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Writing Beyond Stereotypes

posted: 5.9.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

3925729921_53a3ea1e6eFor many years, I assigned written self-assessments at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester in the Basic Writing course. I invited students to focus on their own strengths, areas for improvement, what they felt they had learned, and how their writing demonstrated what they had learned.  Such assessments, I suggested, could help to build students’ confidence in their writing skills, which could enhance their ability and their desire to write.

However, after reading Geoffrey Cohen’s article, “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” I decided to try something a bit different. Geoffrey Cohen and his research team found that a values intervention can serve as a powerful antidote to stereotypes and can help to sustain student achievement. Learning, as defined by this research, becomes possible—and powerful—for students as they become aware of their own values, and how those values connect to success in high-risk academic situations. Values intervention works by reminding students what is important to them—where they come from, what and whom they love, why they have succeeded in the past.  In addition, the students also learn still more purposes for writing: to intervene against negative stereotypes, to remember their strengths, and to focus their attention toward success. Here is the prompt I created after reading Cohen’s article (students responded in class near the end of the semester):

Reflect on the following prompt with at least 2–3 pages of writing.  The idea for this prompt is taken from, “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” an article published in Science 17 (April 2009) by Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, and Patricia Brzustoski. Their research investigated the connections between writing, values affirmation, and school success.

PROMPT: Which value or values from the list below would you count as most important to you? Would you include other values that are not on this list? Why is this value (or values) connected to your strengths as a writer?  Why would this value (or values) remain important to you as you complete your academic work for the term?


  • Being good at art
  • Creativity
  • Independence
  • Living in the moment
  • Membership in a social group (such as your community, racial group, or school club)
  • Music
  • Politics
  • Relationships with friends or family
  • Religious values
  • Sense of humor

Asked to write about their family or friends or community, and the relationship of what they valued to school success, the students dove in and created descriptions and examples without hesitation. They loved doing this writing, several of the students said. For some students, the values intervention remained their favorite writing assignment of the semester.  Additionally, a majority of students enrolled in this Basic Writing course demonstrated noticeable improvements on their scores on a mandated high-stakes writing exam.

Recently, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, women students enrolled in a physics course were involved in a similar intervention study, with comparable results. Many women have experiences with negative social stereotypes about their lack of ability in math and science. However, the researchers found that, “… the effects of these psychological factors can be largely overcome with a brief writing exercise focusing on important values, such as friends and family, learning or even music.”

For students in these studies, the overlapping component seems to be using writing to affirm their core values, and the relationship of their values to their abilities to succeed. In other words, students use writing to speak back to negative social stereotypes—and to claim agency for themselves as writers.

What could be more basic than that?

[Photo: A Sociology Lecture, 1964 by LSE Library on Flickr.]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Developmental
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