3 Social Psychological Interventions that just might work.

Without a doubt, cognition forms the bedrock of learning. Sure, we can learn basic things through classical and operant conditioning but these are unlikely to lead to the depth of learning required for complex mental skills.  There are, however, methods that help support these cognitive processes or mitigate the impact of extraneous factors.

Learning is a cognitive, social and emotional process and concentrating on any single component negates the complexity of the process. While the cognitive aspects of learning are well documented and are broadly understood, the social and emotional aspects are far more complex and nuanced.

Social Psychology is a bit of minefield for several reasons (and it’s taken a pounding in recent years due issues of replication). For this reason we must remain cautious (although we must remain cautious of all research). The following social psychological interventions are interesting if nothing else and might even work.

1. Role Model Exposure.

Role models are powerful things and the research often draws on well-established constructs such as conformity and compliance. Interestingly, people who know that a member of their group (such as race or gender) has succeeded in a particular domain are much less likely to buy into the stereotypes that suggest that the groups’ ability in that domain is impaired.

To illustrate, Marx and Roman (2002) found that women taking a maths test, which was supervised by a woman known to be a maths expert, performed better and reported higher levels of self-esteem. In another study (Marx, Stapel and Muller, 2005) female students performed better when taking a maths test after reading a newspaper article about a female student who excelled in maths. Other studies have found that role models can combat stereotype threat, although some such as the “Obama Effect” have failed to replicate.

Best Role Models: Those people who play up their own early struggles and stress the view that struggle is part of life.

Worst Role Models: Those people believed to be naturally gifted or succeed through talent rather than persistence.

2. Reappraisal

I’ve written before about how anxiety can negatively impact learning and cause students to perform badly in high stakes exams even when they know the material. It has been suggested that students can regulate negative emotions and free up cognitive resources by writing about their fears (see also ‘Learning and emotions: It’s not all about the positive’). Research found that giving students a free writing test about a specific upcoming stressor (i.e. an exam) allowed them to ‘process’ fears relating to it. This technique is quite common in many psychological therapies, especially those concerned with anxiety.

In one study students were given the opportunity to write about their fears prior to a final examination. Grades increased, on average, from a B- to a B+.

The benefits of written reappraisal most likely arise through the anxiety reduction process. However, while most students will find the writing tasks beneficial, there is always the possibility that others could find the activity itself anxiety provoking.

3. Possible Selves.

In the process of forming their own identities, adolescents may think about their ‘possible selves’ as part of this process.  Thinking about attaining a positive possible self has been linked to greater wellbeing and higher levels of persistence.

If students are able to think about the kind of person they want to be in the future, they are more likely to consider the relevance of what they are currently learning. Combining this with goal setting or personal bests can help to manage future objectives.

Caution: While the possible selves hypothesis has been linked to higher levels of wellbeing, failure to attain that ‘ideal’ has also been linked to depression, perhaps due to the discrepancy between actual and ideal self. However, if these selves can be made to co-exist, they may be of some benefit.

Spitzer, B & Aronson, J (2015) Minding and mending the gap: Social psychological interventions to reduce educational disparities British Journal of Educational Psychology 85, p. 1 – 18


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