In my last post on learning-to-learn, I mentioned that research from the social sciences offers powerful insights about learning that are useful for both students and educators. One area of research that I think is particularly relevant to DePaul’s ongoing conversation about student perseverance is stereotype threat.
The term stereotype threat was first used in 1995 by social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson to describe the differences in Black college students’ performance on standardized tests when their race was and was not emphasized in the minutes preceding the test. In their article, Steele and Aronson define stereotype threat as:
a social-psychological predicament that can arise from widely-known negative stereotypes about one’s group […] the existence of such a stereotype means that anything one does or any of one’s features that conform to it make the stereotype more plausible as a self-characterization in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in one’s own eyes. We […] argue that it is experienced, essentially, as a self-evaluative threat. In form, it is a predicament that can beset the members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist. Consider the stereotypes elicited by the terms yuppie, feminist, liberal, or White male. Their prevalence in society raises the possibility for potential targets that the stereotype is true of them and, also, that other people will see them that way. When the allegations of the stereotype are importantly negative, this predicament may be self-threatening enough to have disruptive effects of its own.
Subsequent research has suggested that this “self-evaluative threat” can negatively affect the academic performance of students from low-income families (Croizet & Claire, 1998), Latino students (Gonzales et al., 2002), and women in math (Spencer et al., 1999). It can cause anxiety, decrease students’ level of engagement and effort, or even cause some students to overwork themselves to the point of exhaustion.
But decreased academic performance is only one possible effect. Studies have documented cases where stereotype threat led students to distance themselves from the aspects of their identity that are associated with negative stereotypes or detach their sense of identity and self-worth from academics. One of the most disturbing consequences is that it can lead students to change their field of study or their career aspirations, which perpetuates existing inequalities, such as the unequal representation of women in STEM fields.
I first learned about stereotype threat at a weekly professional development meeting that I participated in with other teachers at Washington State University. All first-year writing faculty were part of the Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program (CLASP), an initiative designed to increase the retention and graduation rates of low-income, first-generation, racially diverse, or otherwise underrepresented students. As CLASP instructors, we participated in training sessions on pedagogies of inclusion, where we identified strategies for student-teacher conferencing and discussed how power and privilege impact student participation. At the session on stereotype threat, we read a chapter of Claude Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (2011) and discussed ways that stereotype threat might impact our students and classrooms.
If you’re looking for guidance on classroom strategies that proactively address stereotype threat, you’re in luck; there has been a substantial amount of research conducted in the last twenty years on how to reduce the negative effects of stereotype threat. And fortunately for those of us teaching at the university level, the majority of these studies were conducted with college students. Here’s a list of interventions that research suggests can help students persevere in spite of stereotype threat:
- Encourage a growth mindset.
In a recent blog post, Erin Sella wrote about Carol Dweck’s research on fixed versus growth mindsets. In a study inspired by Dweck’s research, Aronson et al. (2002) found that Black college students who demonstrated a growth mindset were less vulnerable to stereotype threat. For practical strategies that you can use to encourage students to take on a growth mindset, see Erin’s post.
- Give the right kind of feedback.
Based on their comparative study of approaches to student feedback and the result these approaches had on students’ motivation and perceptions of evaluator bias, Cohen et al. (1999) recommend that feedback should set high expectations and assure students that they can meet those expectations. Here’s an example of a comment on a student paper that both sets high expectations and provides assurance:
Paula, This is an excellent draft, perhaps one revision away from an A. I like very much your discussion of Diem’s leadership and the rise of dissent in Vietnam. You set your ideas clearly and with strong evidence. However, I got lost in a few places, which I noted in the marginal comments. It would also help your reader if you mapped out your purpose and structure more clearly in the introduction. Finally, in the middle of your paper, you need to expand and clarify your discussion of Vietnamese attitudes towards American soldiers. I wasn’t quite sure what your point was in that whole section. Again, check my marginal comments to see where I got confused. Good job. I’m looking forward to your revision.
Example comment from John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (2011).
- Provide role models that challenge negative stereotypes.
Since stereotype threat is the fear of confirming negative assumptions about one’s group, a number of studies have investigated the impact of role models on student performance. The presence of role models whose success, performance, or perceived competence discredits negative stereotypes can weaken the damaging effects of stereotype threat. Connect students in your class with positive role models that challenge stereotypes. Guest speakers can be effective, but also sharing stories of others’ achievements.
- Discuss stereotype threat with students.
In their study of student performance on difficult math tests in an introductory statistics course, Johns et al. (2005) found that women who were informed of the potential effects of gender-based stereotype threat performed better than women who were not. This finding suggests that having explicit conversations with stigmatized students about stereotype threat and its effects may be a simple yet highly effective intervention.
Looking to learn more?
I highly recommend the website ReducingStreotypeThreat.org, which compiles research on stereotype threat, studies on how to reduce its negative consequences, as well as criticisms of the research studies. Created and maintained by two social psychologists from Columbia University and CUNY, the site is regularly updated based on new findings.