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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Travel Grant Report

04.11.2015, by Kai Sassenberg in grant report

Laura Celeste (KU Leuven)
Visit to Rupert Brown (University of Sussex in Brighton, UK).

With the help of the EASP Postgraduate Travel Grant awarded to me in December 2014, I was able to travel to the UK to work alongside Professor Rupert Brown at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

The focus of my visit to the UK was to conduct a longitudinal intervention study at a highly diverse British secondary school. After much planning the previous year, I was able to travel to the UK to meet with the school and implement our intervention project. This initial intervention is an essential part of my PhD project which we plan to later replicate in highly diverse secondary schools in Belgium. It builds upon our previous findings which suggest that the normative attitudes towards diversity and (bicultural) values within the school environment are crucial in understanding and improving minority well-being and achievement.
Our intervention aimed to enhance underperformance in minority achievement by reinforcing the value of pupils’ cultural identity. Our research paradigm extends previous self-affirmation research conducted in the US: when African-American pupils were given by the teacher the chance to reaffirm their personal values in a writing exercise, their school performance was enhanced up to three years later (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006). Similar interventions have shown that reinforcement of a one’s (bi)cultural values and identity can also have similar beneficial effects, particularly when pupils feel that they are in a challenging situation (Scheepers, Saguy, Dovidio & Gaertner, 2014). We build upon these bodies of research, as well as our own findings on school diversity climates. Specifically, our intervention aimed to experimentally induce varying conditions of school support for diversity. By intervening at the school level, we hypothesized that this reinforcement of school support for diversity would affirm pupils’ bicultural identity, reducing identity threat, thus improving performance (and possibly increasing school belonging) amongst minority pupils. With this intervention, we aimed to further explore the role that the school can play, in facilitating achievement in a culturally and ethnically diverse school setting.
The central idea of the intervention, drawing on self-affirmation literature (see Cohen & Sherman, 2014 for a review), is that pupils in a transitioning phase of life (i.e. the beginning of secondary school) can find the transition quite difficult. Particularly if a pupil feels that they are at any kind of disadvantage, this kind of reinforcement of support (i.e. our intervention), coming from a school or teacher, can be just the boost a pupil may need to start their secondary school out right. With our intervention, we aimed to help the pupils feel more valued as a member of the school and boosting their self-confidence and school-belonging, as well as performance.

My time in the UK also allowed me to start analysing the impact of our intervention. Initial analyses show that our intervention had a meaningful impact on pupils. Thus, far we found that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds performed better when the school conveyed a positive climate supporting multiculturalism. From these initial findings we were also able to compile a report of our intervention, along with more general descriptive information for the school. This report was very well received by the teachers, who found it a very nice point of reference to know how their students felt about diversity-related topics (something that is not actively taught at school) and general well-being measures.

The highlight of my study visit was personally visiting the diverse secondary school. I was fortunate enough to be in the UK for an extended period of time, which allowed me to visit the school on many occasions, first to plan and become aware of all practicalities involved, as well as conduct the intervention myself. Because our intervention was a repeated design, and took place at two separate sessions, as well as pre and post-questionnaire sessions, I spent a fair amount of time at the school. From these school visits and meetings with the teachers, I was able to gain insight from an applied real-world perspective, learning about what the teachers themselves experience when it comes to discussing diversity and multiculturalism in diverse schools.

My time at the secondary school was something I will cherish about my study visit to the UK because it helps me continue to relate my research to the realities that pupils and teachers face. I was impressed by the teacher’s willingness and enthusiasm to take part in the research, and to learn about the different strategies from social psychology to have a beneficial effect on their underperforming pupils. Spending time getting to know the experiences of both pupils and teachers gave me the perspective necessary to interpret and contextualize the findings from our intervention. This was an invaluable experience, and I am very grateful to the EASP for making these visits possible.

Beyond the intervention project itself, during my time at the University of Sussex, there were many opportunities to get involved with Professor Rupert Brown’s other PhD students, and colleagues in the psychology department. I was able to participate in lab meetings to discuss innovative research from fellow PhD students and colleagues at Sussex, in a small group setting. I also attended colloquia of Sussex researchers to learn more about the different projects within the department. More broadly, the Psychology Department at Sussex frequently hosts internationally renowned experts in all areas of psychology which was a great opportunity. I was able to broaden my scope, which helped my interdisciplinary attempt to understand diversity in real life contexts. My time with the research group at Sussex was very motivating and helped me meet other colleagues in a similar intergroup research field and plan for potential future collaborations.

I would sincerely like to thank the European Association of Social Psychology helping make this study visit possible. I have learned a great deal in terms of academic and applied disciplines, and I know that this experience will have a large impact on the quality of my PhD thesis. And lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank Professor Rupert Brown and the University of Sussex for hosting me during this time abroad, and for facilitating such a great experience both socially and academically.

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310. DOI:10.1126/science.1128317
Cohen, G. L. & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social
psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333-371. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115137
Scheepers, D., Saguy, T., Dovidio J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (2014). A shared dual identity promotes a cardiovascular challenge response during interethnic interactions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17, 324-341. DOI: 10.1177/1368430213517271
Sherman, D., Hartson, K. A., Binning, K. R., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Taborsky-Barba, S., Tomassetti, S., Nussbaum, A. D., & Cohen, G. (2013). Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 591–618. DOI: 10.1037/a0031495