Foster Belonging and Self-Confidence
- Imposter Syndrome
- Stereotype threat
Stereotype Threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self- characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. (Steele and Aronson, 1995) The stereotypes then come into play during tests or moments of pressure (for instance speaking in class) and lead to lower performance. This can happen to every student, but in particular underrepresented students in classrooms, such as women in math (Spencer et al, 1999), African-American students in college classes (Steele, 1997), first generation students, etc.
Dr. Claude Steele led a lot of research on stereotype threat. Others have also followed in his footsteps. We are sharing one of the many studies on stereotype threat by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn (1999). This study focuses on the experience of women in mathematics, where a social stereotype views women as less math abilities than men. Thirty women and twenty-four men were given a difficult two parts math test. In one condition, participants were told that the test had shown gender differences in the past in the first part of the test; in the second part of the test, participants were told that the test had never shown gender differences in the past. In the other condition, the test descriptions were switched.
The results showed that when participants who were told the test showed gender differences in the past, women significantly and greatly underperformed men whereas when participants were told the test showed no gender differences, both men and women performed equally well. Telling participants that there was no gender differences made the stereotype irrelevant and allowed women to avoid thinking about their socially perceived disadvantage in math.
Stereotype threat has been shown to exist in many different areas of society. Many of the research focused on techniques to mitigate stereotype threat. In the following points, we present some of the research and following strategies.
Communicate high standards and confidence in your feedback to students
Because learning is a process, students benefit tremendously from frequent practice and feedback. But what type of feedback is most helpful to students? In general, feedback is most effective when it is prioritized, actionable, constructive, timely, and specific, however the tone of your feedback can also have an impact on student success. Students who are at risk for experiencing stereotype threat also tend to interpret critical feedback differently from their peers. Claude Steele describes this in Whistling Vivaldi as such:
“The mere fact of being black, in light of the stereotypes about it, creates a quandary over how to interpret critical feedback on academic work. Is the feedback based on the quality of their work or on negative stereotypes about their group’s abilities? This ambiguity is often a contingency of black students’ identity.”
In their article, The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide, Cohen, Steele, and Ross conducted an experiment to determine how different feedback styles impact various groups of students, specifically Black and White undergraduates. Students in the experiment were asked to write an essay about their favorite teacher, with the possibility of the essay being published in a (fictitious) campus magazine on teaching. After writing their draft essays, students were given critical feedback delivered in one of three ways: one group received only critical feedback (unbuffered criticism), another received the critical feedback with general praise about their performance (positive buffer), and the last received the critical feedback with an explanation of the high standards for the teaching magazine and assurance of their capacity to achieve them (wise criticism). All students were asked to submit a photo of themselves to accompany the essay in the publication, ensuring that they were aware that their race would be known to the reviewer.
While the type of feedback had little impact on White students, Black students who received the wise criticism treatment reported higher motivation to improve upon their drafts and perceived the reviewer as being less biased.
As an instructor, you can practice delivering effective feedback by:
- Giving students multiple opportunities for low-stakes practice and feedback such as draft submissions, small quizzes, or in-class exercises
- Communicating your confidence in your students’ abilities - remind students that learning is a process, but that you believe in their potential for success with practice and effort
Advocate a growth mindset
Dr. Carol Dweck, a cognitive psychologist and the leading expert on “mindset,” describes a growth mindset as “the understanding that we can develop our abilities and intelligence.” The opposite is a fixed mindset, where intelligence is seen as unchangeable. A student who claims, “I’m just bad at math,” would be demonstrating a fixed mindset point of view, whereas a student who says, “I can strengthen my math skills through practice,” would be advocating a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, students see learning more as a process and can claim ownership and control over their learning, which can lead to greater academic success.
Research studies have demonstrated the positive effect of a growth mindset. For example, Paunesku et al. (2015) randomly assigned 1594 high school students (from 13 geographically diverse schools) to conditions where a growth mindset was advocated. Students in the growth mindset treatment read an article describing the brain’s ability to grow and reorganize itself as a consequence of hard work and good strategies on challenging tasks. The task was reinforced by two writing exercises where students had to summarize the article’s findings in their own words and give advice to a hypothetical struggling high school student.
Students in the control group wrote about how their lives were different in high school compared to before high school and how working hard is relate to economic self-interest rather than societal goals. At the end of the semester, students in the treatment groups demonstrated significantly higher GPAs overall and in each of their core courses, compared to the control group. Students who were identified as at risk for dropping out of high school were affected significantly more than their peers who were not at risk, although the latter were not negatively affected at a significant level.
As an instructor, you can advocate a growth mindset by:
- Questioning and challenging your own fixed mindset practices related to beliefs about your students as well as your own learning and intelligence
- Modeling growth mindset practices yourself - be open to feedback from your students and be transparent in your efforts to improve (ask for an Eberly Early Course Feedback Survey or Focus Group to collect this information)
*These first two strategies come directly from research on stereotype threat. The following strategies are techniques addressing the root cause of stereotype threat: the existence of stereotypes and bias in the classroom.
