Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic

“Social-psychological interventions complement—and do not replace—traditional educational reforms. They do not teach students academic content or skills, restructure schools, or improve teacher training. Instead, they allow students to take better advantage of learning opportunities that are present in schools and tap into existing recursive processes to generate long-lasting effects.” (Walton & Yeager, 2011, p. 293)

The title of this post is taken from the cited article above, recently published in the Review of Educational Research by Yeager and Walton. I’ve returned to it many times in the last few months as I consult with faculty on infusing cooperative learning and related techniques into their courses.

As I’ve begun to get my footing in the world of faculty development and instructional design, I’ve been perplexed by how much basic, theory-based social-psychological research on what works in education is overlooked. Now, I understand and support seminal models of instructional design such as Chickering and Gamson’s classic “Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education“, Wiggins and McTighe’s backwards design principles in “Understand by Design“, and Dee Fink’s incredibly practical model for “Creating Significant Learning Experiences“. I applaud these models and, for the most part, there is decent empirical support for their continued use. They’ve been developed by people smarter than me and undoubtedly have had an incredibly positive impact on the quality of higher education.

The rub for me is that for the balance of the past 40 years, social psychologists have known what consistently increases student outcomes and how to effectively train teachers in these methods. For example, metanalyses comparing cooperative versus individual learning methods in myriad contexts consistently report effect sizes of .55 for achievement, .42 for self-esteem, and .42 for peer relationships (see Roseth, Johnson, & Johnson, 2008 and Johnson & Johnson, 2009). We get pretty darn excited for such robust and consistent effect sizes such in the social sciences. Instructional designers should, too.

The beauty of social-psychological interventions is that most are light and small and create a context in which every student can succeed.

By creating space for students to construct knowledge and actively interact with course content and others’ perspectives, social psychological interventions fit perfectly with the teaching-to-learning-centered transition that’s become instructional design canon. Perhaps most importantly, these approaches are particularly effective in closing achievement gaps associated with traditionally marginalized student groups. Consider a few examples:

    • Blackwell et al., 2007: During 8 class sessions, low-income Black and Hispanic students were given very simple messages about intelligence being malleable instead of fixed.
      • Results: The experimental group were .30 grade points higher at the end of the year.
    • Cohen et al., 2009: During one 15 minute classroom session, low- and middle- income Black and White students wrote about values that were personally meaningful to them.
      • Results: Black students in the experimental group were .30 grade points higher at the end of first term and low-performing Black students were .46 higher after 2 years.
    • Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009: Every 3 or 4 weekes, students wrote a brief essay about how material studied could be applied to their lives.
      • Results: Students who previously had low expectations for success were .80 grade points higher at the end of the semester.

I’m not experienced enough in the field of faculty development to understand why the disconnect between social-psychological research and instructional design models persists (or even if I’m completely accurate in my evaluation of it). The intentions are certainly there. While attending the POD Conference I heard again and again about the importance of the “affective domain” in learning, but very little guidance on how to leverage this important domain for learning. As well, other leaders in the field like Derek Bruff are talking openly about “social pedagogies“. The issue is, as Yeager & Walton suggest, that these interventions are not “magical” quick fixes to complicated problems in the genre of snake oil. You can’t just throw a bunch of inner-city, at-risk students into a group and expect them to magically write powerful essays about their experience while beating the odds (a la the “Freedom Writers“). No, the studies noted above explain in large part exactly why this approach worked, explicate the essential mechanisms, and reveal the “active ingredients”, if you will. So the most salient truth is that, due to decades of diligent theory development and basic research, we know exactly why these approaches work, what the specific mechanisms are that make them work, and how to structure them in real classrooms . For example, decades of work by Kurt Lewin, Morton Deutsch, David and Roger Johnson, and other social psychologists have revealed to us that the key components integral to consistently getting good results in cooperative learning pedagogy (e.g., positive interdependence between students (i.e., “we sink or swim together”). When employed correctly, these methods lead to improvements in achievement, intrinsic motivation, and relationships on the order of half a standard deviation, replicated in myriad cultures and age groups. What’s more, there are incredibly accessible books that lay out for practitioners exactly how to consistently create this type of learning context.

To play my part, I will develop a running list of resources below on social psychological interventions in my area of expertise (i.e., cooperative learning):


[Photo credit: JD Hancock –]

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