For faculty who want to teach in ways that promote equity and inclusion, it’s useful to be aware of the findings from decades of research on stereotype threat.
What is it?
Stereotype threat is anxiety arising from a person’s awareness of a negative stereotype about a group they belong to in a situation where the stereotype is relevant and thus confirmable. That means when people are in a situation where a stereotype about their identity is relevant, they are afraid they might confirm a bad view of their group and themselves and may be judged or suffer negative consequences due to the stereotype.
When in this potentially stressful situation, a person’s mind races. Concern about the stereotype threat (which may not be conscious) induces vigilance, rumination, self-doubt, and constant monitoring of one’s behavior and performance. These processes use mental capacity, distracting a person from the task at hand, which worsens performance and general functioning, which in a vicious cycle further intensifies the vigilance for threat and the diversion of attention.
As psychologist Steven Spencer and his colleagues put it, the extra pressure for people from being in a targeted group makes it “more difficult for them to succeed than it would be for a nonstereotyped person in their position.”
Stereotype threat is not the same as discrimination or prejudice; in fact, it exists even in the absence of discriminatory people or actions because of the pervasiveness of stereotypes. As Steele put it in Whistling Vivaldi,
Negative stereotypes about our identities hover in the air around us. When we are in situations to which these stereotypes are relevant, we understand that we could be judged or treated in terms of them. If we are invested in what we’re doing, we get worried; we try to disprove the stereotype or avoid confirming it. We present ourselves in counter-stereotypical ways. We avoid situations where we have to contend with this pressure. It’s not all-determining, but it persistently, often beneath our awareness, organizes our actions and choices, our lives. (209-10)
How it matters in our classrooms
There are many negative results from stereotype threat. It distracts people. It affects feelings of belonging and trust, which matter both in classrooms and on campus. It affects behaviors, such as where a person chooses to sit in a room, and how close they are to others; what field students choose to go into and whether to stay in that field; and it impacts academic strategies like ‘over-efforting’ and whether or not to join a study group. The chronic stress causes health problems. Perhaps most seriously, stereotype threat affects performance on a variety of tasks, including on memory tests, physical tasks like playing golf, and standardized tests and course exams.
Who is vulnerable to stereotype threat?
Anyone could be. Scores of experiments have replicated the effects on different groups of people, including white male sprinters doing athletic tasks that are stereotyped as having to do with “natural ability,” African Americans on the GRE, college females on tests said to measure mathematical ability, European Americans concerned about their performance compared to Asians in math, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds on intellectual tasks, whites concerned about being seen as racist, and men compared with women on social sensitivity, to name a few.
Stereotypes can be about gender, racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic class, religious affiliations, region, nationality, age, etc. Steele points out that there are negative stereotypes about just about every group of people, so anyone could be vulnerable. But stereotype threat is contextual – meaning different stereotypes are more salient in different situations.
So it’s wise for us to know our campuses and our disciplines. In some fields, there are stereotypes about women while in others, there are ones about men. On some campuses, certain groups of students are in the minority and/or stereotyped, while it might be different students on other campuses.
What can instructors do about stereotype threat?
Strategies to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat fall into a few categories. Some are intended to be more preventative—precluding the threat for a student from growing so acute in an environment—while others try to enhance an individual student’s ability to counter the stress and cognitive depletion from the threat.
When considering which of these strategies you might try, David Buck, a social psychologist in Elon’s psychology department, points out that interventions that are effective in laboratory research often have weaker effects in the real world of our courses, where there are many uncontrollable variables at play. However, they can serve as good starting places if you aren’t sure where to begin. At the very least, it’s a safe bet they won’t cause any negative effects. Understanding the purpose behind the procedure can help you decide which strategies to try in your class.
Create identity-safe environments
These strategies aim to affect the course environment so that students perceive less identity threat as they assess it.
- Communicate to all students that they are welcomed, and valued, whatever their backgrounds
Studies in work settings suggest this kind of message matters to employees from marginalized groups. Other research on cues (and common sense) tells us that it’s helpful for instructors to show that they respect students both as individuals and as members of cultural groups.
