Shielding Students from Stereotype Threat

Fall 2009

By Lisa Damour, Larry Goodman

Fighting against the negative effects of stereotyping is nothing new to independent school educators. NAIS's 2006 National Public Opinion Poll showed that, among other things, stereotypical perceptions of independent schools as non-diverse, elitist institutions persist despite the fact that independent schools have evolved to become significantly more diverse (with respect to virtually any criteria) than their public school counterparts. What may surprise independent school educators, though, is the fact that the malignancy of stereotyping can also ramify within the very walls of our classrooms. There is clear evidence that, under certain conditions, the academic performance of members of negatively stereotyped groups can be adversely affected.

The phenomenon is known in the research as "stereotype threat" — and it poses a very real threat to many independent school students. In this article, we focus on the impact of stereotype threat on girls relative to mathematics ability as a way to cogently define the psychological phenomenon. However, it is relevant to the experience of any negatively stereotyped group: students of color facing stereotypes about various ability deficits, GLBT students facing stereotypes about behavioral deviance, students of a religious minority who must contend with stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, etc. As such, the content of this article is likely to have many uses in the independent school realm.

Stereotype Threat, Girls, and Mathematics

Research demonstrates that the very existence of the negative stereotype (e.g., "boys are better than girls at mathematics") suppresses the test performance of members of the negatively stereotyped group (Aronson, 2002). This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat. Members of negatively stereotyped groups tend to underperform in situations that have the potential to confirm the negative stereotype because their anxiety about confirming the stereotype leads to negative thoughts and difficulties with short-term memory (Halpern et al., 2007). Young women who believe that they are taking a test of mathematics ability (and are aware of the stereotype of girls as inferior to boys in mathematics achievement) perform less well than young women who believe that the same test is a test of problem-solving strategies (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999).

The effects of stereotype threat are further heightened when the testing situation includes factors that might bring the stereotype to mind (Steele, 1997). For girls facing a negative stereotype about mathematics ability, these factors include: taking mathematics tests alongside boys, being given a mathematics test by a male instructor, and/or being required to provide demographic information about their gender at the start of the test (as is often the case in standardized testing).

Perhaps nowhere in the landscape of independent school culture is the nefarious impact of stereotype threat felt more than in the arena of standardized testing. Since stereotype threat is predicated on anxiety, its impact is strongest when the stakes are the highest — and in independent school culture, standardized tests like the SAT, AP, ACT, etc. inhabit a realm characterized by the very highest stakes. In 2008, researchers Kelly Danaher and Christian S. Crandall demonstrated that stereotype threat casts a long shadow on the Calculus AP exam. In fact, if the students taking the test were asked to fill out the demographic information identifying themselves as male or female at the end of the exam, rather than the typical placement just before the exam beings), an additional 4,700 girls would receive AP calculus credit each year! The simple act of identifying oneself as a female in advance of taking the mathematics test was enough to trigger sufficient anxiety to suppress the scores of the female test-takers (relative to the group that did not have to self-identify with a gender until the conclusion of the test).

Stereotype threat can be particularly menacing for students who are eager to disprove negative stereotypes about the groups to which they belong. Consider an ambitious female mathematics student who is eager to prove that she is "just as good as a boy" on mathematics tests. She will feel heightened pressure in situations, such as standardized testing, where she has to demonstrate her abilities in mathematics.

Day-to-Day Classroom Practice

A wide variety of interventions have been found to diminish the negative effects of stereotype threat. The Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School (Ohio) has prepared a guide designed to help teachers integrate research-based approaches to shielding students from stereotype threat into their everyday teaching practice. Specific advice includes:

Educate students about stereotype threat

Research interventions that teach girls about the phenomenon of stereotype threat have been found to dramatically reduce its negative impact on mathematics test performance (Johns, Schmader, & Martens, 2005). Girls who are taught about the phenomenon of stereotype threat are more likely to attribute their test-taking anxiety to the existence of the negative stereotype (as opposed to an actual ability deficit), thus protecting their performance in test-taking situations. When instructing students about stereotype threat, teachers should be sure to help them appreciate that it is a subtle process that generally operates outside of their awareness. The fundamental points to explain about how stereotype threat interferes with academic performance are: 

