HomeClassroom ManagementEliminating Stereotype Threat Will Close the Achievement Gap in Education

Eliminating Stereotype Threat Will Close the Achievement Gap in Education


Stereotype Threat in Education (Steele, Aronson)

In today’s world, we are surrounded by stereotypes. Stereotypes are the belief that most members of a group have some common characteristic.

These stereotypes are normally acquired in childhood and are absorbed, mostly subconsciously, through the influence of our parents, caregivers, teachers, peers and the media. 

Stereotypes can be formed around any group but they often revolve around race, ethnicity, gender, culture, physical appearance and sexual orientation.

These overgeneralised beliefs have a way of infiltrating our brains without us even realising that they are there and often we go about our daily lives completely unaware of them. 

Every group in society is stereotyped to some degree.

For example, women are normally stereotyped as the primary carers of their children; Asians are often stereotyped as being good at maths and overweight people are stereotyped as being lazy. 

These are just three examples out of hundreds and while some of these stereotypes are not outwardly harmful, if you are someone who is part of a group that is negatively stereotyped, it can place (unwarranted) undue pressure and anxiety on you and subsequently affect how you think and how you behave. 

This is known as stereotype threat and if you are somebody who is confronted by it, it can have many negative consequences.

In this article, we will be taking an in-depth look at stereotype threat and its role in our education system.

What is Stereotype Threat? 

Stereotype threat is a psychological threat that occurs when someone who is part of a negatively stereotyped group feels they are at risk of confirming that negative stereotype by engaging in a particular situation or activity.

The term stereotype threat refers to the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about a group that you are a part of.  

Those affected by stereotype threat can experience an internalised pressure and feel anxious and worried that they will be judged on the basis of this negative stereotype rather than on their own abilities.

Research has shown that this is even more profound in situations where the negative stereotype is intelligence-based. 

For this reason, we need to pay close attention to the stereotype threats that present themselves in our education system.

Where did the Term “Stereotype Threat” Come From? 

Psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson first coined the term stereotype threat in 1995 while carrying out several experiments which put the theory of stereotype threat to the test.  

They conducted a number of tests involving African American and white university students.

When the students were told that the tests would measure their intellectual ability, African American students performed more poorly than their white counterparts.

However, when they were told that the tests were not a measure of their ability, their performance was on par with that of their white counterparts. 

To reinforce the idea of stereotype threat, Steele and Aronson then conducted another experiment.

This time, students were asked to declare their race on a questionnaire before completing a task.  The results showed that those students who had indicated their race prior to the test scored worse than those that did not. 

This highlighted the fact that academic performance can be harmed when one is aware that their behaviour may be viewed stereotypically, in this case, their race. 

How Does Stereotype Threat Affect Academic Performance and Pearning?

Stereotype threat has the potential to significantly undermine academic performance. The stress and anxiety that stereotype threat creates can increase negative thoughts, cause emotional dysregulation and a distraction in focus, interfering with the student’s ability to access memory and knowledge.

Negative stereotypes in a learning environment can disrupt students’ performance, engagement, and ability to learn. 

Students affected by this may also experience an emotional response to mistakes which may subsequently lead them to reduce effort and disengage from the learning process.

As a result, their ability to reach their full potential is hindered, leading to underperformance in academic environments. 

One of the most obvious impacts of stereotype threat can be seen in academic test results, particularly in high stake exams such as GCSE and A-Levels (UK final exams).

Because these tests are important, they matter greatly to students and as a result, the risk of potentially poor performance is even higher. 

Therefore, stereotype threat not only causes underperformance in academics, but it also disrupts the student’s ability to learn new knowledge and skills in the first place.

How can Teachers Mitigate Stereotype Threat in the Classroom?

Teach students about stereotype threat and its implications, create an inclusive learning environment, provide constructive feedback and promote a growth mindset in our classrooms.

As educators, it is important that we are aware of stereotype threat and its consequences so that we can find ways to support the students in our classroom who are most vulnerable to it and employ interventions to help combat it in our learning environments.

Teach our students about stereotype threat.

Initiating conversations with our students about negative stereotypes and about what stereotype threat is, is a great way to encourage them to take a look at their own innate biases and work on altering their perspectives. 

Stereotypes are widespread in our society. We see them in literature, movies, T.V. shows, in the media – they can even be found in teaching materials.

Because of this, these biases can easily be accepted as reality.

While there is a conscious effort being made nowadays to combat this, these resources provide a great learning opportunity for students. 

Making them aware of these stereotypes will help them become more conscious and they will be able to identify them more easily when they come across them. 

