Alienation, disparities in treatment, and the other issues that affect Pre K-12 students do not vanish when we open our acceptance letters to college. Stereotype threat’s impact on high stakes testing means that college students of color do worse on tests like the LSAT, GMAT, GRE, and MCAT, creating hurdles to both graduate school admission and scholarship opportunities.
For students to excel, they must find teachers who will help them grow and learn, through both positive reinforcement and accurate, meaningful criticism. Studies of middle school teachers demonstrate that fear of being perceived as racist often leads white teachers to soft-peddle criticism of students of color (or avoid providing any at all). Similarly, studies using college students demonstrate that many students of color struggle to figure out whether or not negative feedback is the result of bias or positive feedback is merely racial condescension. This uncertainty is called “attributional ambiguity,” and it holds students of color back by making responding to feedback from teachers and mentors an anxiety-producing minefield of potential conflict.
Focusing on this problem has led to the development of what is called the “wise criticism intervention.” Also called the “high standards intervention,” this involves teachers and mentors clearly and explicitly stating that feedback comes from a genuine desire to see the student succeed while holding them to high standards. In one study, 71% of black students receiving this kind of explicitly worded feedback on an essay revised and resubmitted their work, while only 17% revised their work when the notes they received lacked this statement. Through these and other interventions still being studied, we know we can dramatically improve outcomes at the college level.