Model inclusive language
Use language that is truly generic: language that is not shrouded in generality while being actually very specific to one group in society (e.g. men/women, Christians, whites, heterosexuals, etc). For instance, use non gendered terms (spokesperson, significant other, etc), inclusive language (such as house of worship instead of church, etc). When you use American idioms, explain them for the benefit of non-native English speakers. This is particularly important when writing exam prompts as some students will lose time trying to decipher language rather than using that time to answer the question. It might bring feelings of inadequacy and reinforce feelings of not belonging, thus triggering stereotype threats and imposter syndrome.
Use multiple and diverse examples
Include examples from diverse groups
Students from underrepresented groups, in college or in your discipline, need to see examples coming from similar backgrounds. This will help fight against commonly held prejudice that they do not belong in that field/in college. Since you cannot always know the background of your students (because it might be invisible), it is important to always use multiple and diverse examples in your teaching regardless of who you think is in your class. Multiple examples increase the likelihood of students relating to at least one of them. Take care to include examples that speak to both sexes and that work across cultures.
Examine your curriculum
Are certain perspectives systematically not represented in your course materials (e.g., a course on family focusing only on traditional families, or a course on public policy ignoring race issues)? Neglecting some issues implies a value judgment (hooks 1994), which can alienate certain groups of students.
Strive to be fair
Our society and academia at large are deeply affected by biases. It permeates our hiring practices (Moss-Racussin et al, 2012), and even graduate students advising (Milkman et al, 2012; Milkman et al, 2015). Because many of those biases are implicit, i.e. we have them without being aware of it, it is important to take precautions when teaching. In particular, implicit biases can reveal themselves during grading (see Malouff and Thorsteinsson, 2016) or calling on students (Hall, 1982). Many researchers report small unconscious behaviors – “microinequities” – that certain student groups experience repeatedly. For instance, women report that instructors tend to interrupt them more often than men, ignore them more often, call on them less often, ask them more recall questions and less analytical questions, acknowledge their contributions less, and build on their answers less (Hall, 1982). These microinequities add up and have a highly discouraging effect on those students.
Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh (2012) prepared a field experiment testing whether race & ethnicity along with gender had an impact on the rate of faculty members’ replies to a meeting request from a prospective doctoral student. The researchers used first and last names to represent a variety of ethnicities and both genders that were tested. Through a sample of 6,548 professors, the researchers found significant differences such that Caucasian males were 26% more likely to receive a positive reply than women and underrepresented groups when asking for a meeting in a week. They were also more likely to receive more and faster replies.
Access to mentoring may impact later access to admission and perpetuate lower rates of representation as students. Faculty members were not necessarily aware of their bias which calls for interventions to let faculty members become aware of their implicit bias. Faculty members should thus take precautions to mitigate bias in their teaching.
- When grading, instructors should strive to grade anonymously. Some Learning Management Systems can do this automatically.
- To prevent a small group of students from dominating discussion, some solutions involve adopting active learning strategies that will encourage everyone to participate, waiting longer before taking answers so more hands go up, and if you are using cold calling, make sure that it is truly randomized (e.g. use a number generator).
- Clearly state your policies on grading and regrading on your syllabus. In particular, indicate if you will use rubrics. This gives students an understanding of procedures to follow and lets you apply them to everyone without bias. Students feel more secure that one does not need “special access” to the instructor to obtain a good grade or being re-graded.
Don’t ask people to speak for an entire group
Minority students often report either feeling invisible in class, or sticking out like a sore thumb as the token minority. This experience is heightened when they are addressed as spokespeople for their whole group, and can have implications on performance.
Lord & Saenz (1985) performed a lab study to test whether undergraduate students who were identified as “token” students in their courses suffered more cognitive deficits than their peers. In their experiment, individual students were grouped with three peers (all trained confederates for the study), of either the same or the opposite gender as the student themself. After discussing everyday topics with their groups, students who were the “token” representative in their group retained less information from the discussion than those who worked within a same gender group, even when groups worked with the same protocols. This suggests that students who feel they are a sole representative of their group may experience more cognitive distraction than their peers. Additionally, the other group members remembered more information presented by the “token” student in their group than same-gender members, suggesting that some students may experience different treatment when they are isolated within teams.
Other studies in STEM courses show that isolating minority students in groups to create the most heterogeneous teams has a negative impact on both group performance (Heller & Hollabough, 1992) as well as retention of the minority students in STEM disciplines (citation).
- Avoid calling on solely on minority students to answer questions pertaining to their background, especially if they did not volunteer to answer the question.
- Create groups or teams with more than one minority student, even if this means there are other teams without minority representation (e.g., if women are a minority in the class, assign a few teams of four with two women and two men, and the rest with all men).
Paunesku, D.; Walton, G.M.; Romero, C.; Smith, E.N.; Yeager, D.S.; Dweck, C.S. (2015). Mind-Set Interventions Are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement. Psychological Science 26, 784-793.
Steele, C. (2010) Whistling Vivaldi: and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Cohen, G.L.; Steele, C.M., & Ross, L.D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25, 1302-1318.Lord, C. G.; Saenz, D. S. (1985). "Memory deficits and memory surfeits: Differential cognitive consequences of tokenism of tokens and observer." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 918-926.