What is a stereotype threat?
“A type of social identity threat that occurs when one fears being judged in terms of a group-based stereotype”
Murphy, Steele, & Gross, 2011, p. 829
What are the effects of stereotype threat?
Research suggests that when a student is in a performance situation with the potential to confirm negative stereotypes about the student’s identity, possible outcomes include:
- Increased stress
- Reduction in working memory, lessening capacity to focus on the task (Schmader & Johns, 2003)
- Impaired performance and/or reduced sense of belonging in the field (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Steele & Aronson, 1995)
However, stereotype threat is also complex, with studies pointing to a differential impact on students, e.g., affecting women moderately identified with a field more than those highly identified (Nguyen & Ryan, 2008) and affecting first-generation immigrants less (Owens & Lynch, 2012).
How can stereotype threat be mitigated in the classroom?
- Examine how you give feedback to students: To mitigate stereotype threat, critical feedback on assignments should emphasize: (1) reflection of a teacher’s high standards, (2) students’ potential to reach them, and (3) substantive feedback to improve. For example, a framing comment like the following can be adapted: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” (Steele, 2011; Yaeger et al., 2014).
- Frame the purpose of assessments effectively: Emphasize that tests and assignments are a diagnostic of students’ current skill levels, which can be improved with practice, instead of a measure of permanent ability (Aronson, 2002).
- Use reflective writing to normalize struggles. In one study, college students wrote letters to middle-school “pen pals” about how they overcame struggles to find success and later made taped speeches. One year later, participants in the intervention had more malleable beliefs about intelligence, enjoyment of academics, and higher GPAs, compared to control. (There were positive gains for all students but statistically significant gains only for African-American students.) (Aronson, Fried & Good, 2001)
- Recognize the diversity of contributors to/members of the field. One study indicated that showing female STEM students images of female engineers and mathematicians significantly improved their attitudes, identification, self-efficacy, and career interest in STEM (Dasgupta, 2011). (See also Walton & Cohen, 2011.)
What are other resources to explore the phenomenon?
- ReducingStereotypeThreat.org: http://reducingstereotypethreat.org/definition.html This website includes a bibliography about stereotype threat and additional strategies to reduce it.
- Killpack & Melón (2016). Toward Inclusive STEM Classrooms: What Personal Role Do Faculty Play? Available : http://www.lifescied.org/content/15/3/es3.long This article offers a definition of stereotype threat and three strategies that instructors can use to mitigate it. Although written in a STEM education journal, the strategies are broadly applicable to other disciplines (e.g., if the collection of demographic information is needed during a survey or assessment, place those questions at the end).
Aronson, J. (2002). Stereotype threat: Contending and coping with unnerving expectations. In J. Aronson, Ed. Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 279-301). New York: Academic Press.
Aronson, J., Fried, C.B., & Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2): 113-125.
Dasgupta, N. (2011). Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 22:4: 231-246.
Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C.S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4): 700–717.
Murphy, M.C., Steele, C.M., & Gross, J.J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cures affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 18(10): 879-885.
Nguyen, H.D., & Ryan, A.M. (2008). Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6): 1314-1334.
Owens, J., & Lynch, S.M. (2012). Black and Hispanic immigrants’ resilience against negative-ability racial stereotypes at selective colleges and universities in the United States. Sociology of Education, 85(4): 303-325.
Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.
Steele, C.M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Steele, C.M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5): 797-811.
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.