Stereotype threat

“Stereotype threat is being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group,” according to Steele and Aronson 1995 who first defined this phenomenon. This sad phenomenon causes people to think along these lines, for example: “I am a girl. Girls are stereotypically bad at math, so I am bad at math.” Then this belief plays out in real life and the student performs worse than the dominant group. Students suffering from the stereotype threat perform poorly in tests or in class, discount the assessment or goals of the assessment, and/or become disenchanted with a class or field of study. This low performance seems to be due to anxiety, stress, emotional regulation, and performance regulation that distract from the task at hand; and this can in turn lead to inequality and segregated fields–or different preferences in one’s life because this does not apply only to school. This is a very important concern for Classics, a field dominated by white people.

Who is vulnerable to stereotype threat?

Everyone is vulnerable to stereotype threat, whether the stereotype has positive or negative connotations. If someone identifies as part of a social group, and that group has a stereotype about their performance in a particular field, their performance in that field is more likely to be affected by the stereotype, especially if it is highlighted somehow, such as on a questionnaire before a standardized test. The more one identifies with that group or has been stigmatized because of their identity in that group, the more pronounced the effects of stereotype threat may become.  Similarly, people who care more about success in a particular field are more likely to be affected by the stereotypes related to that field–this is not to say we should encourage students to care less but be aware of this stereotype threat.

There are some other interesting  factors for who is vulnerable. Ironically, students who are more proactive about overcoming the stereotype may be more likely to suffer from stereotype threat. Students who use their sense of humor to cope with negative events and who have a positive self-image are more likely to resist stereotype threat.  People with a high education level are less susceptible to stereotype threat–so we should be most aware of this with students in lower grade levels and in introductory courses.

And of course, stereotype threat is only a factor if people are aware of stereotypes related to thheir group. Children tend to learn more of these stereotypes between ages 6 and 11.

What situations trigger stereotype threat?

  • Asking about membership in a stereotyped group before an evaluation
  • Making the test-taker aware of a stereotype through subtle means, such as having a white examiner or grader evaluate a black student’s language abilities (Black students perform as well as white students when the examiner is black).
  • When a student is the only member of a minority group in the room during an evaluation that the stereotype might claim that student would do poorly on. Is the one student of color in a college Classics course an example of this?
  • The description of the task recalls or alludes to the stereotype.
  • Students are being evaluated, especially when the test is said to evaluate their intelligence or the limits of their abilities.

How do we reduce the effects of stereotype threat?

  • Cast the task or test in a light that doesn’t recall stereotypes. A unit test or final exam is, by its nature, diagnostic but we can say that it is fair for all sexes and races.
  • Not ask about students’ sex and racial identities until after the test, if at all.
  • Encourage students to identify as a member of a not stereotyped group. For example, call a class of students “Latinists” or “historians.” This positive title may encourage them to do better on the test or tasks too–a positive stereotype threat.
  • Encourage students to think of themselves as more complex people than “Boy” or “Girl” or “White” or “Black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian,” etc.
  • Give students the ability to self-affirm and say what they are good at throughout the semester to counteract the negative effects of stereotype threat. This is similar to encouraging metacognition.
  • When giving feedback, try to avoid playing into the stereotype threat. Instead, offer positive feedback and encouragement. Say that while you hold students to high standards, you believe that students can meet them.
  • Provide role models that work against the stereotype. These role models may be the teacher, the person administering the test, or the subject of an essay (such as a famous female archaeologist).
  • Explain why students may feel anxiety and attribute it to an outside source, such as stereotypes that don’t reflect students’ abilities or the stressful time of middle school.
  • Emphasize how intelligence grows over time and with work, how the struggle is good for you.  This destroys the validity of a stereotype that assumes a students’ intelligence doesn’t ever change.  Similarly, downplaying “talent” and “genius” will also help students see that intelligence is about learning and the struggle.

The insights and ideas in this blog post are all summarized from this incredibly helpful website, Reducing Stereotype Threat, that has lots of links to studies on this phenomenon.


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