- Provide positive role models of the affected/targeted group
Whether by assigning authors, sharing the findings of experts in a field, or inviting guest speakers, this exposure makes the vulnerable students (and all students) aware of successful people who refute the negative stereotype.
- Be attentive to the cues you send in your teaching environment
People rely on situational cues about whether their group is valued and accepted (Liu). Cues include official statements in the syllabus and the language we use to refer to people as well as readings, topics for study, organization of groups, who we call on, examples we use, music, images, etc. In some disciplines, it’s wise to include diverse perspectives and/or talk of the value of diverse viewpoints. Proactively think about the challenges different groups of students might experience in your teaching context. One caveat: avoid examples that portray stereotypical or prejudicial assumptions about social groups.
- Blur group boundaries
Community building at the beginning of the semester may help students see the common characteristics shared by students in the dominant and non-dominant group.
- Facilitate positive, cooperative cross-group interactions
Positive interactions mean the minoritized student is less likely to appraise the environment as threatening. See the CATL page on getting off to a good start.
- Promote social belonging and hope
Students from disadvantaged groups benefit from learning that they are not alone in having concerns or experiencing difficulties in a course or a new field, and that most students (not just those from their identity group) worry about their ability to succeed and wonder whether they really belong during their first year of college. One way to reduce uncertainty is to share narratives written by previous students in a course who initially struggled and questioned whether they belonged, but who ultimately learned effective study strategies and succeeded. As Washington University’s Teaching Center notes, those narratives should include ones from students who represent a diversity of social identity characteristics, backgrounds, and life experiences.
- Frame challenging discussions as learning experiences
Focusing on the learning seems to decrease students’ anxiety whether they are from majority or minority groups. It has proven more effective than saying they wouldn’t be judged by what they said in the conversation or by assuring them that differences in perspective were valued.
- Establish trust through demanding but supportive relationships
Faculty-student mentoring relationships seem to work—even across racial, gender, or other identities—when they are calm, work-focused, straightforward, and demanding but supportive. Eventually these sorts of relationships can lessen anxiety and can motivate students, both of which lead to better performance.
From the outset of her courses, Cherrel Miller Dyce intentionally frames diversity as an asset and disrupts stereotypes. She calls upon shared values and goals among her students—future teachers—who want all their future students to learn and thrive. Miller Dyce is a careful observer of classroom dynamics and offers many opportunities for students to consider their own personal and family histories and to do critical self-reflection.
Coping Mechanisms or Resilience-Based Strategies
These strategies aim to provide students with ways to cope with the effects of stereotype threat and approach the learning process effectively.
- Promote a malleable view of intelligence and a learning orientation
Stereotypes “allege that intellectual performance is both fixed and group-based. Seeing that intellectual performance as something that can grow serves as an important antidote” (Spencer). Students who believe that a person’s ability in a subject can be improved tend to set goals to improve their competence, put forth more effort, interpret setbacks as a normal part of the learning process, and experience less pressure when performing a challenging task.
That’s why David Buck uses a “cognitive reappraisal” strategy for helping students think about challenge.
- Consider sharing what you struggled with in your own academic career as another piece of evidence that challenges can be overcome with wise learning strategies.
- Improve student confidence
Other research tells us it’s wise to give students frequent opportunities for success at the beginning of a semester (giving more low-stakes assessments rather than fewer high-stakes ones), and research about stereotype threat tells us it’s useful to remind students of their prior successes, and provide positive feedback when a student does good work. (But don’t give false praise when they haven’t; students need an accurate sense of their strengths and areas where they need improvement.)
- Give “wise feedback”
In studies, certain feedback messages to students simultaneously inspired trust and motivated students to revise and improve their work. Stress that you used high standards in evaluating the work AND that you believe students can meet those standards.
- Promote Mindfulness
Stereotype threat may affect student performance
because it drains working memory resources. Mindfulness exercises may be a useful strategy for students, since they can alleviate working memory load, and at least one study (Weger, et al.) has found that the impact of stereotype threat was reduced after a mindfulness exercise.
These strategies aim to reduce the salience of a student’s stereotyped identity.
