Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change

Stereotype Threat

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In our society, there are many stereotypes that exist about the academic abilities of learners based on facets of their Identity, such as race, gender, disability, and Socioeconomic Status. Stereotype Threat occurs when a negative stereotype that exists in a culture about a group results in suboptimal academic performance by people who identify with that group. Specifically, learners who are aware of this stereotype can fear confirming it—especially when the relevant aspect of their Identity is made salient. This can result in reduced performance that is not indicative of a learner's actual capabilities.

Main Ideas

By the end of preschool, children have typically already been exposed to and become aware of stereotypes about different groups, including those they identify with. For example, 6-year-old girls already believe boys are better at robotics and computer science. Such effects of negative stereotypes can lead to a decreased Sense of Belonging and Motivation in these domains, in addition to Stereotype Threat—and these effects can have long term and lasting consequences. Experiencing Stereotype Threat can lead learners to disengage with a domain and reframe it as less important down the line, called “disidentification”. This has been demonstrated mainly in adolescents, but may be one way that Stereotype Threat can interfere with pre-adolescents' ability and Motivation to persist in these domains, and interfere with Core Academic Literacies earlier on. Together, these harmful effects of stereotypes contribute to academic disparities between groups, and may explain why girls as well as Black, Latinx and Indigenous students are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Learners can experience Stereotype Threat across a variety of contexts, and this is especially likely when an aspect of their Identity that is associated with negative stereotypes is made salient (by prompting a learner to consider this aspect of their Identity), and when they believe they are being evaluated on a task relevant to this negative stereotype. Stereotype Threat can lead to negative learning outcomes because learners who fear confirming a negative stereotype about a group they identify with tend to experience negative thoughts and Emotions. This reduces their Working Memory capacity, thus disrupting academic performance. For example, boys are often stereotyped as less capable readers than girls with Black and Latino learners also at risk of this stereotype. Girls are at risk of Stereotype Threat in math, and may be at risk in other STEM domains. And students with ADHD and learning disabilities are at risk of Stereotype Threat across social and academic domains due to anxiety and low self-esteem from stigma and internalized ableism.

It is also important to note that Identity is intersectional and fluid: as we interact with our environment, we may call to mind some aspects of our identity more than others. For example, although Asian-American girls often experience Stereotype Threat in the math domain when their gender identity is made salient, these learners actually show a boost in performance when their racial identity is made salient—these boosts in academic performance due to positive stereotypes are referred to as stereotype lift.

Stereotype Threat is most likely to affect learners who are aware of negative stereotypes about a group they identify with, and who most highly value achievement in the relevant domain, called “domain identification”. Stereotype Threat may also be more likely to affect learners who regard an aspect of their identity as more “central” or important. Importantly, even individuals who do not believe the stereotype is true about their group can often experience the negative effects of Stereotype Threat, and learners can still experience Stereotype Threat even if they do not personally experience prejudiced behavior toward them by teachers or peers.

Research suggests that, like everyone else, teachers may hold stereotypes about their students, either consciously or unconsciously. These stereotypes negatively affect students down the line (including via Stereotype Threat). It is important for educators to reflect upon their own biases, and consider whether these biases may be influencing students. There are two main types of stereotypes people can hold about others:

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

In addition, people who have encountered these stereotypes may hold self-stereotypes, or self-stigmas, which are internalized beliefs about their abilities that are formed from exposure to stereotypes that they have encountered around their Identities and can impede self-esteem and Sense of Belonging. It is important that educators consider how these self-stereotypes may be affecting not only their students, but also their own beliefs. Based on how Stereotype Threat often occurs, there are a few additional ways we can work to reduce the effects of Stereotype Threat in the classroom. First, Stereotype Threat typically occurs when learners believe they are being tested, and that the test is diagnostic of their abilities. Presenting assessments as “activities”, “games”, or “challenges”, may reduce the effects of Stereotype Threat in the classroom. Second, Stereotype Threat typically occurs when a learner's negatively-stereotyped Identity is activated before or during an assessment, for instance, when filling in demographic information at the start of an exam. Planning activities and assessments with this in mind, along with other considerations, can help reduce the potential for Stereotype Threat.

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