Taking Aim at Stereotype Threat

Greg walked into his class and felt dread, eyes upon him, and felt stupid before he even sat down. During class, the teacher roamed the room to answer questions. Greg, however, felt ignored and alone. He was the only African American in a first-year course at SCC. As the quarter progressed and students tested out, fewer students came to class, leaving Greg feeling incapable and isolated.

Greg described his experience in weekly conferences with me for about six months, and I connected him with a tutor who prompted Greg to push back against feelings of negativity with insistent positive affirmations. She worked with Greg, having him practice saying affirmations as they worked through homework and isolated particular trouble spots. Subsequently, he started skipping class less, demonstrating a persistence and resilience despite not having friends in college and no family support.

Greg reminds me that, as I learn more about barriers to engagement and motivation, the language to frame, further discuss, and ultimately to address challenges is useful and can ultimately improve one’s pedagogical content knowledge — the “how” as well as the “what” to teach (Shulman 1986). This language can help us learn how to best work with students like Greg.

As Greg discussed his current educational challenges and successes, he shared how he understood his past experience was influencing his present, which included what he said was an ADHD diagnosis and years of being placed into special education contexts. It seems more than reasonable that what Greg sensed was stereotype threat. Stereotype threat describes individuals who are at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group (Steele & Aronson, 1995). In other words, barriers in academic contexts can emerge as an awareness that one’s behavior is viewed through the lens of racial, gender, disability, and ethnic stereotypes.

Research has shown that stereotype threat can affect students who are viewed not only through a racial lens but also through the application of gender and disability labels – really anyone who’s in a situation that can draw upon a stereotype-rooted expectation of low performance. The literature addresses stereotype threat as experienced by Hispanics (Gonzales, Blanton, & Williams, 2002; Schmader & Johns, 2003), students from low SES backgrounds (Croizet & Claire, 1998), females, and even white males. Within groups, some students may be more vulnerable to the consequences than others depending on how they identify with a group and a domain, like English, math, or STEM areas.

The effects of ST have been seen in terms of students’ diminished confidence, loss of interest, and self-defeating or self-sabotaging behaviors, such as doing less homework. Students can start to de-value English or math as a subject and eventually narrow career fields they choose to pursue. In addition, the anxiety is associated with stereotype threat and can result in a decrease in working memory.

As Nebraska developmental educators, an awareness of stereotype threat, its potentially devastating effects, and how to prevent or at least alleviate its impact is of great importance. Teachers know when student has the capacity to write a good essay; however, something at a psychological and emotional level gets in her way (Hern, 2016).  Attending to the affective domain or non-cognitive factors that influence student success includes awareness of ST and a plan to help students.

While there are many valuable empirically-proven practices for reducing stereotype threat, four proven strategies can be easily adapted in a developmental English class. In fact, these activities may be generally familiar but new in terms of understanding that each can helps to address stereotype threat by increasing or at least stabilizing confidence in a domain and directly questioning and perceiving one’s identity in new ways.

1. Encourage self-affirmation. Incorporate meta-cognitive practices into the curriculum by having students rate their preparedness for a lesson, reflect their process, and observe what they’re learning and struggling with. Self-affirmation can easily be worked into these kinds of awareness-growing experiences by extending the prompt; examples include, “Congratulate yourself on what you did well on this assignment.” A metacognitive wrapper asks students to briefly evaluate their effort after a test or essay. This is a good time to also affirm. Another opportunity for self-affirmation could be during conferences; prompt students to take a moment to affirm for themselves the “good” stuff in their academic/social behaviors and accomplishments.

2. Emphasize the importance of effort in performance—the growth mindset—or the incremental view of intelligence. Carol Dweck recently railed against a false growth mindset, suggesting that teachers are oversimplifying the strategy and only praising effort: “The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success. . . It’s not just effort, but strategy” (Gross-Loh, C., 2016). If a teacher merely praises a student who scored low, the danger is affirming an identity linked and fixed to failure.

3. Encourage individuals to think of themselves as complex and multi-faced. To explain this idea, Rosenthal et al (2007) showed that individuals who thought about characteristics shared across groups, particularly characteristics in the threatened domain appeared to be less vulnerable to ST. To encourage such self-awareness, Jordan Peterson, in a course called Maps of Meaning, had students reflect on important moments in their past, identify personal motivations, and plan for their futures, including setting goals aimed at overcoming obstacles (Kamenetz, 2015). This kind of expressive writing is often scoffed at as therapy, but early research indicates that it yields powerful results in helping students breach the achievement gap. I would complicate this conclusion, suggesting that the kind of “self-authoring” modeled is not so simple. While it may not be highly valued as product in academia, it can still be rigorous and demand critical thinking as students voyage into their lives as complex beings.

4. Constructive feedback. Other researchers have used the term “emphasize high standards” for this practice, since constructive feedback is the critical action for us. However, anyone can set high standards, and like the growth mindset, “high standards” can stand in for an excuse not to meet students where they are developmentally. Good feedback provides assurance that a student is capable of meeting standards and that a student won’t be judged stereotypically.

Other important means to reducing performance deficits include reframing the task and de-emphasizing threatened social identities. Explore these with me at the tremendous website: www.reducingstereotypethreat.org. [Editor’s note: This link is currently down, but expected to be resolved by the server.] Two researchers dedicated to this area, Steve Stroessner and Catherine Good, have put this resource together to point teachers in the direction of removing them. To return to my earlier example, what Greg could not find was a sense of belonging. Helping students develop this sense, while a simple idea, is challenging in the social, historical, political, and commercial context we live and teach. A click here is an engaging challenge before your next class.

-Phip Ross

Croizet, J., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class:  The Intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 588-594. Gonzales, P. M., Blanton, H., & Williams, K. J. (2002). The Effects of stereotype threat and double-minority status on the test performance of Latino women.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 659-670.

Gross-Loh, C. (2016, December 16). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/

Hern, K. (2016, October). Attending to the Affective Domain. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://accelerationproject.org/Portals/0/Documents/Summary%20Affective%20Practices%20Oct%202016.pdf

Kamenetz, A. (2015, July 10). The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives. Retrieved January 7, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/07/10/419202925/the-writing-assignment-that-changes-lives?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170107. Rosenthal, H. E. S., Crisp, R. J., & Suen, M.-W. (2007). Improving performance expectancies in stereotypic domains: Task relevance and the reduction of stereotype threat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 586-597.  Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003).  Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4- 31. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

   An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician.  To contact Phip, please email pross@southeast.edu.


  1. Dr. Sheri Hutchinson on June 16, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Great article Phip. I left my full-time higher education job to work in the text to speech industry because of the self-efficacy improvement for students who are from backgrounds like the student you mentioned. Their vocabulary is often much smaller than other students and they really need to listen to the content read to them. I love my company, ReadSpeaker, because it can go into the LMS and a student can listen and watch the words being read to them. It is not just for students with dyslexia or ADHD, but rather students who grew up in these types of environments and they can learn in private how to pronounce words and increase their vocabulary. It is my goal to help more students like Greg to read better. Thanks for all you do Phip!