- Activate multiple identities
All people have multiple components to their social identities. Making students aware of their own self-complexity “makes the negatively stereotyped identity only a small portion of self, thus decreasing the risk of identity threat” (Liu). In addition, having all students aware of everyone’s complex identities decreases the chance that anyone will view their classmates in single dimensional or stereotypical manner.
- Activate a positive identity
Before a high-stakes exam, an instructor might remind the class of their identity as college students who are intelligent and motivated, bringing this aspect of their identity to the forefront of their thinking.
- Give students an opportunity to reflect on their core values or their attributes
Self-affirmation helps people maintain their sense of integrity and their sense that they can control certain outcomes in life, which in some situations has led to improved performance.
Teaching students about what stereotype threat is and how it affects people may be helpful for students as they make sense of their experiences. Research is a mixed about whether this strategy helps to lessen its impact on performance in a specific moment in time.
Use the strategies that fit into your context. For example, it may be more appropriate to emphasize the value of diverse perspectives in a humanities or business course than in a course where students need to understand the correct way to use specific equations.
Our intentional efforts can make a difference, as one of Miller Dyce’s students reported:
Throughout the past week, I have realized just how truly grateful I am for the opportunity I had to take your class and learn so much about diverse learners and the role racism plays in our society. The class really opened my eyes on how important and vital it is for changes to be made and how much I still have to learn. I am so appreciative of this new lens and outlook on racial issues that you gave. I have always wanted to be a teacher, but am now more motivated than ever to use my future career as an opportunity to educate more and more people about how we can change our unequal world and move away from these oppressive racist stereotypes.
Of course, no one or two strategies are a panacea. Even research-based interventions will fail in the absence of effective teaching. So it’s wise to pay attention to other research findings about effective and inclusive teaching, such as the importance of understanding students’ prior knowledge, using structure, fostering an inclusive classroom climate, providing lots of practice on challenging material and skills so that students use less working memory during tests, offering timely formative feedback, using effective active learning strategies, and teaching for motivation.
Currently, most of the “interventions” for stereotype threat are “damage control,” as David Buck put it, actions intended to reduce the impact of stereotype threat. As Geraldine Cochran and Elon’s Buffie Longmire-Avital note, these tend to be ways to help students from minoritized groups to adapt and persist despite inequities and the legacy of unequal opportunities and institutionalized racism. While building students’ resilience is undoubtedly a good thing, ideally we try to address the root of the problems.
Ideally, we all will help to create a more equitable world where we recognize the barriers that exist for our students and examine whether our actions as instructors help to perpetuate or dismantle them. Ideally, we help create a more equitable world where students from minoritized groups feel they belong and are welcomed and treated well in our classrooms, in our fields, and on our campus. That—along with other kinds of effective teaching—increases the chances that all our students will perform to the best of their abilities and meet their potential.
Geoffrey G. L. Cohen, et al., “An identity threat perspective on intervention, in Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader, eds., Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Julio Garcia and Geoffrey Cohen, “A social-psychological approach to educational intervention,” in E. Shafir, ed. The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton University Press, 2013).
Songqi Liu, et al., “Effectiveness of Stereotype Interventions: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Applied Psychology, August 10, 2020.
Mary C. Murphy and Valerie Jones Taylor, “The role of situational cues in signaling and maintaining stereotype threat,” in Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader, eds., Stereotype threat: Theory, Process, and Application (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Steven J. Spencer, et al., “Stereotype Threat,” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (January 2016), 415-4437.
Steven Stroessner and Catherine Good, ReducingStereotypeThreat.org – synthesizes recent scholarship on who is impacted, how it impacts people, and how to reduce its impact. (The site is down temporarily but will return.)
Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Norton, 2010.
Claude M. Steele, “Creating Identity Safe Classrooms,” in J. A. Banks, ed., Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education (Sage Publications, Inc. 2012)
Gregory Walton, et al., “Affirmative meritocracy,” Social Issues and Policy Review (January 2013.
Ulrich W. Weger, et al., “Reducing the Impact of Stereotype Threat through a Mindfulness Exercise.” Consciousness and Cognition 21, no. 1 (March 2012), 471-475.
David S. Yeager and Gregory Walton, “Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic,” Review of Educational Research 81 (June 2011): 267-301.