Understanding and Improving Students' Experiences in Racially Diverse College Settings

Awarded Scholars:
Samuel R. Sommers, Tufts University
Project Date:
Nov 2008
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

In a recent report by the New York Times, the U.S. Census Bureau now projects that by 2042, the majority of the U.S. population will be made up of minority groups. Learning to live and work in diverse communities is an increasingly important life skill. Recognizing the need for students to increase their comfort in racially and ethnically mixed groups, college campuses across the nation now use interventions such as diversity training and pairing roommates of different races to influence their students’ racial attitudes and cognitive performance in diverse groups. Samuel Sommers (Tufts University) will conduct three experiments that assess the impact of institutional efforts to promote and manage diversity on campus. 

Studies have found that in diverse groups, whites and blacks often experience anxiety and diminished cognitive resources. Yet in previous work, Sommers has found that racially diverse groups produce more effective and practical ideas than their homogeneous counterparts. Sommers hypothesizes that a critical determinant of the impacts of racial diversity is whether the groups in question are focused on social goals—an outcome that benefits or responds to the needs of the group—or more individualized task goals. By identifying contextual and motivational factors, he plans to reconcile the positive and negative findings in previous research. The first study will use 120 student participants who will be recruited to participate in a study on “working in teams.” This experiment will examine performance during differently framed team problem-solving tasks. The second study will investigate how long-term experiences impact not only race-related ideologies and perceptions but also cognitive and behavioral performance. All incoming Tufts freshmen with roommates will be given a brief questionnaire to measure their racial attitudes and ideology. After they have been on campus for one semester, 120 roommate pairs (half white/white pairs and half white/African American pairs) will be recruited to complete a more extensive written questionnaire which includes measures on academic performance and racial attitudes. From this group 180 individuals will be recruited for lab study on social and objective task performance trials similar to those used in the first study to determine if the students with a roommate of a different race perform better than those in homogenous roommate pairings. 

In the final study, some 1,200 students will attend one of three diversity workshops at the beginning of their first year at Tufts. The “academic belongingness” session will attempt to attenuate the negative impact of stereotype threat through an interactive presentation. The “race and social interaction” session will focus on the nature of contemporary racial bias, such as the varied expectations of different racial groups in social situations. As a control, some students will attend the standard panel discussion format used in years past. At the end of the first semester Sommers will compare the grade point averages of students who attended different sessions and randomly select students to fill out a questionnaire that includes measures of racial attitudes and academic performance. Finally, white and African American students will be selected to participate in a lab study with trials focusing on whether white or African American students exhibit less anxiety, cognitive depletion, and negative nonverbal behavior in mixed-race groups after participating in one of the three diversity workshops.


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