Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group which can create high cognitive load and reduce academic focus and performance. The term was coined by the researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. Steele notes that “persistence in an endeavor is sustained by a faith that one will be viewed as an individual and be included in important relationships. Negative stereotypes erode this trust, and thus reduce the likelihood of scholastic success.” When students are uncertain about whether they belong in the classroom, they are watching for cues in the environment that signal whether or not they are welcome there, and may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group. This hyper-vigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning, which can affect their performance and discourage them from building valuable relationships.

Students who are confident they belong in a learning community and feel valued by their teachers and peers are able to engage more fully in the classroom. With that sense of belonging, they are more likely to participate fully in discussion, build important relationships, be open to feedback and are more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty.

In order to confront the issue of stereotype threat in the classroom, we must educate ourselves on our own implicit biases, embedded attitudes or stereotypes we have towards various groups of people. The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to acknowledge on a conscious level. The IAT measures an individual’s personal associations with respect to concepts such as race or gender. 

Reflecting upon the assumptions that we make as instructors, often due to implicit bias, is a challenging task, because so many of our assumptions seem like “common sense.” As Stephen Brookfield writes, “we have to investigate where our common sense assumptions come from. Many are in the air of the professional culture we’ve grown up in, accepted uncritically because colleagues, textbooks, and experts have told us this is how teaching works.” Examining our assumptions helps shed light on what we think we know about our students and their ability to learn in our classroom spaces.

Further reading & resources:

​ Beasley, M.A., Fischer, M.J. “Why they leave: the impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors.” Soc Psychol Educ. 2012; 15, 427–448 

​ Cheryan S, Plaut VC, Davies PG, Steele CM. “Ambient belonging: how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science.” J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009; 97(6)

​ Dennehy TC, Ben‐Zeev A, Tanigawa N. ‘Be prepared’: An implemental mindset for alleviating social‐identity threat. British Journal of Social Psychology. 2014;53(3):585- 594.

​ Shnabel N, Purdie-Vaughns V, Cook JE, Garcia J, Cohen GL. “Demystifying values affirmation interventions writing about social belonging is a key to buffering against identity threat.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013;39(5):663-676.

​ Steele, C.M., Aronson J. "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1995; 69 (5): 797–811