The term “stereotype threat” first began to get attention from educators in 1995 when psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson conducted a series of studies based on college students taking a difficult verbal portion of the Graduate Record Examination test. Initially, their results were as expected based on national averages: Black students did not perform as well as their white counterparts.
However, when Steele and Aronson changed the instructions in order to prime the students to think of the test as either a diagnostic measure of intelligence or a non-diagnostic problem-solving task, they found a surprising shift. Black students who were told the test was a measure of intelligence did more poorly compared to white students than Black students who were told the test was non-diagnostic.
Steele and Aronson concluded that telling Black students a test was a measure of their intelligence invoked subconscious stereotypes that then became self-fulfilling. They called this phenomenon “stereotype threat.”
Under the pressure of negative stereotypes
People who are made aware of stereotypes about how members of their race, gender, or other identity typically perform in any given situation end up experiencing a unique pressure. This pressure isn’t limited to minoritized students. For example, a 1999 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that Black athletes performed more poorly than a control group when a miniature golf challenge was framed as a test of “athletic intelligence,” and white athletes performed more poorly than a control group when it was framed as a test of “natural athletic ability.”
But as Steele wrote for The Atlantic shortly after his initial series of studies, students from minoritized groups are keenly aware of the academic stereotypes and expectations they’re facing. A single comment can be enough to remind them of that stereotype and create extra pressure their non-minoritized peers don’t experience.
“Like many pressures,” Steele wrote, “[stereotype threat] may not be experienced in a fully conscious way, but it may impair their best thinking.”
Russell McClain, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, pointed out in his 2018 TEDx Talk that the fear of confirming a negative stereotype is a large part of that pressure. “When you are confronted with a negative stereotype about your group and are put at risk of confirming that stereotype, then it actually affects your ability to engage in the task in front of you,” he said.
Related reading: Does Cognitive Load Impact Equity in Higher Ed?
Stereotype threat in the classroom
Steele makes clear through additional experiments that stereotype threat isn’t the same thing as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Rather, it is situational and imposed from without when students are made aware that they may be judged by a stereotype.
Stereotype threat widens the opportunity gap for minoritized students, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. Yet a recent survey on teaching practices from Every Learner Everywhere found that only 38 percent of instructors reported incorporating activities designed to allay student anxiety, stereotype threat, or imposter syndrome.
The good news is that if classroom design and teaching practices can prime minoritized students to experience stereotype threat, they can also be used to reduce stereotype threat and promote equity.
In trying to understand just how stereotype threat worked, Claude Steele and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to explore how to reduce it. They discovered that strengthening a Black student’s confidence in their own skills had no effect on performance. What did help was strengthening the student’s trust that they would not be judged unfairly because of their identity.
How to reduce stereotype threat
The lesson from the work of Steele and Brown is to focus on building rapport and trust with your students in order to reduce the extra cognitive load of stereotype threat.
1. Celebrate students’ whole identities
Start by understanding that every student brings a blend of identities to the classroom, which creates unique sets of pressures. When you create a classroom environment that celebrates and supports students’ whole identities, it reduces a student’s worry that they’ll be stereotyped.
2. Provide positive examples of minoritized people in the curricula
Culturally responsive teaching primes students for success by presenting them with examples of experts and authors who share their identity. It also builds trust in the course material.
3. Promote a growth mindset
Design assignments and assessments with student care in mind to encourage students to learn, grow, and experiment.
4. Be explicit about criteria
Minoritized students may come into the classroom lacking inherited knowledge about classroom expectations and procedures. Rather than making assumptions that may cause students to feel out of place, design your syllabus with equity in mind.
Challenge your own assumptions
Finally, take the time to understand your own implicit biases and challenge stereotypes you may not realize you hold. Seek out other voices and listen thoughtfully. Interrogate your reactions and responses with tools like the Implicit Association Test from Project Implicit to understand your own biases.
And, at the departmental or institutional level, equity audits can help reveal barriers to equity that can amplify stereotype threat.