What’s Stereotype Threat?
When students find themselves in an environment where they worry that they will be judged or treated negatively because of stereotypes about one or more facets of their identity, they become anxious and vigilant, combing their environment for how they are being viewed and trying to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses (like worry, self-doubt) to the threats.
Students in these circumstances direct valuable mental resources toward the threat, lessening those available for the academic tasks, resulting in impeded performance. As Steven Spencer and his colleagues put it, the extra pressure for people from being in a targeted group makes it “more difficult for them to succeed than it would be for a nonstereotyped person in their position.”
For faculty who want to promote equity and inclusion, it’s useful to be aware of the findings from decades of research on stereotype threat about who is harmed by it and how it harms students. This post (most of which originally appeared in the Elon CATL website and newsletter) focuses on how it might be mitigated.
What can we do about stereotype threat?
Some strategies to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat are intended to be preventative—precluding the threat for a student from growing so acute in an environment—while others try to enhance an individual student’s ability to counter the stress and cognitive depletion from the threat.
Interventions that are effective in laboratory research often have weaker effects in the real world of our courses, where there are many uncontrollable variables at play. However, they can serve as good starting places if you aren’t sure where to begin. Understanding the purpose behind the strategy can help you decide which ones to try in your course.
Create identity-safe environments
These strategies aim to affect the course environment so that students perceive less identity threat.
- Communicate to all students that they are welcomed, and valued, whatever their backgrounds.
Studies in work settings suggest this kind of message matters to employees from marginalized groups. Other research tells us that it’s helpful for instructors to show that they respect students both as individuals and as members of cultural groups.
- Provide positive role models of the affected/targeted group.
Whether by assigning authors, sharing the findings of experts in a field, or inviting guest speakers, this exposure makes the vulnerable students (and all students) aware of successful people who refute the negative stereotype.
- Be attentive to the cues you send in your teaching environment.
People rely on situational cues about whether their group is valued and accepted (Liu). Cues include official statements in the syllabus and the language we use to refer to people as well as readings, topics for study, organization of groups, who we call on, examples we use, music, images, etc. Include diverse perspectives and/or talk of the value of diverse viewpoints. Proactively think about the challenges different groups of students might experience in your teaching context.
- Blur group boundaries.
Community building at the beginning of the semester may help students see the common characteristics shared by students in the dominant and non-dominant group.
- Facilitate positive, cooperative cross-group interactions.
Positive interactions mean the minoritized student is less likely to appraise the environment as threatening. See the CATL page on getting off to a good start.
- Promote social belonging and hope.
Students from disadvantaged groups benefit from learning that they are not alone in having concerns or experiencing difficulties in a course or a new field, and that most students (not just those from their identity group) worry about their ability to succeed and wonder whether they really belong during their first year of college. One way to reduce uncertainty is to share narratives written by previous students in a course who initially struggled and questioned whether they belonged, but who ultimately learned effective study strategies and succeeded. As Washington University’s Teaching Center notes, those narratives should include ones from students who represent a diversity of social identity characteristics, backgrounds, and life experiences.
- Frame challenging discussions as learning experiences.
Focusing on the learning seems to decrease students’ anxiety whether they are from majority or minority groups. It has proven more effective than saying they wouldn’t be judged by what they said in the conversation or by assuring them that differences in perspective were valued.
- Establish trust through demanding but supportive relationships. Faculty-student mentoring relationships seem to work—even across racial, gender, or other identities—when they are calm, work-focused, straightforward, and demanding but supportive. Eventually these sorts of relationships can lessen anxiety and can motivate students, both of which lead to better performance.
Coping Mechanisms or Resilience-Based Strategies
These strategies aim to provide students with ways to cope with the effects of stereotype threat and approach the learning process effectively.
- Promote a malleable view of intelligence and a learning orientation.
Stereotypes “allege that intellectual performance is both fixed and group-based. Seeing that intellectual performance as something that can grow serves as an important antidote” (Spencer). Students who believe that a person’s ability in a subject can be improved tend to set goals to improve their competence, put forth more effort, interpret setbacks as a normal part of the learning process, and experience less pressure when performing a challenging task.
Consider sharing what you struggled with in your own academic career as another piece of evidence that challenges can be overcome with wise learning strategies.
- Improve student confidence.
Other research tells us it’s wise to give students frequent opportunities for success at the beginning of a semester (giving more low-stakes assessments rather than fewer high-stakes ones), and research about stereotype threat tells us it’s useful to remind students of their prior successes, and provide positive feedback when a student does good work. (But don’t give false praise when they haven’t; students need an accurate sense of their strengths and areas where they need improvement.)
