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Stereotype Threat

Stereotype treat is a phenomenon in which people experience performance-limiting anxiety when performing tasks in which low achievement would confirm a negative stereotype about a social group with which they identify.  In the video below, Dr. Claude Steele, author of Whistling Vivaldi and Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, discusses how stereotype threat affects women’s math performance.

Research has shown that students under stereotype threat actually have different patterns of activity in the brain than those who are not under this threat.  When not under threat, the areas associated with the type of task being performed light up normally on brain scans.  When under threat, the areas of the brain associated with anxiety are active and those associated with the task are less active. .   That anxiety becomes part of cognitive load and decreases the working memory available to the task itself.  Thus, the individual performs more poorly on the task than they would have if not under threat.  Students under stereotype threat don’t just perform at lower levels, they may have high blood pressure and other physical symptoms that they don’t notice, but which have serious implications for health.  If the threat can be removed or mitigated, performance increases and physical symptoms of anxiety are absent.

Any student can suffer from stereotype threat.  In the videos above and below, we see stereotype threat affect female math students and both black and white athletes.  In Whistling Vivaldi, Steele also discusses black students at prestigious universities, white students in majority black classes, and students of low socioeconomic status in France.

Fortunately, there are many interventions that can help mitigate the effects of stereotype threat.  Some examples have included development of a growth mindset, normalizing academic struggle, and values affirmation exercises.  These small, simple interventions have a recursive effect as they mitigate the threat, allowing the student to perform at a higher level.  Thus, enforcing positive feeling about effort and achievement.  This pattern repeats, consistently leading to higher achievement and more academic confience.

What’s the one thing I can do to use this in my classroom?

Recognize that your students may be under stereotype threat and thus their performance may not demonstrate their true level of knowledge or skill.  Avoid language that can remind students of stereotypes prior to assessments.   Adopt a growth mindset as it can help mitigate stereotype threat.

Whistling Vivaldi is an excellent book.  I highly recommend reading it to gain a better understanding of stereotype threat.

Links to Learn More:

Resources and Research:

  • Dweck, C. S. (2010, January). Mind-Sets and Equitable Education. Principle Leadership, 26-29.
  • Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Cluse to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-Physcological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267-301.

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