Negative Diversity Interactions Affect Students’ Cognitive Development, Study Shows

USA, Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School

Exposure to and engagement with individuals of different races, ethnicities, religions, and ideologies often leads to positive experiences for college students. However, a new study in The Journal of Higher Education reveals that negative diversity experiences are more common than previously thought and that they can have a detrimental effect on student learning.

The study, titled “Engaging with Diversity: How Positive and Negative Interactions Influence Students’ Cognitive Outcomes,” examined the incidence and influence of negative diversity interactions of college students. The authors followed three cohorts of students — totaling more than 2,500 — from the beginning of their freshman year through the end of their fourth year, examining how both their positive and negative diversity experiences were related to two outcomes: need for cognition and critical-thinking skills.

Results revealed that students of all races experienced a significant number of negative interactions; 43 percent of African Americans reported having a “high” number of negative diversity experiences, along with 37 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of Asians, and 25 percent of whites.

These experiences — which include hostile interactions with their peers who are different from them — impact the development of students’ critical-thinking skills and demonstrate a need for further cognitive development. Students described negative experiences as times when they felt their views were disregarded due to prejudice; when they felt threatened based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or some other aspect of their identity; or when they had destructive, unresolved interactions with other students.

Overall, though, the study revealed that all groups had more positive diversity experiences than they did negative, with 47 percent of African Americans, 56 percent of Hispanics, 53 percent of Asians, and 30 percent of whites indicating more constructive interactions than destructive. These positive interactions often involved sharing meaningful experiences, discussions, and friendships across differences.

Authors of the study sought to address a largely overlooked area of diversity research by demonstrating the importance and impact of negative diversity experiences on students’ outcomes.

Josipa Roksa, lead author of the study and a professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia, said the purpose of the project was not to critique diversity itself but instead critique colleges’ approach to preparing students to embrace diversity. She believes the study’s findings reveal the impact that even minor interactions can have on students and the need for institutions to engage students early to ensure more positive experiences.