  • Members of negatively stereotyped groups experience heightened anxiety in situations that have the potential to confirm the negative stereotype.
  • Instead of attributing their anxiety to stereotype threat, negatively stereotyped group members wrongly attribute their anxiety to a lack of ability, despite actually having the ability to do work ("I'm not smart enough to do this problem!") or to situational difficulty, even when the demands of the situation are appropriate to their skill level ("This test is way too hard!").
  • Once anxious, a student can experience effects that cause her to underperform. These effects include: increased negative thoughts ("I can't do this!" or "I should have studied more."); increased physiological effects (elevated heart rate, blood pressure); reduced working memory capacity (difficulty thinking or "brain freeze"); reduced performance expectations ("I know I'll fail."); and/or increased or reduced effort (trying too hard by changing answers, ruminating on problems, becoming perfectionistic or giving up by answering randomly, stopping work).

Once students understand stereotype threat, it is important that they know that being aware of stereotype threat can effectively shield them from it. For example, researchers Michael Johns, Toni Schmader, and Andy Martens (2005) found that women significantly improved their test performance when told before a mathematics test, "It is 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."

An open dialogue about the threat that female students experience in mathematics courses is a valuable way to begin a new course. In raising the topic with students, teachers should consider asking the students to write down their thoughts about girls, boys, and mathematics and then talk about what they wrote. Teachers should feel free to ask students about the stereotypes that exist about girls' mathematics abilities and assess the degree to which the students believe these stereotypes or not. Students should know that they need not believe the stereotype themselves in order to be threatened by it; they simply need to believe that other people believe the stereotype in order to become anxious about the possibility of confirming it.

Provide students with positive stereotypes that counter the negative stereotype

Research has shown that providing girls with positive stereotypes about their mathematics performance effectively offsets the negative effects of stereotype threat (McGlone & Aronson, 2007). Every female student should know that, contrary to the stereotyped view that boys are more academically talented than girls, as a group girls get better grades than boys (Buchmann & DiPrete, 2006), and are more likely to go to college than boys (Cho, 2007). Girls educated in single-sex settings should also know that girls educated in all-girls mathematics courses have higher levels of mathematics achievement than boys and girls in co-educational mathematics courses (Shapka & Keating, 2003).

Communicate high standards for performance and assurances that students are capable of meeting those standards

In day-to-day interactions with students, teachers should be sure to communicate high standards for performance and assure students that they are capable of meeting those standards. Research has shown that doing so: 

  • Sends the message that the girls are assumed to be capable of doing the work before them;
  • Reassures girls that they belong in mathematics courses; and
  • Distances girls from the negative stereotypes about girls and mathematics performance (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999).

Testing Considerations

Clearly the high-stakes environment of standardized tests is fertile ground for stereotype threat to intimidate anxious students. So how can schools immunize their students from the threat?

Provide students with external attributions for anxiety during testing

When students are faced with high-stakes testing situations, prepare them by talking about the fact that while they might be anxious, there are external explanations for their anxiety. Research shows that the effects of stereotype threat can be reduced by providing students with any of a number of situational (as opposed to stereotype-based) explanations for anxiety. Researchers Talia Ben-Zeev, Steven Fein, and Michael Inzlicht (2005) found that women's mathematics test scores improved when they were told that their increased anxiety might result from the (actually non-existent) "subliminal noise generator" that would be making an inaudible tone throughout the testing (p.176). Ryan Brown and Robert Josephs (1999) achieved a similar result when they led female test-takers to believe that any anxiety felt while taking a mathematics test was due to the "crash" (manipulated by the experimenters) of a computer program designed to give the women test practice before the actual testing began. In other words, when female students are given ways to attribute anxiety felt during mathematics tests to external (not internal) factors, their performance improves.

Students who will be taking tests away from their home schools (as is often the case with the SAT and ACT) should be reminded that anxiety may arise from: 

  • Taking a test in a novel setting;
  • Taking a test in the presence of totally unfamiliar people (proctors and students); or
  • Taking a test on a weekend day or outside of one's normal routine.

