Countering stereotype threat

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about stereotype threat, which is the idea that negative stereotypes about a particular group can cause members of that group to underperform. The first post covered what stereotype threat is and some of the evidence for it; tomorrow’s post will talk about how stereotype threat might influence ally work. There will also be a post with a transcription of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thoughts on the obstacles he’s had to overcome. These posts also link with an earlier post of mine on the implicit biases that we all have.

If yesterday’s post convinced you that stereotype threat is a problem (and I hope it did), you will now hopefully be wondering about things that can be done to try to reduce stereotype threat. Here are some strategies:

Teach that abilities can be improved
Telling students that abilities and intelligence can be expanded can improve performance and eliminate gender differences in performance. This is pretty straightforward, and seems like something that could easily be incorporated into a class, graduate training, etc. I love this study on this topic, where students were encouraged to write letters to younger students who were struggling academically. Half the students were told to tell the younger students that intelligence is “like a muscle” and can improve with effort; black students who wrote letters talking about intelligence as improvable had better grades 9 weeks later.

Encourage values affirmation
Simply having students write short essays about their most important values (a process called “values affirmation”) can improve performance, and, most remarkably, the benefit of this short exercise can last for months or even years. In this study of college science students, having students do a values affirmation twice at the beginning of the semester reduced the gap in performance between male and female students. That something so simple can substantially improve performance is really encouraging to me – this also seems like something that would be pretty easy to implement in most classrooms.

Teach students about stereotype threat and imposter syndrome, and remind them that knowing about stereotype threat helps shield them from its effects
In one study, the performance of women on a math test was significantly improved by telling students “it’s important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test.” Again, this seems so simple to me, which is encouraging.

It also can help to teach students about imposter syndrome, and to remind them that it is very common (especially for women and people from underrepresented minorities) to think their success to date has been a fluke and that they will be found out. (One study reported in Whistling Vivaldi found that having diverse students interact about their day-to-day frustrations helped students from underrepresented groups, since it helped them realize that their struggles weren’t related to their identity as a member of a negatively stereotyped group.) It’s easy for students to think that their professors must have gotten A’s on every exam all along the way, which, of course, is not true! One woman physics professor I spoke with said she has started bringing in the first college physics exam she took; students find it very encouraging to learn that she got a C on that exam. And, as I’ve blogged about before, I find that graduate students are generally very interested to learn that a major failure as a grad student made me contemplate quitting grad school.

Reframe the test in a way that reduces stereotype threat
One approach to doing this is to say that the test is a problem-solving exercise rather than something diagnostic of their intelligence. However, that approach seems difficult to implement in the context of a college exam (though might work for something like qualifying exams). Something that is more likely to work in a college classroom is, if possible, to say that men and women (or that students from underrepresented groups) are known to perform equally well on the problems being given. Still, this seems like it would be difficult to implement in many classes (truthfully, at least).

Give feedback in a way that is mindful of stereotype threat
One thing that I found really interesting is the section in Whistling Vivaldi (see page 162) on how to give critical feedback on academic work to a student from an underrepresented group. It does not work to try to be neutral or to preface the feedback with a positive statement; the latter was particularly notable to me, as this is a strategy I often use and that I had thought was effective. (Steele says that this feedback didn’t work because students didn’t trust it, because it might be hiding racial bias.) Instead, studies have found that black students responded best to feedback that emphasized that the person doing the evaluation had high standards and believed the student could meet them. Steele talks about how this sort of approach helped him feel like he could fit in as a black graduate student in a predominantly white program and with a white advisor.

Increase the number of people in the stereotyped group to provide critical mass
This can be done in a few ways. Increasing overall diversity in a program (say, by admitting more students from underrepresented groups) is an obvious way of doing this, but is something that takes longer and can seem out of the hands of an individual faculty member. (This recent US Supreme Court decision also impacts how this can be done.) In the shorter term, one can pay attention to the composition of groups in the classroom to try to reduce the risk of stereotype threat. How to do so is tricky, though (and I am hoping to learn more about this in a Diversity Institute that I will attend here at Michigan in a few weeks). There is evidence that women undergraduates perform worse on math tests when they are paired with two men, as compared to when they are paired with other women. Another study of engineering students found that, in mixed gender groups, students take on gender-stereotyped roles (e.g., with the woman acting as the secretary for the group; pdf link to paper download). To me, these studies suggest that creating more homogenous groups might be good, at least in terms of improving learning and accuracy of testing. At the same time, an argument could be made that, since women and underrepresented minorities will end up facing stereotype threat repeatedly throughout their careers, there is value in learning how to deal with it. This is true, but I worry that this could be used to justify inaction, leading to a hostile climate and the loss of women and underrepresented minorities from STEM fields. An intermediate solution could be to have groups of four in which no one is the sole representative of a stereotyped group.

