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The 180 Blog Dec 9, 2016

Stereotype Threat:
Strategies for the Classroom

giordanonov2015-0042By Catherine Good, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist

In our previous posts we discussed the ways in which negative stereotypes about your students can disrupt their performance, engagement, and learning. Today, we will look at strategies for combating stereotype threat in the classroom. Below are three research-based approaches we find especially effective.

Foster Your Students’ Growth-Mindsets

Consider the implicit message conveyed by negative stereotypes:  a person is assumed to be inherently less capable because of race, gender or some other characteristic. Thus, situations that elicit stereotype threat may also elicit fixed mindset beliefs—at least temporarily. It is not surprising, then, that fixed mindsets and stereotype threat share similar negative impacts, namely reduced achievement and learning. This suggests that one remedy for stereotype threat may be to encourage a growth mindset to counter the fixed messages embedded in the stereotypes. Research has shown that teaching students basic neuroscience about the brain’s ability to grow new neural connections and strengthen existing ones – known as neuroplasticity – is a powerful antidote to stereotype threat. For example, black college students who learned about brain plasticity reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement and obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts who did not learn this message. In a similar study, low-income middle school students who overcame the anxiety-inducing effects of stereotype threat performed significantly better on end-of-year statewide standardized test in English and math.

How can you teach brain plasticity in your classroom? Surprisingly, even elementary aged children can benefit from a basic lesson in neuroscience. Simply teach students that the specialized cells of the brain are called “neurons,” and that these neurons can grow, much like our muscles do, when they are worked. Use metaphors such as, “the mind is like a muscle, the harder you work it, the stronger it gets.” Encourage your students to stretch their abilities so that they can increase their intellectual muscles.

Emphasize High Standards and Capability

The feedback teachers give to students provides a wealth of opportunity to reduce stereotype threat. One effective method of feedback is to emphasize that you hold all students to high standards and to assure them that they all have the capability to meet those standards. Giving feedback to students – especially if that feedback is given by an outgroup member, such as a male teacher giving feedback to a female student in math, or a white teacher giving feedback to a black student – has the potential to confirm group stereotypes. But research has shown that constructive feedback is most effective when it communicates high standards for performance in tandem with assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards. Feedback given in this way is good for all students—even those who are not susceptible to stereotype threat. But it is particularly beneficial to stereotyped students because it reduces the perceived bias that students may hold for their evaluator, increases their motivation and preserves students’ engagement in academics.

One way to give effective feedback is to use growth-mindset language such as “not yet” when conveying whether or not they have mastered the material. For example, if a student has done poorly on an assessment, explain that they have not mastered the material yet but that with time and with effective strategies and approaches, they will.  The “not yet” language is a cue to students that they haven’t learned all they can yet, but that you have faith that over time they will.

Be Direct with your Students about the Implications of Stereotype Threat

Many of our students often think low performance or academic struggles are due to their own limited ability. These attributions are especially likely to happen under the specter of negative stereotypes. Several studies have shown that stereotype threat can be reduced by providing students with an alternative explanation for the anxiety and distraction that they may be experiencing. For example, reassure students that the difficulties they are experiencing are a normal part of the learning process and that many students like them have struggled, overcome difficulties and experienced success.

Other studies have shown a reduction in stereotype-based gaps in achievement by targeting the source of the anxiety directly: that is, the researchers taught students about the possible effects of stereotype threat before they took a math test. Students were told, “It’s important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test.” After learning about stereotype threat in this way, women performed as well as men on a math test.

In a similar study addressing the dysregulation that increased anxiety causes, the anxious feelings students experienced were framed as potentially facilitating performance rather than hindering it. With these instructions, the researchers were able to reduce the performance decrements associated with stereotype threat. Taken together, these studies indicate that providing information can disarm stereotype threat.

These are just a few examples of concrete strategies you can use in your classroom to reduce your students’ vulnerability to stereotype threat. To explore more ways that you can stop stereotype-based underperformance, visit

And please share your experiences and strategies in the classroom with us on Twitter with @Turnaround #The180.