Monday, January 22, 2007

Attitudes and Testing

In an article called The Curse of Being Different, in the 13 Jan. 2007 New Scientist, the author describes how assumptions and stereotypes can depress performance on tests. This was demonstrated by overcoming those barriers with a simple device. For example,

Between 2003 and 2006 Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, tested the mathematical ability of 220 female college students (Science, vol 314, p 435). Before taking a maths test similar to one used by many colleges to screen applicants to graduate programmes, some of the women read passages arguing that there are fixed gender differences in mathematical ability, while others read that differences in ability can be modified by experience. The researchers predicted that viewing ability as changeable would make it easier for women to overcome the negative stereotype that paints maths as a predominantly male pursuit. They were right: the "changeable" intervention raised women's maths scores by an astonishing 50 per cent.
This resonates with something I heard at the AAC&U conference. I think it was in one of George Kuh's talks. He said that some students enter college with the belief that their brains have a fixed capacity beyond which they cannot grow. Others think they can expand their minds to accommodate new material. It's not hard to see that the former attitude could limit one's performance.

Given all the recent articles I've seen (and quoted some on this blog) on the role of attitude and belief, I'm a little surprised that the new liberal arts goals embraced by AAC&U's LEAP initiative do not include attitudes explicitly. There are references to ethics and citizenship, which could be taken to imply attitude changes, but not necessarily. One can certainly learn all about ethics without having any inclination to use that knowledge!

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