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Simple interventions can help students overcome “stereotype threat”

By March 4, 2015June 13th, 20163 Comments

6a010536aec25c970b01b7c75985c1970bIn his latest Research Says column for Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin sheds light on the psychological phenomenon known as “stereotype threat,” its effects on learning, and how schools can help their students overcome it.

Stereotype threat, he explains, refers to situations in which people feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their race, gender, or social group. In the classroom, especially as students get older and begin internalizing negative messages about stereotypes and developing their personal identities, this subtle but powerful phenomenon has a tangible effect on achievement. Researchers at Princeton, for example, found that minority children who were asked to report their ethnicity prior to a test got 21 percent fewer correct answers than those who were asked to report their ethnicity after the test.

However, Goodwin writes, research has also shown that rather simple interventions can reverse these effects. In one study, both black and white 7th grade students were asked to spend 15 minutes writing about the role of personal values in their lives at the beginning of the term in a targeted course. During the term, this simple exercise cut in half the number of students earning a D or lower, reduced achievement gaps by 40 percent, and reversed previous declines in performance.

Goodwin concludes that, while promising, interventions must also be accompanied by high-quality instruction and a challenging curriculum, and they must be carried out in a way that doesn’t further stigmatize students.

Read Bryan’s column on ASCD’s Educational Leadership site.

Posted by McREL International.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Jason Robinson says:

    As a teacher in an all special needs school, I can see firsthand how the “stereotype threat” can adversely affect both the learning and outcomes of many of the students. Being labeled a special education student carries with it a stigma of the inability to learn, as well as succeed later in life. Because these students are painfully made aware of their learning disabilities, they lack the confidence they need, and are not motivated to try their best as they feel hopeless in being able to learn and achieve in school.Interventions for such students need to be designed and carried out in order to restore confidence, optimize learning, and ultimately have the students reach their full potential.

  • Brooke says:

    I agree with Jason’s point in his comment. Successful interventions for students with a diagnosed disability would lead to higher self confidence and possibly higher performance in school, which may also have a positive affect on social skills. While reading the article regarding the study, I wondered if any of the studies included individuals with diversity in ability in addition to the participants outlined in the article. Is there any further information on this study or studies done similarly to this one that highlight stereotype threat for students with disabilities?

  • Brooke and Jason,
    Those are good comments and a good question about stereotype threat for students with disabilities. I’ve done some poking around, but unfortunately, there’s not been much research done on that specific question. It would seem, though, that some of the interventions still ought to apply—for example, allowing students with disabilities to hear from others how they overcame challenges or fears or asking students with disabilities to identify all of the things they are good at, including personality traits, etc. I’d be interested in hearing if others have tried these or similar approaches with special needs students.

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