SAGE Musings: Evidence-Based Strategies for Mitigating Stereotype Threat

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Apr 3, 2017

I've written about stereotype threat before (see, but today I want to share some fascinating things I learned from reading Claude Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Norton & Co., 2010). I highly recommend reading this book. I found it both inspiring and riveting -- two words I don't usually use to describe books that I read for work.

First, just a brief reminder about what stereotype threat is and how it works: people who belong to an underrepresented group – in any setting – know if there is a stereotype that applies to them in that setting. Subconsciously, they worry about whether the stereotype is true for them. That subconscious worry uses some of their mental resources. That is, it distracts them from the task at hand, and that distraction decreases their performance. This phenomenon doesn't only affect women and people of color. Psychologists have induced stereotype threat in white men, by putting them in situations where they think that their natural abilities aren't as strong as other peoples'. Nonetheless, stereotype threat is one factor in the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the geosciences. Research shows that when white men drop out of STEM programs, it's usually because of poor grades. When women or minority men drop out of STEM programs, it's because they don't feel they belong in that setting (Steele, 2010, p. 111). Instead, they feel as though they have to prove themselves, over and over again. That's a Sisyphean task, and it leads to chronic stress. Realizing that stress is a chronic feature of a setting, for you, makes it less likely that you will persist in that setting.

You might be wondering which of your students are most likely to feel stereotype threat. After all, this is a phenomenon that is situation-dependent. Here are several cues that may make a person feel marginalized (Steele, 2010, p. 140-141):

  • Lack of critical mass. Being one of the only [fill in the blank] doesn't mean you don't belong, but it raises the possibility that you will be treated that way. Sandra Day O'Connor reported that her experience as a Supreme Court Justice changed dramatically when Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the court; she was no longer the representative of the woman's point of view (p. 94).
  • Lack of people in your group in positions of power signals that you may not have access to power or be treated as an equal in that setting (p. 141).
  • Normative behaviors send messages as well. Do social groups segregate themselves? What is the typical response to expressions of prejudice?

Okay, so stereotype threat exists, and it affects our students. What can we, as educators, DO about it? How can we mitigate its effects on our students? Research has shown the following strategies to be effective. All of the page numbers below refer to passages in Whistling Vivaldi.

  • Give feedback combining a message of high standards and an expectation of success (p. 162-163). This combination – I have high standards, and I think you can meet them – clarifies for students that you don't see them in terms of any negative stereotypes. Other forms of feedback are ambiguous for students who feel stereotype threat. They can't tell whether criticism is based on the quality of their work or on the negative stereotype associated with their identity. This is perhaps even more true when the criticism is preceded with generally positive, assuring statements; students under stereotype threat simply don't believe those statements.
  • Re-shape students' narratives
    • Tell them stories of students similar to them who succeed despite some early setbacks (p. 164-166). Students in under-represented groups may interpret early setbacks as a sign that they don't belong, that they can't handle the work. Giving them an alternative narrative – that they can overcome these setbacks – makes a huge difference.
    • Engage them in conversations about non-academic topics, with students from different backgrounds. This allows students to recognize common ground with those from different groups. It also allows minority students to see that everyone, regardless of identity, faces the same kinds of challenges they are facing – so those challenges are not the result of their identity (p. 166-167).
    • Help them to develop a growth mindset (p. 169).
    • Teach students self-affirmation (p. 174-175). As little as 15 minutes of writing about their values at the beginning of the semester has profound effects, lasting for more than two years!!
  • Just before a test, remind test takers of identities that counter the relevant stereotype (p. 94). For example, remind women of positive female role models -- NASA computer scientists, perhaps? -- just before a math test.
  • Develop and publish a policy affirming the value of diversity in your department or program.
    • A study of the effect of written policies on how African Americans perceived the "atmosphere" of a potential employer is illuminating. "When people are appraising identity threat, one cue can shape the interpretation of another. A policy that explicitly valued diversity led black respondents to overlook the low number of minorities in the company, a cue that otherwise bothered them considerably" (p. 147).

The most inspiring thing about the research on stereotype threat, to me, is the power of these strategies to completely reverse performance trends for students in STEM. Using these strategies, researchers found that under-represented students were able not just to survive, but to thrive in their chosen academic disciplines. We can turn these stereotypes around.

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