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Reaching the Student, Not the Stereotype

Suggestions to help teachers avoid causing stereotype threat in students.

Key points

  • Stereotype threat is one possible reason a well-prepared student might fail a test.
  • Well-meaning faculty and administration might unknowingly strengthen a negative stereotype in a student's mind.
  • Faculty, administration, and student groups can help students ignore negative stereotypes and focus on their own performance.

Someone who’s devoted their career to teaching is trying to figure out how to reach a student. The student is obstinate, unwilling to follow direction. Despite instructions, then directions, then edicts to complete an exercise in a particular manner, the student insists on doing their own thing.

The student’s been trying to do the work, but they’re not sure how. They did what the teacher asked, but the teacher said they did it wrong. They asked for help, but the teacher just repeated the words used in the syllabus. The work doesn’t make sense. The student figures they can’t do this new thing.

The educator consults colleagues. They charge the brain trust with one of the perennial questions in education: Why is a bright student not living up to their potential? The conversation traverses the typical possibilities, but none seems accurate. Finally, someone says, “You know, people like that student usually fail that subject.”

The student asks their friends what’s up with the teacher. They offer lots of advice: They’re all like that…. Here’s what they really want…. Read this book instead; it explains everything…. Here’s what you should do…. [Pause] You know, we don’t do well in that class…

The claim stops both colloquies cold. Why dig deeper when something everyone knows answers the question?

* * * * * *

Stereotypes are shortcuts. They indiscriminately apply something known or believed about a group to all members of that group. Stereotypes can be positive or neutral, but we usually view them in a negative light.

Stereotype threat occurs when a person’s performance on a task diminishes after being reminded of a negative stereotype about a group they belong to. The phenomenon also occurs with positive stereotypes. For example, one study asked Asian women to take a math test. When reminded they were Asian (which has positive associations with math tests), they did better on the test. When reminded they were women (which has negative associations with math tests), they did worse.

In the scenario described above, teacher, student, and their confidants concluded the student’s difficulties stemmed from their membership in a group with a poor track record in that class despite evidence of unvoiced angst on the part of both teacher and student. No one asked, “What if you’re wrong?” Perhaps the question is uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s impolite. But it’s possible the teacher’s instructions were unclear, the student invented their own assignment, both, or neither. Seeking refuge in a stereotype may have helped teacher and student avoid unpleasant implications.

Here, asylum makes things worse. Not only does it arrest investigation, it carries with it an expectation of failure. An expectation caused by factors outside the student’s control. An expectation which, having heard “people like you don’t do so well in this area” again and again over the course of several years (and having attributed personal and peer failures to this idea), can be hard to set aside.

* * * * * *

Let’s suppose the student entered the class about as prepared as any other: not so much that their technique could carry them to an A through a nervous breakdown and not so little that it would be easier for them to pass through the eye of a needle than to pass a test. Let us also suppose there are no outside pressures that might consume the student’s attention. No job. No tragedies. No breakups. How might the student—any student—be convinced to divine their chances of success from their own labor rather than the unknown effort of others? Or at least base their prediction on a positive stereotype?

This looks like a job for the community.

If this was a comic book movie, our heroes would be mid-montage, preparing to save the day with sick burns and pithy three-word slogans. Real life is rarely so stylized. Our heroes, the community—here, the school’s administration, faculty, and student organizations —are a farrago of ideas and agendas. But they all have to be on the same page to help the student thwart the effects of stereotype threat.

Their adversary? Confusing summary for inference. In English? People jumping to conclusions.

A statement such as “40% of Group X failed a test” describes a result. Descriptions don’t explain why a thing happened, so people come up with their own hypotheses. Some have led schools and private organizations to create much needed academic support programs, teaching students skills they have yet to acquire. Others switch tracks, transforming the description into, “Members of Group X fail because they are members of Group X.” The hypothesis and its fallacious conclusion raises an alarm. It spreads through public speeches and private conversations. For many, it becomes fact.

* * * * * *

If our heroes are to have any hope of turning the tide, they must take steps to interrupt this process.

First, students, prospective students, parents, and ranking companies clamor for descriptive results. Schools should provide them, but with context. Eighty percent of your students passed an important test? Fantastic! What can future students learn from those who passed? What about those who failed? How many were unable to do the work? How many were hindered by psychological phenomena? What programs does the school have in place to address these issues? Frankness of this kind can help build trust.

Next, members of the administration and faculty must work to understand that they strengthen the negative stereotype by repeating it. But they can also reinforce a positive stereotype in the same way. Indeed, recent research suggests helping kids think about success helps them achieve. Thinking about failure causes people to tune out. When a student seeks help from a faculty member who helps them view current problems through their past successes, it can help the student stay focused on their own ability and motivate the student to work harder.

There is, of course, nearly always a gulf between the faculty and administration and students, with students often trusting the word of in-group students over out-group authority figures. This is where student organizations come in.

One way the administration might work with a student group is to interview students from groups affected by negative stereotypes on video, ask them how they succeeded, and play the video back for the incoming students, repeating the process each year. Another way might be to use mental contrasting plus implementation, asking the students to write down what they hope to achieve, followed by obstacles they might face and ways they might overcome those obstacles. This activity may help them to overcome unforeseen obstacles when they arise.

* * * * * *

Regardless of what set of tools our heroes use, the ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining expectation of success for the students. Because schools trade out up to one-third of their students each year, it will be up to the faculty and administration to keep it going. Perhaps with this extra push, students and educators will choose to work through bumps along the road.

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