Panel Paper: “It’s Normal for AP to be a Challenge”: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Social-Belonging Intervention for First-Time Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Students

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 12 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Eric Gaudiello1, Shannon Brady1, Holly Karakos2, Adam Kay2 and Alejandro Torres2, (1)Wake Forest University, (2)Equal Opportunity Schools

For many high school students, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses lay the groundwork for acceptance to college and success once there. Concerningly, students of color and low-income students are less likely to take AP/IB courses than their more advantaged peers (even within the same school), and less likely to perform well in the courses and on the corresponding end-of-course exams. even within the same school. Addressing these inequalities is crucial to supporting students’ success in college. In past research, a psychological intervention to address student worries about belonging in the transition to college has been shown to improve the academic success of students from underrepresented backgrounds, including students of color and first-generation students (Walton & Cohen, 2011; Yeager et al, 2016). Thus, in the present research, we examined whether a similar approach might support student success in the transition to taking AP/IB courses. Specifically, we tested whether a social belonging intervention, which emphasized that experiences of difficulty and challenge in the transition to AP/IB are normal and fundamentally not an impediment to belonging and success, would improve students’ psychological and academic outcomes.

In the randomized controlled trial with over 5,000 students at more than 20 schools across four states, high school students (the majority of whom were underrepresented students of color or students from low-income backgrounds) taking their first AP/IB course completed either a belonging intervention customized for the AP/IB context or a study skills control exercise. The exercises, randomized at the student level, were embedded in an online survey and took approximately 30 minutes to complete.

Analyses indicated that students did not differ by condition in how helpful they reported the exercises to be. However, compared with students who completed the study skills control exercise, students who completed the belonging exercise saw difficulties in the transition to AB/IB as more common--a point the belonging intervention directly makes. The students in the belonging exercise condition were also more confident in their ability to handle upcoming challenges in AP/IB. Intervention effects on academic outcomes were mixed.

In addition, a pre-intervention measure of classroom belonging was found to predict academic outcomes, such that students with higher scores on the measure had significantly higher end of term grades in their AP/IB courses. For example, a one standard deviation increase in belonging was positively associated with a 0.21 grade point increase in AP/IB grades.

These findings extend prior work indicating that students’ sense of belonging predicts their academic performance, over and above past performance, by generalizing the effect to high school students and their experiences in advanced college-prep courses. Further, they suggest that belonging interventions, which have largely been examined when students transition between different academic contexts (from middle school to high school, or from high school to college) may also improve outcomes when students take on new academic challenges within the same academic context. However, the mixed academic effects indicate that there is still much to learn.