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Stereotype Threat

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Many stereotypes exist about the academic performance of learners based on categories such as their race, gender, or age. Stereotype Threat suggests that people can underperform in different areas, including reading, math, and learning new technology skills, when faced with the prospect of being judged against an existing preconception of their group.

Main Ideas

Stereotype Threat occurs when a negative stereotype that exists in a culture about a group results in suboptimal performance by members of that group. This can impact performance even in settings where the learner does not personally experience prejudiced behavior toward them by instructors or peers. This is particularly true on tests where learners are told the test is diagnostic of their intellectual abilities.

People can hold two types of stereotypes:

  • People may be unaware of their implicit stereotypes, but these beliefs and biases can still impact their behaviors toward and interpretations of others in an unconscious manner.
  • People are aware of their explicit stereotypes, which can also impact their behaviors toward and interpretations of others.

In the United States, Stereotype Threat can impact adult learners from various groups:

  • Certain groups, such as Latino/Latina and Black students, are at risk of negative stereotypes of their academic ability.
  • Students who have learning disabilities are at risk for being stereotyped as having low intelligence.
  • Adults may be considered "nontraditional" learners based on their age. Older learners are at risk of negative stereotypes about their memory and ability to learn new digital skills.
  • Women are at risk of Stereotype Threat because of the general belief that men are better at math.

Adult learners with limited literacy skills and groups such as first-generation college students may also face stigmas. Holding negative stereotypes of their own learning ability may be related to adults having a more "fixed mindset" view of intelligence rather than a "growth mindset" where they believe their abilities can be expanded.

Learn More

  • Stereotype Threat: Free CE-credit webinar discussing research-based strategies to support students facing Stereotype Threats

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