Promoting Mastery-Oriented Assessment


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          In spite of official intentions to reduce inequalities at University, students’ socio-economic status (SES) is still a major determinant of academic success. The literature on the dual function of University suggests that University serves not only an educational function (i.e., to improve students’ learning), but also a selection function (i.e., to compare people, and orient them towards different positions in society). Because current assessment practices focus on the selection more than on the educational function, their characteristics fit better with norms and values shared by dominant high-status groups and may favour high-SES students over low-SES students in terms of performances. A focus on the educational function (i.e., mastery goals), instead, may support low-SES students’ achievement, but empirical evidence is currently lacking. The present research set out to provide such evidence and tested, in two field studies and a randomised field experiment, the hypothesis that focusing on University’s educational function rather than on its selection function may reduce the SES achievement gap. Results showed that a focus on learning, mastery-oriented goals in the assessment process reduced the SES achievement gap at University. For the first time, empirical data support the idea that low-SES students can perform as well as high-SES students if they are led to understand assessment as part of the learning process, a way to reach mastery goals, rather than as a way to compare students to each other and select the best of them, resulting in performance goals. This research thus provides a theoretical framework to understand the differential effects of assessment on the achievement of high and low-SES students, and paves the way toward the implementation of novel, theory-driven interventions to reduce the SES-based achievement gap at University.

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          Most cited references 13

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          Research showing that activation of negative stereotypes can impair the performance of stigmatized individuals on a wide variety of tasks has proliferated. However, a complete understanding of the processes underlying these stereotype threat effects on behavior is still lacking. The authors examine stereotype threat in the context of research on stress arousal, vigilance, working memory, and self-regulation to develop a process model of how negative stereotypes impair performance on cognitive and social tasks that require controlled processing, as well as sensorimotor tasks that require automatic processing. The authors argue that stereotype threat disrupts performance via 3 distinct, yet interrelated, mechanisms: (a) a physiological stress response that directly impairs prefrontal processing, (b) a tendency to actively monitor performance, and (c) efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions in the service of self-regulation. These mechanisms combine to consume executive resources needed to perform well on cognitive and social tasks. The active monitoring mechanism disrupts performance on sensorimotor tasks directly. Empirical evidence for these assertions is reviewed, and implications for interventions designed to alleviate stereotype threat are discussed.
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            A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students.

            A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen's sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans' grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans' self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention's impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health.
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              Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology.

              Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instructors have been charged with improving the performance and retention of students from diverse backgrounds. To date, programs that close the achievement gap between students from disadvantaged versus nondisadvantaged educational backgrounds have required extensive extramural funding. We show that a highly structured course design, based on daily and weekly practice with problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills, improved the performance of all students in a college-level introductory biology class and reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students--without increased expenditures. These results support the Carnegie Hall hypothesis: Intensive practice, via active-learning exercises, has a disproportionate benefit for capable but poorly prepared students.

                Author and article information

                Role: Editor
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                8 August 2013
                : 8
                : 8
                [1 ]University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
                [2 ]Clermont University, Université Blaise Pascal and French University Institute, Clermont-Ferrand, France
                [3 ]Clermont University, Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, France
                University of Pennsylvania, United States of America
                Author notes

                Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

                Conceived and designed the experiments: AS CD FB. Performed the experiments: AS CD. Analyzed the data: AS CD. Wrote the paper: AS CD CS MCTC FB. Contributed to discussions regarding analyses and interpretation of data: CS MCTC FB.


                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

                Page count
                Pages: 6
                This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation ( http://www.snf.ch/E/Pages/default.aspx), a project of the French Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (GENIM - ANR 11 INEG 002 01; http://www.agence-nationale-recherche.fr/) and a grant from the region Auvergne. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
                Research Article
                Social and Behavioral Sciences
                Human Performance
                Cognitive Psychology
                Human Relations
                Social Psychology
                Science Education
                Teaching Methods
                Social Discrimination
                Social Mobility
                Social Networks
                Social Stratification
                Social Systems



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