Beating Stereotype Threat: Tell a Student Exactly What They’re Good at and What they Suck at

Posted on August 5, 2011 by


One of the academic interests I really wanted to pursue at some point:  the stereotype threat.  (Hat tip to Situationist for spurring my interest over the years.

Paraphrasing Wikipedia, it’s the feeling that you’ll confirm some kind of stereotype of a group that you’re part of.  For example, if you’re black, you’re perceived to be dumb in the classroom.  Or if you’re not black on the basketball court, you probably suck at basketball.   Wherever it is, the individual feels anxious.  The anxiety effs with the individual’s performance be it on standardized tests, how he/she might do during pressure-packed games,  or heck, maybe how the individual might do during a job interview.

The effect is said to be real and confirmed by experimental studies.  There was a study about how black students watching tapes of Obama making a speech inspired better performances on a GRE verbal and quantitative test.

In the video below based on this study, white athletes and black athletes took a test on golf.  For the first set of athletes, the proctor told them that this was a test of “athletic ability.”  The second test, the proctor tells them that the same golf test was a test of “strategy.”  But this was the same test with the same procedure though framed, verbalized much differently.


In the first set of athletes, the black athletes did better.  They were responding to the suggestion that it was a game of “athletic ability.”

In the second set of athletes, the white athletes did better.  They were responding to the suggestion that it was a game of “strategy.”

Back in ’09, I wrote about stereotype threat.  I suggested that perhaps individuals “having an amnesia” about their groupings or social positioning would vastly help.  Even back then, I didn’t meant to come off sounding like I said that groupings or social positioning could and should be forgotten.

As I’ve brushed up on more practice theory from Anthropology, the concept of habitus, and studying how identities are reproduced in simple everyday actions, I think that our groupings and social positioning are somewhat inescapable.  We’ve all adapted, developed our lives and circles of influence around those groupings and social positions.   I think we more or less know these positions and try our best to work with them.

There are a few answers to reducing stereotype threat as outlined here.

My solution?

I think students have to know that there’s more depth to their abilities.  I’m just speaking as a student, an autodidact, whose tried to learn tons of things.

They have to know that they’re more than “smart” or “dumb.”  They gotta know what exactly makes them “smart” or “dumb” in certain subjects.  And within those subjects, such as math and science, they gotta know what they do well and mess up in.

Rather than saying that they suck at the big sweeping categories of “math” or “science”, I think it might help if teachers, peers, parents, whoever, could better pinpoint specifically what a difficulty is within the large categories of “math” and “science”, rather than making general judgments about a students’ ability in those subjects as a whole.  Maybe the student sucks at linear algebra, but is an absolute genius at doing geometric proofs, but is discouraged by the fact that his/her grade is determined by all that time spent on linear algebra.  Maybe they don’t get the concept of probability but are geniuses at descriptive statistics.

As it is right now, it seems that tons of people in general here in America get away from these categories of math and sciences because they categorically dismiss anything to do with the juggernaut categories of knowledge called math and science.

Posted in: Race