George Smith: Understanding how to bring out the best in disadvantaged students

George Smith, winner of the 2013 Daniel Katz Dissertation Fellowship in Psychology and Survey Methodology, found that how middle school students perceive difficulty can be the difference between success and failure.

When George Smith was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, he worked every semester with middle schoolers who were struggling with whether college was for them. Smith was well aware of the theory that underprivileged students often falter in high school and give up on college because they don’t care. But he didn’t buy it. “Again and again in studies we find that’s not the case,” explains Smith, who recently completed his doctorate in social psychology at the University of Michigan (U-M). “When we ask students where they want to be, they have the same aspirations,” as their wealthier peers.

George Smith, photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

George Smith, photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

Smith and his five brothers and sisters grew up in Memphis; their parents regularly told them that “education is number one.” But underprivileged students often don’t have role models like that to keep them inspired, he says. When they confront tasks in school that they find difficult, as all students do, their reaction may be to shut down. “My interest is looking at how people interpret difficult experiences and their reactions to that,” Smith says. “And more so, can we give them an explicit framing of, ‘Hey, this is how you should think about difficulty,’ and will that matter for their outcomes?” To explore these questions, Smith and two other U-M graduate students under the supervision of Daphna Oyserman, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), worked with more than 200 at-risk minority 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in a school in Romulus, a suburb of Detroit. They randomly assigned students to one of three groups and had them complete problems from an intelligence test and write an essay pulled from the Michigan Education Assessment Program standardized test. One group worked on the tasks with no additional input. A second group was told that if they found the task difficult, it was probably impossible. And a third group heard that if a task was difficult, it was also important, and worth increased effort. The biggest question for the researchers, Smith says, was whether doing something that simple could make a difference.

The biggest question for the researchers, Smith says, was whether doing something that simple could make a difference.

It did. Smith says students who were primed to see difficulty as a sign of importance solved more problems and wrote better essays, as determined by an independent reviewer. Another study in a Yemeni school in Dearborn showed similar results; there, students told to equate difficulty with importance answered the question of what they wanted to do later in life with more school focused identities. Related studies at U-M are reinforcing these results. But there was a discouraging side to the research, as well. There was no difference in performance between middle-school students who received the message that difficult equals impossible and those who got no message at all. In other words, the natural mindset of the students was to give up when faced with a difficult task. “It’s what we expected,” Smith says, “but it’s a little depressing.”

George Smith and his wife Elena, photo courtesy of George Smith

George Smith and his wife Elena, photo courtesy of George Smith

Still, if teachers know how to prep students for difficult work, it can be the difference between success and failure. “The big takeaway is that how students interpret these experiences they have in the classroom matters,” Smith says. “These are simple things to think about that can help students have better outcomes.” (After the study, Smith adds, the researchers went back to the schools and debriefed all the students, leaving them with positive messages about persevering when schoolwork is hard.) Smith conducted the research with support from the Daniel Katz Dissertation Fellowship in Psychology and Survey Methodology. “I wouldn’t have been able to finish this work without the support from the Katz fund,” Smith says simply. “It allowed me to be able to focus on going to the schools, taking care of all the nuts and bolts, and being able to do the analyses.”

Smith has accepted a job as a Fellow with the Strategic Data Project, a Harvard University program that partners with school districts and other educational groups to bring high-quality research methods and data analysis to strategic management and policy decisions. Smith will work with the Huntsville, Alabama, schools to examine student proficiency on state common core standards and to analyze the effectiveness of the school system’s digital curriculum.

Meanwhile, in May, he and his wife, an engineer, had their first child, James Ignacio. One more reason to make sure that schools do what they can to bring out the best in all students.

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