Explicitly teaching about the possible effects of stereotype threat can also provide vulnerable students with reassurance that the anxiety they experience when completing tasks or tests is a normal part of learning.

This shows them they have the capability to overcome their difficulties and experience success in whatever it is they are learning. 

In a study conducted on this, a group of women who were taught about the implications of stereotype threat before they took a maths test, performed as well as men on the test. Whereas, the second group of women who were not taught about stereotype threat, scored lower.

A similar study was conducted on the emotional dysregulation caused by increased anxiety.

Students participating in the study were instructed that the anxious feelings they were having had the potential to facilitate their performance in the test and opposed to hindering it. 

By framing their feelings of anxiety in this way, performance decrements associated with stereotype threat were reduced. 

Taking these studies together suggests that providing information to our students can reduce stereotype threat.

Create an Inclusive Classroom

As teachers, it is up to us to create a learning environment that works for all students; an environment where every student feels like they are a welcome and valued member of their classroom community. 

To encourage this, it is important that students see themselves represented in classroom materials. 

Teachers should reflect on the physical environment in their classroom – the displays on their walls, the resources they use.

Do they represent all students in their class?

Students should be able to see themselves in the faces on the posters, in the books in the library, in the textbooks they are learning from. 

Research shows that students engage more in learning and learn more effectively when what they are learning can be connected to their own cultural contexts and experiences.

As teachers then, it is our duty to incorporate diversity into our curriculum and lesson plans and learn how to adapt our teaching strategies and techniques to students of all backgrounds in our classroom. 

Not only can these things provide students with a greater sense of belonging, they also have the potential to broaden all students’ perspectives on world views and make diversity the norm.

As a result, the threat of negative stereotypes is reduced. 

Constructive feedback

One of the most important jobs we have as teachers is to provide our students with feedback so that they can continue to improve and progress in their learning. 

However, the type of feedback we give has the potential to confirm negative stereotypes thus increasing stereotype threat.

For this reason, we need to be careful in how we approach and communicate the feedback we give

All feedback (written, verbal or non-verbal) should be as constructive as possible, offering students solutions to areas of weakness they may have in a manner that is helpful and positive.

Assuring them that they have the ability to progress and to perform to a high standard can increase student confidence and instil a belief that they are capable of success. 

While this applies to all students in general, it is particularly beneficial to those susceptible to stereotype threat as it reduces the perceived bias that students may hold and increases their motivation, thus keeping them engaged in the learning process.

Promote a Growth Mindset in the Classroom

A mindset is a self-perception that people hold about themselves. 

Psychologist, Carol Dweck, distinguishes between two kinds of mindset – fixed mindset and growth mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities, such as their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and there is no way to change them. 

Dweck’s research suggests that students with a fixed mindset may learn less than they could or at a slower pace.

We can see then the correlation between fixed mindset and stereotype threat in that both have the negative impact of reducing academic achievement and learning.

In a growth mindset, on the other hand, people believe that their intelligence, ability and performance can be developed and improved through hard work and perseverance and they view mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn and improve. 

When we apply this knowledge of growth mindset and intentionally teach it to our students, it is likely that our students will learn more quickly and more effectively than if they believe that their ability to learn is based on stereotypes.

This suggests then that by promoting growth mindset in our classrooms, vulnerable students may come to see that they can achieve anything through hard work and determination and will cease to view themselves in a negative way.

This mitigates stereotype threat and significantly decreases the gap in performance between stereotyped and non-stereotyped groups. 

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Final Thoughts

Over two and a half decades of research on stereotype threat theory suggests that it is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the long-standing academic achievement gap between different groups.

Stereotype threat in education can be difficult to combat as it often goes unrecognised, but by incorporating various strategies into our teaching practice, the negative internalised dialogue which inhibits students’ performance can be silenced and an environment can be created which allows every student to realise their full potential. 

By removing stereotype threat from our learning environments the achievement gap that we see between different groups of students can be drastically decreased. 

Whether we like it or not, negative stereotypes are rife in today’s society.

Regardless of who you are or where you come from, everyone holds beliefs about various groups whether it is at a conscious or unconscious level. 

As teachers, it is imperative that we dig deep and examine our own implicit biases to ensure that we do not bring them into our classroom and that we do our utmost to cancel or at least reduce stereotype threat in education to the best of our ability.

Paul Fulbrookhttps://teacherofsci.com
Paul Fulbrook (TeacherOfSci) is a Science teacher, writer and education blogger based in Brighton, England. He started teacherofsci.com to help support teachers everywhere with the everyday struggles that they are all faced with, both in the classroom and at home.

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