Thinking and Writing Skills in High Ability, Ethnic Minority, High School Students

Spring 2000 Masthead

Deborah Coates
Mariolga Reyes

City University of New York, City College
New York, NY

Acquiring the skills necessary for academic success is a major academic and social problem facing gifted under represented, ethnic minority, high school students. These students often have not had the experiences and opportunities available to students with successful academic careers. A persistent problem is how to help students develop strong discourse and writing skills. Few programs of support exist for high school students within a college setting. Those within high schools or community settings are often not evaluated. Some highly structured college support programs have demonstrated that it is possible to support these students’ academic development so that they can take advantage of their high abilities despite lacking contextual opportunities. Harney, Brigham, and Sanders (1986) and Brigham, Moseley, Sneed, and Fisher (1994) describe efforts to support the success of academically at-risk minority college freshman.

Several variables have been identified in these studies that appear to affect minority student success, particularly at large universities. Three important factors are: (a) the development of important academic skills, (b) involvement in the cultural and social life of the academic institution, and (c) self-confidence to compete with their majority peers (Brigham et al., 1994). In addition, these programs find that motivation and persistence are important characteristics of success. We wanted to explore how to give high ability, ethnic minority, high school students a “headstart” on college academic success through a college course.

Three Important Intellectual Skills for Academic Success

Robert Sternberg (1995) proposed a model of intelligence that is useful for developing talent in high ability students and is applicable to teaching all students. The triarchic theory of intelligence can be used for identifying, teaching, and assessing gifted students. This model can help teachers focus on the skills necessary for academic and social success. The triarchic model suggests that three intellectual abilities are important to academic and social success: (a) memory analytic, (b) creative synthetic, and (c) practical contextual thinking skills. Sternberg and his colleagues have described these skills as well as interventions and materials designed to enhance them in high school students. Memory analytic abilities are used in learning, comparing, analyzing, evaluating, and judging material. Most traditional standardized intelligence, aptitude, and achievement tests assess these skills. Creative synthetic abilities are used when one produces something new from a synthesis of material or develops a novel interpretation of an ordinary situation. This could also involve coping in a novel way with various life situations. Practical contextual abilities are those used to confront everyday problems encountered in day-to-day experience. This experience could occur at school, work, or home. Understanding how the world “works” and how to get along in it, whether based on formal or informal knowledge, represents this kind of thinking.

The Sternberg triarchic abilities model provides a basis for individualizing instruction or intervention activities to maximize ability and performance by matching instruction to performance. Academic performance can also be enriched by activities that enhance positive self-regard and social support. Extending a skills-based college success intervention to include high school students would seem to give these students an opportunity to have a “headstart” on excelling in academic performance in college. Furthermore, using a specific skills-based thinking model to develop the instructional intervention might improve academic performance outcomes. This thinking skills approach can also be useful to teachers in enhancing basic writing skills required by advanced academic training. We are currently using this approach to offer a college based academic and social support project to high ability, ethnic minority, high school students.

Teaching Thinking: A High School Intervention Project

We are working in one urban high school to offer thinking and writing training to high ability ethnic minority high school students. We call our effort the Teaching Thinking Project (TTP). This intervention research effort, begun in 1996, is designed to promote academic skills in highly capable, ethnic minority, high school students. We use Sternberg’s model of triarchic intelligence, described above, as an organizing framework.

The TTP offers a unique opportunity to recruit high ability students from a low income high school with students from some of the most under represented ethnic minority populations in the U.S. Participants in this research intervention are a sample of students attending an academic magnet school in a large eastern urban city with a current population of 1,541 students on a college campus. Of the participants, 50% are Latina/os (primarily of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent); 30% identify as being of native-born African descent; 16% report that they are Caribbeans of African descent; and 4% can be classified as Asian (Chinese and Pakistani). Many of these students, if accepted in college would be the first generation in their families to attend college.

The Intervention

We select students to participate based in part on their Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (STAT) scores (Sternberg, 1995). The STAT assesses how well students answer questions that require them to use analytic, practical, or creative thinking skills. The test includes both multiple choice and essay questions. We use the test so we can select students who have a particular strength, but also need to improve some thinking or writing skills. Students attend a one semester, college level, introductory course in psychology. The course is held 3 days a week for three lectures and 1 to 2 hour lab sessions with a college mentor. Class size is about 12 students. Each student is assigned to a highly successful and trained college mentor, who is matched with them based on thinking skills that need improvement.