Provide role models and be mindful of cues
As I’ve said in a previous post, women and underrepresented minorities are often looking for cues that they belong.* This is part of why having diversity at the faculty level is so important, but, again, this is something that can’t be changed immediately. However, we can do other things to provide role models and to show that students from underrepresented groups are valued. For example, in teaching, there are often lots of possible examples that could be used to highlight a particular concept (e.g., competition). Given lots of options, why not choose the work of a woman or a scientist of color? Studies have shown that reminding women of strong women role models (such as by having them read essays) removes the gender gap in performance in math. Conversely, doing things that reinforce a negative stereotype (such as showing videos with gender-stereotyped content) can lower performance on an exam for the stereotyped group.

We also need to be aware of the subtle cues that are all around us (including in the recipients of our major awards). This includes the unintended messages we might send at our training sessions:


and departmental coffee hours:

(Photos on the wall in the conference room nearest my office, where we have a departmental coffee and doughnut hour on Fridays. Not the most diverse group, is it?)

If cues in a setting that point in an unsettling direction mount up, a sense of identity threat is likely to emerge. But if such cues are sparse in a setting and/or point in a benign direction, then a sense of identity threat should not arise or should subside.
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, page 140

There is also evidence that it can help to emphasize aspects of an individual’s identity that should invoke positive stereotypes, while downplaying those that would invoke negative stereotypes. One example of this is the study on Asian American women math students that I covered in yesterday’s post. In my classroom, it seems like it should be pretty easy to emphasize that these students have all been admitted to a selective university, which would emphasize a positively stereotyped component of their identities.

One thing Steele emphasizes in Whistling Vivaldi is that you don’t need to counter every possible negative cue. Instead, you need to make students feel “identity safe” – that is, you need to make enough critical changes that indicate that diversity is appreciated. (Note: saying you are color-blind is not effective.)

Is reducing stereotype threat a magical solution to solving problems associated with student learning? Of course not. But, as Claude Steele puts it “for ability-stereotyped students, reducing identity threat is just as important as skill and knowledge instruction” (page 181, Whistling Vivaldi) in determining student success. Fortunately, some of the strategies for countering stereotype threat are pretty easy to implement. My hope with these posts is to raise awareness of the phenomenon, as well as information on ways to counter it.

Additional resources on countering stereotype threat
1. What can be done to reduce stereotype threat?
2. Shielding students from stereotype threat: a guide for teachers
3. Whistling Vivaldi

*I recently encountered an example of this “counting” phenomenon. On the last day of class this semester, one of the women in the class told me how many men had been there the first day and others nodded in agreement. They had been counting on the first day, and remembered that the whole semester, even though the number changed after that first day.

11 thoughts on “Countering stereotype threat

  1. Pingback: Stereotype threat: A summary of the problem | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Could you explain more what “values affirmation” is? Does this mean students can write about how they value honesty and humor, and somehow that affects their math scores?

  3. Just out of curiousity, the pictures on the wall don’t look like they have been added to since about 1975. I presume they are there as some sort of recognition/honor. Has that award/honor/position been discontinued? They may also be an interesting starting point for an affirming discussion that does not undercut the contributions of the folks pictured.

    Nice series. I like it.

    • I of course don’t know the answer, but my guess is that the pictures are former heads or chairs of Meg’s department. My own department does something similar, and I suspect many others do as well.

      Re: the apparent age of all the pictures, my guess is that either the department has discontinued the practice of putting up pictures of the department heads in the coffee room, or else that Meg couldn’t fit all the pictures in one shot.

      We’ll see if Meg confirms my hypotheses…

    • Close, Jeremy, but not quite! They’re all past Directors of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, all of whom have been white men. It does appear that they’ve stopped updating the photos, though I’m not sure why.

      Pictures like this raise the question of how to honor our history (which I think we should) while not sending the wrong message to students. Based on conversations, I am 100% certain that some of our female grad students and postdocs have noticed the lack of diversity in this series of photos of past directors.

      • “Pictures like this raise the question of how to honor our history (which I think we should) while not sending the wrong message to students.”

        If memory serves, our department has pictures of past dept. heads (all white men, I believe) in the coffee room, or used to. And on prominent display in the hallway outside the dept. office is a huge poster with names and headshots of all the faculty and grad students in the dept. The dept. makes a new poster every year to replace the old one.

  4. Pingback: Stereotype threat and ally work | Dynamic Ecology

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