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Nudges for Equity: Reframing Stress

Part 2: Framing stressors as challenges can help support students of color.

Luke van Zyl/Unsplash
Will you see stress as a challenge or a threat?
Source: Luke van Zyl/Unsplash

Last month, I kicked off my five-part series on nudges for equity in higher education by talking about growth mindsets. I discussed how students of color often face negative stereotypes about their intellect, which threaten their sense of belongingness and efficacy. When internalized, these stereotypes lead students of color to keep their heads down, not ask questions, and avoid opportunities that could lead to failure, embarrassment, and shame. Encouraging a growth mindset helps these students come out of the shell foisted upon them by the structural inequities and microaggressions present in higher education.

Another concept that intersects with the importance of growth mindsets is stress appraisals. According to decades of psychological research, people who encounter a stressor judge whether it’s a challenge or a threat based on whether they have the personal and/or external resources available to conquer that stressor. Consider a flat tire on the highway. If this were to happen to my wife, she has the internal resources—she knows how to change a tire—to see this inconvenience as a challenge. But if she discovers there’s no spare in the trunk, it becomes a threat. For me, I have the external resources necessary to turn a flat tire into a challenge—AAA roadside assistance. But if my cell phone isn’t getting a signal, now this situation is a threat.

The difference between challenge and threat affects us at both a physiological and psychological level. Challenges are marked by adaptive responses such as increased cardiovascular output, which facilitates performance on difficult tasks. Threats, however, induce stress, which constricts blood flow and impairs cognitive performance. These distinctions make two things abundantly clear: 1) we want college students in challenge mode when facing a stressor, like a final exam or research presentation; and 2) students of color have more opportunities to perceive threat given the microaggressions, stereotypes, and prejudices that they regularly encounter.

Encouraging Challenge Appraisals

To understand how challenges and threats impact college students of color, let us first look at a study in which Princeton undergraduates faced a common stressor—a math exam. To manipulate stress appraisals, researchers told students either that this “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire” was a “reliable measure of basic quantitative ability” (threat), or that they should do as well as they could on this “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire,” and to treat it like a challenge. The researchers also induced social stress by reminding some participants how many students from their high school typically attend Princeton each year. From pretesting, the researchers knew that students from underrepresented high schools felt lower academic confidence, higher anxiety, and a lack of support, all likely tied to underrepresentation of their race and social class on campus.

Students scored about 90% on this math exam, with one exception: Students from underrepresented high schools who were placed under threat scored, on average, 72%. That’s a huge difference with huge implications. When students of color face stereotype threat or microaggressions in the classroom, appraising an exam as a challenge versus threat could mean the difference between a C- and an A-! So how do we nudge students into a challenge mindset? These same researchers successfully boosted Black elementary school students' math performance by 77% by framing an exam as an opportunity to “learn a lot of new things” and as “a big help in school.” Unfortunately, this strategy of presenting high-stakes evaluations as tools for learning, as far as I can tell, has yet to be tested directly with college students of color.

Inducing Challenge via Wise Feedback

While we lack evidence for nudging challenge appraisals among college students, we can learn from several experiments in which younger students were trained to evaluate stressful academic experiences as challenges. In a first trial, 7th-graders wrote essays about what it means to be a hero, and their teachers provided written feedback. Before being handed back to the students, however, the researchers appended a note to some papers to induce a challenge mindset: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” All students then had the opportunity to revise their essays to seek a better grade.

The results were profound. A challenge mindset increased revisions among White students by 40% (62% vs 87%), but increased revisions among Black students by 323% (17% vs 72%)! In a follow-up study, challenge framing increased essay scores by 8.5% for White students, but by 26% for Black students.

The researchers attribute these results to what they call “wise feedback,” which assures students of three key things:

  1. Their teacher’s critical feedback is reflective of their high standards, not racial or other bias;
  2. That they have the potential to reach their teacher’s high standards;
  3. That they will be provided with the resources and opportunities necessary to reach those high standards.

Wise feedback was particularly impactful for Black students who had begun to mistrust school as a place where they're treated unfairly, especially due to race. In fact, evidence suggested that the use of wise feedback inhibited the deepening of that mistrust over time.

Attributional Retraining With Near Peer Testimonials

Another trial tested whether high school students could be trained to spontaneously adopt a challenge mindset without external prompting. Participants read testimonials from older students attesting to teachers’ critical feedback being indicative of their high standards. Then participants read a teacher’s feedback to another student’s essay and practiced interpreting those comments through a challenge lens.

At the end of the school year, attributional retraining boosted grades for Black, but not White students, reducing the racial achievement gap by 39%. Among Black students, this retraining reversed the downward trend in grades typical during this age, and cut the number of D and E grades by half. It appeared that these results were due, in part, to Black students being more likely to spontaneously attribute critical feedback to teachers’ high standards and belief in their ability to meet those standards.

Reframing Stress for College Students

Stress reframing and growth mindsets intersect at many points. A growth mindset reinforces the idea that people can adapt with concerted effort and support. Put differently, students who lack the resources to conquer a stressor (i.e. threat) will believe they’re able to accrue the resources necessary to turn it into a challenge. A challenge mindset, likewise, reinforces the idea that the purpose of education is to adapt with concerted effort and support. Thus, a student who regularly takes on challenges will experience and recognize their own personal and intellectual growth.

How do we help students of color adopt a challenge mindset? A few lessons come from this research:

  1. Turn high-stakes evaluations into learning opportunities. For example, provide students with the option to retry missed exam questions or revise an essay to earn back some credit. This practice ensures students learn from their mistakes and start to see tests as a part of learning, not the endpoint.
  2. Teach students that feedback is meant to encourage them to improve their skills and knowledge. This retraining may be more impactful, but more difficult, for students of color who have learned to mistrust criticism from educators, especially those of dissimilar races and backgrounds.
  3. Leverage students’ voices. Challenge appraisals may be more easily accepted from near peers and role models than authority figures. Hearing these lessons from a teaching assistant, resident assistant, or peer mentor, especially one of the same race or ethnicity, may have more impact than from a professor or counselor.

We also need more research on stress reframing, both in the laboratory and in the classroom, conducted with college students of color. While the studies above show promise, we need to know whether and how they generalize to older students who potentially have had more negative educational experiences shaping their mindsets. Moreover, attributional retraining may take on a whole new context for students navigating an unfamiliar and threatening campus environment. Only then can we begin to hone in on the best strategies and language to help students of color see more stressors as challenges to overcome, not threats to avoid.


Alter, A. L., Aronson, J., Darley, J. M., Rodriguez, C., & Ruble, D. N. (2010). Rising to the threat: Reducing stereotype threat by reframing the threat as a challenge. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 166-171.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P….Cohen, G. L. (2013). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824.