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Addressing stereotype threat to improve academic achievement

Barbara McKenna


When a group of women engineering majors in a controlled experiment took a math test knowing that gender would not be a factor, they did as well as men in their major taking the same test. When they were aware that results would reflect their gender they did substantially less well. The same held true for Black students in settings where race was and was not a factor.

“You get this level of underperformance that is seemingly tied to identity,” Claude Steele explained. Steele, who designed the experiments, calls this experience "stereotype threat." His groundbreaking theory was the first to counter long-held beliefs that intelligence was biologically based. Steele recognized that when a person is experiencing stereotype threat a good portion of their cognitive resources can be taken up with addressing the threat rather than the task at hand, causing underperformance.

Steele, Dean of Education at Stanford University, talked about stereotype threat and its effect on academic achievement to an overflow crowd at Stanford in late October as part of SCOPE’s 2011-12 Brown Bag Seminar Series.

“We think of intellectual performance as irrepressible. That is, if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And something as delphic as being worried about a stereotype or being judged by a stereotype is probably not a major factor in your intellectual performance. A thrust of the research has been to take that on as an empirical question: 'Can [stereotype threat] have an effect on intellectual performance?' And the answer is yes," Steele said, explaining, “With stereotype threat, all galvanic responses are elevated. You’re doing two things at once, it’s a form of multitasking.”

“Our experiments start with a foundation of social identity,” Steele said. “Social identity is a very powerful organizer of experience.” Examples of social identifiers are age, sex, race, religion, profession, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, region, social class, ideological persuasion, political affiliation, mental health status, etc.

“What makes social identity important is the consequences. If you have a given feature but it never has any consequences, then it’s not significant,” Steele said. For example, being Black in Lagos, Nigeria, might not be significant, but one’s religious affiliation in Lagos might be. Being a woman taking a math test might not matter if that woman is a dance major rather than an engineering major.

As Steele puts it, “You know that, based on an identity you have, something bad could happen. You don’t know whether, in fact, it will happen. You don’t know precisely what could happen. You don’t know when it could happen….”

Steele first became aware that life could have consequences simply because of social identity when he was in grade school. Steele, who is Black, still vividly remembers the powerful epiphany that came to him when he was walking home with friends on the last day of school. They discussed how they would get to go to the public pool on Wednesdays — the one day Blacks were allowed to swim there. “I was recognizing nothing less than a condition of life and of being Black at that time in history,” Steele said.

Steele and colleagues have conducted a wide range of experiments over the years to expand the theory. Some samples of the findings can be seen on the PowerPoint from his lecture ( ).

Lessening the impact of stereotype threat on academic achievement

Acknowledging that students can underperform academically because they experience stereotype threat is vital to addressing the achievement gap, Steele said. “The significance of race is profound in our society, and yet we direct all of our remediation as if we have one problem [poor quality schooling], when we have at least two [poor quality schooling and identity threat].”

In order to close the achievement gap, it’s vital that educators address both.

So, how can educators address identity safety in schools?

"Cues are vital," Steele said. "When you walk into a room you can worry about how people are going to see you. There are cues that trigger stereotype threat." For example, when a female math major walks into the math building and the walls are lined with photos of great mathematicians — all male — that can, as Steele says, "foster vigilance and hamper a sense of belonging in the setting." While the brain is devoting resources to those concerns, it is distracted from the learning at hand.

"Cues that signal non-threatening contingences foster belonging in the setting and thus, learning and performance,” Steele said.

Another mitigating factor is having enough people in a setting with similar identities, he said. Affirmative action is one way to approach this. Steele recalled when the Supreme Court was voting on affirmative action in 2003. At that time Sandra Day O'Connor, who was considered the swing vote in the case, was the only woman on the court. And Steele knew exactly how she would vote: "O’Connor said her early years on the court were asphyxiating…. There was hyper-scrutiny from all camps to see how she would vote," Steele explained. O'Connor knew the importance of critical mass.

Individuals can also address identity threat through self-awareness. "When we’re in a situation, we have a narrative about it. It’s so much the water we swim in we’re often not conscious of hearing it." The solution is to work to change one's internal narrative.

Steele illustrated this with his experience in graduate school. "I felt all these pressures intensely. At the time psychology was all about race and genetics. The guy down the hall used the N word. All these cues were there and felt very alienating. Luckily, I had a professor there who needed a grad student. I think he needed a student more than he cared about anything else and so we did a paper together. And that was transformative. What it did was distance me from what I felt. I knew, 'Yeah there’s racism here, but it’s not so bad that it can defeat me in this situation.' My narrative changed. At the outset I felt that I would be suffocated by that situation. I never raised my hand or spoke up in class. But with the experience of success that changed."