Lectures are designed to encourage students to develop their thinking and writing skills by applying their thinking abilities to specific situations presented in the course. We use Sternberg’s (1995) In Search or the Human Mind, as a text. The text is supported by a generous and useful array of CD ROM, test-bank, lecture, and hands-on materials. The text is particularly useful because it is organized to emphasize to students how to think using higher order thinking. Sections of the text, practice materials, and questions for thinking, writing, and examinations are identified as focusing on one of Sternberg’s three thinking skills. For example, when students are introduced to material about the brain and sensation and perception, they are presented with activities and questions that ask them to think analytically by comparing and contrasting various theories about how perception occurs. They are also given an opportunity to think creatively by answering questions that challenge them to create or construct such as: “If you were designing the human brain, what would you do differently to render humans more adaptive to their environments?” And, they are given an opportunity to rehearse practical thinking skills by answering questions like: “What tasks would require the use of binocular depth cues? How might a person with only one eye compensate for the lack of binocular depth perception?”

During lab sessions, participants are divided into three small groups (practical, analytic, and creative) according to their lowest score on the STAT. The college mentors facilitate the discussion of class material in the small groups. The students discuss questions from the chapter assigned for that particular session and their responses are recorded by one of the students in each small group. Students also use lab time to meet individually with mentors to plan writing projects and to develop writing skills based on critical feedback of writing samples.

Academic and Social Support

The mentoring relationship is an important part of our intervention. We find that mentors do become role models for the high school students. During the mentoring sessions, mentors talk with their mentees about family, school work and environment, interpersonal relationships, as well as the students’ emotional state. Mentors explore the students’ state of mind by talking about upcoming academic and extracurricular events, the students’ overall academic performance, and personal issues. Mentors meet with their mentees once a week for an hour and keep detailed notes of their mentoring sessions. During the semester following students’ participation in the project, they often visit the lab and are encouraged to continue to work with mentors to develop academic skills and to begin or complete the search for colleges. Some students develop close relationships with their mentors.

Lessons Learned

Although the results of this study will not be available until the intervention is completed, we have learned the following two important lessons from the experience of working with high ability, ethnic minority, high school students who are under represented in gifted programs:

  1. Assessing initial intellectual abilities. The STAT has three subtests that assess analytic, creative, and practical thinking skills. Possible scores range from 1 – 12 for each multiple-choice sub-test, with 36 being the maximum score possible for an overall total score. We found that the average STAT multiple-choice subscores for our sample of 54 students to date were moderately high. For the multiple-choice sub-tests, students had a mean score of 6.7 on the analytic sub-test; 7.9 on the creativity sub-test, and 6.6 on the practical sub-test. The mean total score is 21 (SD = 3.77). Sternberg (1995) reports a slightly different pattern of results for a sample of 199 high ability high school students who participated in the original summer course on which the TTP is based. Of these students, 60% were of European descent and 40% were described as ethnic minority. Sternberg (1995) reports a mean of 7.9 for the analytic; 8.6 for the creative and 8.1 for the practical subscore for these students. While the Sternberg sample scores consistently higher than the TTP sample, both samples score highest on the creative and lowest on analytic subscales. The TTP sample scores equally low on the practical subsample, but the Sternberg sample scores for the practical and creative subtests are very similar. Since we used STAT scores to select students and to assign them to the particular thinking skills intervention best suited to their thinking profile, we plan to look at whether or not these scores improve after the intervention. We offered students help in the thinking skills area where they seemed weakest and allowed them to learn by working on assignments using their best thinking skills. Preliminary results indicate that STAT scores improve for analytic and creative, but not practical subscores.
  2. Meeting Students’ Academic Needs. The high ability ethnic minority high school students have a number of academic needs. One of their major needs is to develop writing skills that meet college standards. Most of the students who participated in the project had difficulties meeting basic college writing standards, and we had to give them detailed feedback on their essay questions and research papers. Students had difficulty elaborating in written assignments and difficulties with the mechanics of writing (e.g., grammar, punctuation, syntax). Two of the difficulties identified by our mentors, the instructors, and the students were: (a) understanding the question to be addressed and developing a coherent and relevant answer; and (b) organizing ideas, and developing coherent arguments. We have developed a number of writing workshops to help students develop writing skills and one-on-one coaching sessions with mentors also helped students improve their writing skills. Students report experiencing a stronger sense of confidence in their writing skills and studying techniques. We will provide detailed analyses of how students’ writing improved and scoring criteria for assessing student writing in the classroom at the conclusion of the project.
Brigham, T. A., Moseley, S. A., Sneed, S., & Fisher, M. (1994). Excel: An intensive and structured program of advising and academic support to assist minority freshman to succeed at a large state university. Journal of Behavioral Education, 4, 227-242.
Harney, M., Brigham, T. A., & Sanders, M. (1986). Design and systematic evaluation of the Freshman Athlete Scholastic Training Program. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 33, 454-461.
Sternberg, R. J. (1995). In search of the human mind. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.


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