#SolutionsMonday: Lessening Stereotype Threat

stereotype threat

by Isaac Butler

For our final couple of posts we’re going to be talking about stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is, at least to me, a little weird and counterintuitive, so let’s quickly talk about it.

Basically, stereotype threat is the concern that you may behave in a way that confirms negative stereotypes about your group. On a subconscious level, you become preoccupied with this fear, and it inhibits your cognitive function and general performance. A really obvious and well-documented instance of stereotype threat has to do with how women perform on STEM tests.

A recent meta-analysis found that stereotype threat accounts for a substantial proportion of the racial achievement gaps. To give an example, one study found that if black students were given a test and told its purpose was to evaluate ability, they performed worse. If they test was presented in a “no threat” condition—when the students were given instructions designed to make negative stereotypes less relevant—black students’ performance improved dramatically.

Here are a few interventions that have proven successful in mitigating stereotype threat:

Remove Triggers: Stereotype threat is triggered by specific stimuli. Remove those stimuli, you can prevent stereotype threat. In fact, in one clear (and clever) example of this, researchers moved the identifying information and demographic queries from the beginning of an AP calculus test from the beginning to the end of the test. The results? Girls’ scores improved so dramatically they estimated that, if this change was implemented, 4700 additional girls would receive AP Calculus credit annually.

Social Belonging Intervention: Most of us go through times where we feel we don’t belong, or feel like outsiders. Like, you know, high school. When people feel they don’t belong specifically because of their race, they are likely to interpret experiences as evidence that their race is a liability, hampering their chances of belonging and success. The “social belonging” intervention is designed to respond to this. In one study of this intervention, researchers discovered via a survey that most upperclassmen of all races felt that they didn’t belong when they were younger. By giving both black and white students this information—that lack of belonging isn’t necessarily tied to race—black students’ grades improved. The social belonging intervention helped students of color feel resilient in the face of adversity and protected them from feeling that they did not belong in general when they encountered difficult social situations.

Value-Affirmation: People experiencing stereotype threat frequently lose track of themselves, the things that make them individuals, their values, their goals, their broader identities. These are all things that help us feel positively about ourselves. Creating opportunities for people to reinforce and articulate what makes them them can help mitigate stereotype threat and help us cope with diversity.

Growth Mindset: This one comes from Carol Dweck. We tend to think of abilities in two different ways: as entities or as increments. An entity is an ability we either have or we don’t (like perfect pitch, which most people must be born with). Increments are skills that we can develop. If we view a given task as an entity, then our poor performance just confirms for us that we’re doomed to always be bad at it. But if we view a task (like math, or reading, or studying) as an incremental skill that we can—to use a video game metaphor—level up, our desire to improve increases. This is very important for teachers to know: encouraging students to see their work as something they are gradually improving on (instead of something they are innately good or bad at) increases the chance they will improve.

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