Read about the hidden psychological barriers that some groups of students face,
and how to select an intervention that will be effective locally
Some school and college students—especially those from groups that have suffered from historical inequality—face barriers to success in education that others do not. Some of these barriers are psychological in nature, triggered by cues in the everyday things that they see and experience in their environment.
Fortunately, researchers have developed interventions that educational practitioners can use to help break down these psychological barriers. Although brief and very low cost, they can be incredibly effective. You can see a brief overview of these in Figure 1.
However, since every school and college has its own social and cultural context, so the psychological barriers that contribute to inequalities in outcomes for their students can be quite different. This means that an intervention that is effective in one school might be ineffective or even counterproductive in another.
A protocol for selecting the right intervention for a school or college
Figure 2 outlines a protocol that can help educational practitioners understand which psychological barriers are holding back which groups of students in their own school or college, and then select and/or tailor an intervention that will work for them.
Gain a picture of the context. The first step is to gain an intimate picture of the school or college and the groups within it. The core ingredient of this is a straightforward analysis of existing data to summarise the main academic and behavioural outcome gaps between the various groups of students (by ethnicity, first generation vs. continuing generation, eligibility for free school meals, gender, etc.). This would then be supplemented by discussions, interviews, surveys, and/or focus groups with students, teachers, and/or parents to generate a rich picture of any psychological barriers to learning. This would aim to answer questions such as: to what extent and in what specific ways do different groups of students feel that they do not belong at school/college; to what extent and in what ways do they feel threatened; how much and for what reasons do they value education; and so on. This step should also aim to identify whether the school or college is likely to be sufficiently reactive and supportive for a brief intervention to take root, or whether more fundamental improvements are needed.
Identify barriers for some groups. The second step is to look at how any psychological barriers relate to the outcome gaps. Where the expertise is available or can be commissioned or obtained through partnership with researchers, statistical tools such as mediation analysis could support this analysis. Where this is not feasible, practitioners could simply identify where groups of students with poorer outcomes also reported (in the discussions, interviews, surveys and/or focus groups) greater specific psychological barriers than others. For example, there might be a group of students with a particularly poor academic and disciplinary record who also reported that they worried about not fitting in at the school or college because they feel they have very little in common with their teachers or faculty.
Identify an intervention. If such psychological barriers for certain groups of students are identified, then one can move to the third step: identify an intervention that targets those barriers for those students (see Figure 1). Where feasible, the chances of success could be maximised by gaining insights though pilots or focus groups to help tailor the materials so that they resonate with the specific students targeted by the intervention.
Implement and evaluate. The fourth and final step would be to implement the intervention, monitor and evaluate its effects, and adjust as necessary.
We hope that our protocol can be developed further so that it will eventually lead to schools and colleges across the country being able to much more precisely and effectively identify and address some of the biggest issues that are holding back many of their students.
You can read about the background to the protocol in our paper Tackling Educational Inequalities with Social Psychology: Identities, Contexts, and Interventions. Please contact us if you’d like to discuss participating in our research.