Stereotype threat

Last week was finals week at CSU. Students were sitting in corners and sprawled outside reviewing notes. Faculty were proctoring and grading, and all this assessment activity got me thinking about the stereotype threat that some students were experiencing as we all worked to conclude the semester.

Stereotype threat is a phenomenon where if a person is being assessed in an area where their group is stereotyped as performing poorly, that person experiences a higher amount of stress as they try to prove the stereotype wrong. This extra stress has a negative effect on their performance and contributes to a cycle where the person experiencing stereotype threat then confirms the stereotype to themselves and others. Stereotype threat was first conceptualized and researched by Steele and Aronson in the mid-nineties when they showed that African Americans performed worse on a test for intellect when the stereotype of African Americans tending to perform worse on these tests was invoked before testing. Stereotype threat effects have also been demonstrated in research assessing girls and women in math and assessing white people in athletics.

In these studies, stereotype threat had its measurable effect when the stereotype was invoked at the start of the assessment. Those being tested were told/reminded that their group tended to not do well on the type of test they were taking. Now, you’re probably thinking, why is this applicable to us now? Certainly, faculty members aren’t suggesting to any test-takers that members of their group tend to do worse on their finals! And, that’s probably true, but what we do need to consider is all the signals that learners from stereotyped groups receive in the university. What if you are one of the only women and/or people of color in your advanced STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) class? Wouldn’t that remind you of the stereotypes that say your group is not as good at the subject?

Another instance I see in higher ed is the standardized tests students often need to take to get to the next level of education or their career. I’m thinking of tests like the SAT, the GRE, and for our D.V.M. students, the NAVLE. These tests tend to be offered in testing centers, where the test-takers are treated as if they might cheat. Test takers report having to have their glasses examined, having to remove jewelry or extra clothing, being limited in how much water they can have, and if and when they can use the restroom. Treating test-takers as criminals likely has an impact on learners from groups that are stereotyped as criminals, including Black and Latinx students. What might be the stereotype threat impact for learners in these groups who are treated like criminals and then asked to take a high-stakes test?

On the flipside, students with dominant identities sometimes experience stereotype lift. If they are aware of the negative stereotypes of other groups, their performance is bolstered in assessments. When we consider this pushing effect against marginalized students and for dominant students, we begin to understand what is sometimes referred to as the “achievement gap” from a very different perspective.

So, what can we do? We’ve had many conversations about implicit bias at CSU and beyond, but we often leave out the interplay between implicit biases with stereotypes. Implicit biases in and of themselves are held by everyone, but consequences manifest when those biases coincide with negative stereotypes against marginalized groups. Walton and Cohen (2003) also suggest that explicit debunking of stereotypes can help alleviate stereotype threat and stereotype lift. We need to better include in our conversations the power systems and oppressive structures in higher education that effectively leave the threat in the air.