New research points to ways to help minority students reach greater academic
heights, said Claude Steele in his APA 2011 Annual Convention keynote address.
BY LEA WINERMAN • Monitor staff
Most good theories start with a practical problem, according to social psychologist Claude Steele, PhD. The theory that has become Steele’s greatest
contribution to psychology began with a problem he
encountered at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. As
a new minority faculty member, he found himself placed on
the student recruitment and retention committee. On their first
day, committee members were handed a stack of material that
included a disturbing chart. It showed the average grades of
Michigan students, graphed as a function of their SAT or ACT
scores. Not surprisingly, on average, students with higher test
scores earned higher grades.
But a different trend jumped out at Steele. At every level of
SAT or ACT score, black students got lower grades than white
students — even though they entered college with the same
skills, at least according to the tests.
“That was a surprise,” said Steele, who in September became
dean of the Stanford University School of Education.
Eventually, the data led him to a series of experiments
that crystallized his theory of “stereotype threat.” He showed
that when people in a negatively stereotyped group — such
as blacks in academia or women in math and science —
are about to take a test, the subconscious worry that they
might confirm those negative stereotypes undermines their
performance by draining their cognitive resources away from
the exam. So, even black students who came to Michigan
well-prepared for college got lower grades than similarly
prepared white students.
Since then, experiments by Steele and others have
demonstrated the effects of stereotype threat on minority
groups and have tested ways teachers and other educators can
lessen stereotype threat’s effects.
The interventions, he said, are based on the premise that
what makes stereotype threat a strong or weak force is all about
“Being under stereotype threat is like having a snake in the
house,” said Steele. “You don’t know what would happen, or
when it would happen, or where it would happen. But you can’t
quite relax because something could happen. And so you need
some assurance … to help you downgrade the probability that
something bad could happen to you based on your identity.”
That assurance can come in different forms. In one study,
for example, Steele gave a group of men and women a difficult
math test. Normally, women do worse than men with similar
math backgrounds on standardized math tests, he’d found.
But when Steele and his colleagues simply told the women
that on this particular test women do better than men, the
reinforcement boosted the women’s confidence — and the
women performed as well as the men.
Other studies, by Stanford University professor Geoffrey
Cohen, PhD, among others, have shown that interventions to
reduce stereotype threat can have even bigger, longer-lasting
results. In his most well-known research, Cohen found that an
intervention that boosted black junior high school students’
sense of self-worth — by asking them to reflect on a personal
value that’s important to them — improved their GPAs by
almost half a point over two years.
“What’s impressive to me is the notion that in real-world
academic settings, these [stereotype threat] processes are not
just a small part of the problem, but are turning out to be a
major part of the problem,” Steele said.
And now, through his work and that of others, understanding
stereotype threat may turn out to be a part of the solution. n
For more on interventions to beat stereotype threat, read the article
“How to Close the Achievement Gap” in the September 2011
To watch Steele’s full address, click here.