- Give “wise feedback.”
In studies, certain feedback messages to students simultaneously inspired trust and motivated students to revise and improve their work. Emphasize that you used high standards in evaluating the work AND that you believe student can meet those standards.
- Promote Mindfulness.
Stereotype threat may affect student performance because it drains working memory resources. Mindfulness exercises may be a useful strategy for students, since they can alleviate working memory load, and at least one study (Weger, et al.) has found that the impact of stereotype threat was reduced after a mindfulness exercise.
These strategies aim to reduce the salience of a student’s stereotyped identity.
- Activate multiple identities.
All people have multiple components to their social identities. Making students aware of their own self-complexity “makes the negatively stereotyped identity only a small portion of self, thus decreasing the risk of identity threat” (Liu). In addition, having all students aware of everyone’s complex identities decreases the chance that anyone will view their classmates in single dimensional or stereotypical manner.
- Activate a positive identity.
Before a high-stakes exam, an instructor might remind the class of their identity as college students who are intelligent and motivated, bringing this aspect of their identity to the forefront of their thinking.
- Give students an opportunity to reflect on their core values or their attributes.
Self-affirmation helps people maintain their sense of integrity and their sense that they can control certain outcomes in life, which in some situations has led to improved performance.
- Teaching students about what stereotype threat is and how it affects people may be helpful for students as they make sense of their experiences.
- Use the strategies that fit into your specific teaching context.
Of course, no one or two strategies are a panacea. Even research-based interventions will fail in the absence of effective teaching. So it’s wise to pay attention to other research findings about effective and inclusive teaching, such as the importance of understanding students’ prior knowledge, using structure, fostering an inclusive classroom climate, providing lots of practice on challenging material and skills so that students use less working memory during tests, offering timely formative feedback, using effective active learning strategies, and teaching for motivation.
Currently, most of the “interventions” for stereotype threat are “damage control,” as David Buck put it, actions intended to reduce the impact of stereotype threat. As Geraldine Cochran and Elon’s Buffie Longmire-Avital note, these tend to be ways to help students from minoritized groups adapt and persist despite inequities and the legacy of unequal opportunities and institutionalized racism. While building students’ resilience is undoubtedly a good thing, ideally we will try to address the root of the problems.
Ideally, we all will help to create a more equitable world where we recognize the barriers that exist for our students and examine whether our actions as instructors help to perpetuate or dismantle them. Ideally, we will help create a more equitable world where students from minoritized groups feel they belong and are welcomed and treated well in our classrooms, in our fields, and on our campus. That—along with other kinds of effective teaching—increases the chances that all our students will perform to the best of their abilities and meet their potential.
I’m very grateful to Elon University professors Cherrel Miller Dyce and David Buck for conversations about stereotype threat that informed this post.
CAST. “UDL Tips for Reducing Stereotype Threat.” 2020, www.cast.org/publications/2016/udl-tips-reducing-stereotype-threat.
Stanford Edu. “Empirically Validated Strategies to Reduce Stereotype Threat.” Stanford University, Stanford University, ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/interventionshandout.pdf.
Geoffrey G. L. Cohen, et al., “An identity threat perspective on intervention, in Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader, eds., Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Julio Garcia and Geoffrey Cohen, “A social-psychological approach to educational intervention,” in E. Shafir, ed. The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton University Press, 2013).
Songqi Liu, et al., “Effectiveness of Stereotype Interventions: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Applied Psychology, August 10, 2020.
Mary C. Murphy and Valerie Jones Taylor, “The role of situational cues in signaling and maintaining stereotype threat,” in Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader, eds., Stereotype threat: Theory, Process, and Application (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Steven J. Spencer, et al., “Stereotype Threat,” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (January 2016), 415-4437.
Steven Stroessner and Catherine Good, ReducingStereotypeThreat.org – synthesizes recent scholarship on who is impacted, how it impacts people, and how to reduce its impact. (The site is down temporarily but will return.)
Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Norton, 2010.
Claude M. Steele, “Creating Identity Safe Classrooms,” in J. A. Banks, ed., Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education (Sage Publications, Inc. 2012)
Gregory Walton, et al., “Affirmative meritocracy,” Social Issues and Policy Review (January 2013.
Ulrich W. Weger, et al., “Reducing the Impact of Stereotype Threat through a Mindfulness Exercise.” Consciousness and Cognition 21, no. 1 (March 2012), 471-475.
David S. Yeager and Gregory Walton, “Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic,” Review of Educational Research 81 (June 2011): 267-301.