Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The term was coined by the researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who performed experiments that showed that black college students performed worse on standardized tests than their white peers when they were reminded, before taking the tests, that their racial group tends to do poorly on such exams. When their race was not emphasized, however, black students performed similarly to their white peers.
This research shed light on the ways student performance on tests may be affected by a heightened awareness of racial stereotypes. Because stereotype threat is believed to contribute to race- and gender-based achievement gaps, the theory has drawn considerable attention and debate, prompting efforts to reduce or eliminate the effect in educational and testing situations. It has also raised larger questions about the fairness of high-stakes tests—tests used to make important decisions about students, teachers, or schools.
In their studies, Steele and Aronson found that situational factors—more than individual personality or other characteristics—can strengthen or weaken the stereotype-threat effect. For example, student performance was influenced by the way a test was described. When students were told that the test measured their intelligence, black students performed significantly worse than their white peers, but when they were told that the test diagnosed their ability to solve problems, the race-based performance gap disappeared. Other influential factors include the difficulty of the task and the relevance of the negative stereotype to the task. In addition, the stereotype-threat effect appeared to be stronger among students who wanted to perform well and who more strongly identified with the stereotyped group.
Many studies have looked at both race- and gender-based stereotypes, including one that found that women performed less well in a chess match when they were told they would be playing against a male. When they were reminded that women tend to be worse at chess than men, their performance also declined.
Many questions remain about the cognitive mechanisms behind stereotype threat, and subsequent research has focused on three factors: stress, performance monitoring, and efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. For example, if students try to suppress thoughts about negative stereotypes, or if they are worried that their poor performance may confirm stereotypes, the effort and associated emotions may divert mental energy from answering a test question or solving a problem.
Other studies suggest that the consequences of stereotype threat can extend beyond test performance. Over longer periods of time, chronic stereotype threat may cause students to blame themselves, distance themselves from the stereotyped group, disengage from situations and environments perceived to be threatening, or “self-handicap”—e.g., study less so that poor scores can be blamed on a lack of studying rather than low intelligence.
Stereotype threat may affect many other dimensions of schooling and education reform beyond testing. A classroom or school culture, for example, can potentially exacerbate or mitigate the negative consequences of stereotype threat—in both subtle and blatant ways. Education policies, even those aimed at combating race-based achievement gaps, can paradoxically strengthen existing stereotypes about students from certain racial and ethnic groups, while media outlets may reinforce stereotypes by focusing news reporting and analysis on the racial dimension of achievement gaps. Standardized test results may also be viewed, by some, to be “evidence” that certain groups are intrinsically less capable of academic achievement, and both teachers and students may internalize cultural messages and react to them in negative or self-damaging ways.
To cite just one example: Teachers may give subtle signals that they perceive girls to be less capable in math and science, while suggesting—implicitly or explicitly—that boys are expected to excel in math and science. If the girls internalize theses messages, they may shy away from challenging math problems or learning opportunities such as math-team competitions. If stereotype threat then causes them to perform below their real ability on tests, it may confirm their feelings and perceptions of inferiority.
Awareness of the potential consequences of stereotype threat has potentially far-reaching implications for schools and education reform, particularly for efforts aimed at reducing or eliminating achievement gaps and opportunity gaps among racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural groups. Given the pervasive use of high-stakes testing in elementary and secondary education, and the well-documented persistence of achievement gaps, educators and researchers may want to know how much of these gaps may be a result of stereotype threat, whether stereotype threat is actually exacerbating educational inequities, and what can be done, if anything, to mitigate the effect.
Some research has indicated that negative consequences can, to some extent, be mitigated. For example, the effect may be reduced by educating students about the issue and underscoring that the existence of stereotypes and stereotype threat does not necessarily mean that performance will be adversely affected. One approach that has gained considerable influence in recent years is teaching students that intelligence and academic performance can be improved through effort and hard work. See growth mindset for a more detailed discussion.
The following are a few additional examples of strategies that have shown promise in mitigating the effects of stereotype threat:
- Training and encouraging educators to maintain high learning expectations for all students, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or perceived ability.
- Fostering positive and supportive school and classroom cultures, which includes strong and trusting relationships among students and between teachers and students.
- Embracing and celebrating, rather than ignoring, student diversity in educational settings, and cultivating the perception that diversity is an educational asset that provides benefits to all students.
- Consistently repeating and reinforcing the message that stereotyped students can and are expected to do well in school and on tests.
- Communicating to students the belief that they are capable of achieving at high levels, even while giving critical feedback on their work. (A teacher might say, for example, “I wouldn’t give you this criticism if I didn’t believe, based on what you’ve written here, you could make this work even better.”)
Critics of stereotype-threat theory have charged Steele, Aronson, and other researchers with overestimating the significance of stereotype threat in race-based achievement gaps, given that many contributing factors—including differences in socioeconomic status and unequal access to high-quality schools and teaching—may cause and perpetuate achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. Another source of debate is that some of the studies that support stereotype-threat theory have used flawed methods, including an absence of control groups, which undermines the potential reliability and validity of the findings (although this is a common, known, and widely discussed issue in education research).
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.