For girls taking exams at their own school, let them know that any anxiety they feel might arise from: 

  • Feeling stressed by the timing of the exam;
  • Trying to manage other obligations (e.g., preparing for an upcoming holiday) at the same time; and/or
  • Aware of disruptions going on around them (e.g., loud students in hall, etc.).

The process of shifting blame and anxiety to an external attribute rather than the negative stereotype can ease anxiety and lead to better performance.

Be mindful of subtle triggers of stereotype threat

Subtle factors, such as the ratio of boys and girls taking a test in the same room, or even the presence of a question that asks a student to record her gender, can trigger stereotype threat. Research demonstrates that stereotype threat is heightened for girls taking tests in rooms in which there are more boys than girls (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2003; Sekaquaptewa & Thompson, 2003). Further, as the number of males in the room increases, so does the female underperformance (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000).

Instructors should seek to alter the female-to-male ratio in classroom settings where males are in the majority. The best time for such an alteration is during mathematics testing, as this is time when stereotype threat is heightened for most female students. If possible: 

  • Split the class so that the females go to one room to take the test and the males to another;
  • Create smaller groups in which the number of females at least matches the number of males.

Putting students into different groups often calls for more than one test proctor. Find a colleague or another adult, preferably a female, to proctor the female students.

Most standardized tests require students to complete several demographics questions. While educators may not have the authority to change such requirements, they may be able to ask students to fill in their demographic information after they have completed the test. In addition, instructors should take care to eliminate gender references (e.g., "Good morning, ladies!", "What's up, fellas?") from their vocabularies so as not to trigger stereotype threat.

Supplemental Activities

What else can teachers do in their daily work in the classroom to further mitigate the impact of stereotype threat?

Give students opportunities to reflect on valued characteristics and to view themselves as complex and unique

Research shows that negative stereotypes pose less of a threat when stereotyped students are given the opportunity to focus on valued aspects of themselves and to think about themselves as complex and unique (Gresky, Ten Eyck, Lord, & McIntyre, 2005; Martens, Johns, Greenberg, & Schimel, 2006). In situations where stereotype threat is heightened for girls, teachers should take time in class to have students write about their valued characteristics, encouraging them to think of themselves as having a number of important personal dimensions.

Expose students to positive role models who debunk negative stereotypes

Interestingly, two days after President Obama was inaugurated, The New York Times printed an article referring to what researchers were calling "the Obama effect." Simply put, the deficit that had repeatedly been found in African-American students' standardized test scores (as a result of stereotype threat) was poignantly absent in the days immediately following the inauguration (Dillon, 2009). Similarly, for girls and mathematics, researchers have found that exposing girls to talented female mathematicians reduces the negative effects of stereotype threat. Ideally, schools should aim to have female mathematics teachers who can serve as role models for female students. All schools should work to maintain a balanced ratio of male and female mathematics teachers so that female students will have female teachers at some point in their mathematics careers.

Additionally, there are a number of things that any teacher can do to provide female mathematics students with appropriate role models. Teachers can: 

  • Invite female guest speakers in mathematics fields to class.
  • Consider a team-teaching approach with a female colleague.
  • Include famous women in mathematics-related fields (mathematics, science, architecture, etc.) in the curriculum (well documented by Marx, 2002; McIntyre, Paulson, and Lord, 2003).

Have older female students mentor younger female students

Studies find that having older (e.g., high school or college) students mentor younger (e.g., middle or high school) students eliminated gender differences in mathematics scores for the younger students (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003). A female mentor who is relatively close to the younger student's age may be more likely to garner the younger student's attention and respect, therefore having a substantial effect on the student's learning, values, and habits.

Whether a school is specifically interested in shielding girls from stereotype threat — or is concerned about a different negatively stereotyped group within its walls, there are clearly ways to improve the experience of those students at your schools. The research base documenting the phenomenon — as well as the research base documenting the possible preventative measures — are robust.


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Lisa Damour

Lisa Damour is the director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School.

Larry Goodman

Larry Goodman is a co-director of The Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School (Ohio).