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Stereotype Threat

Stereotype Threat

20 May, 2016

  • Coined by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, which refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. They performed experiments that showed that black college students performed worse on standardized tests than their white peers when they were reminded, before taking the tests, that their racial group tends to do poorly on such exams. When their race was not emphasized, however, black students performed similarly to their white peers. This research revealed that student performance on tests may be influenced by a heightened awareness of racial stereotypes.
  • In their studies, Steele and Aronson found that circumstantial factors—more than individual personality or other characteristics—can strengthen or weaken the stereotype-threat effect. For example, student performance was influenced by the way a test was described. When students were informed that the test measured their intelligence, black students performed significantly worse than their white peers, but when they were told that the test diagnosed their ability to solve problems, the race-based performance gap disappeared. Other influential factors include the difficulty of the task and the relevance of the negative stereotype to the task.
  • The stereotype-threat effect seemed to be stronger among students who wanted to perform well and who more strongly identified with the stereotyped group.
  • Many studies have looked at both race- and gender-based stereotypes, including one that found that women performed less well in a chess match when they were told they would be playing against a male. When they were reminded that women tend to be worse at chess than men, their performance also declined.

***Many questions remain about the rational mechanisms behind stereotype threat, and subsequent research has focused on three factors: stress, performance monitoring, and efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. For example, if students try to suppress thoughts about negative stereotypes, or if they are worried that their poor performance may confirm stereotypes, the effort and associated emotions may divert mental energy from answering a test question or solving a problem.

  • Other studies suggest that the consequences of stereotype threat can extend beyond test performance. Over longer periods of time, chronic stereotype threat may cause students to blame themselves, distance themselves from the stereotyped group,  disengage from situations and environments perceived to be threatening, or “self-handicap”—e.g., study less so that poor scores can be blamed on a lack of studying rather than low intelligence.
  • Stereotype threat may influence many other dimensions of schooling and education reform beyond testing. A classroom or school culture, for example, can potentially worsen or mitigate the negative consequences of stereotype threat—in both subtle and blatant ways. Education policies, even those aimed at combating race-based achievement gaps, can paradoxically strengthen existing stereotypes about students from certain racial and ethnic groups, while media outlets may reinforce stereotypes by focusing news reporting and analysis on the racial dimension of achievement gaps. Standardized test results may also be viewed, by some, to be “evidence” that certain groups are intrinsically less capable of academic achievement, and both teachers and students may internalize cultural messages and react to them in negative or self-damaging ways.

Methods to Reduce Effects of Stereotype Threat:

  • Training and motivating educators to maintain high learning expectations for all students, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or perceived ability.
  • Fostering positive and supportive school and classroom cultures, which involves strong and trusting relationships among students and between teachers and students.
  • Accepting and celebrating, rather than ignoring, student diversity in educational settings, and cultivating the perception that diversity is an educational asset that offers benefits to all students.
  • Consistently reiterating and reinforcing the message that stereotyped students can and are expected to do well in school and on tests.
  • Communicating to students the belief that they are capable of achieving at high levels, even while giving critical feedback on their work. (A teacher might say, for example, “I wouldn’t give you this criticism if I didn’t believe, based on what you’ve written here, you could make this work even better.”)