"First described by psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues, stereotype threat  has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups."  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat)

What have you heard/experienced about "stereotype threat"?  What are the implications of stereotype threat for undergraduate biology education reform?

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I remember a paper that showed if you remind people (submitting demographic information, for example) they are members of a group that is stereotyped not to do well in STEM assignments, they perform poorly.  

Another paper showed that if students write about their anxiety prior to taking a test, they performed better. 

We discussed this issue for first year advisees at the campus level, but my department has not addressed the topic. 

We have been giving this a good deal of thought at my institution. It is one of the areas that we are considering as we try to study how we can better recruit and retain traditionally underrepresented minority students in the STEM disciplines. In 2010, we had an invited speaker (Jennifer Steele, York University) who talked about: "Stereotype threat: What is it? Can it be overcome? And what does it mean for women – and men – pursuing careers in math and science?" This past May, we held a two day retreat/workshop for STEM faculty and staff to increase awareness around issues of diversity in STEM. In this venue (facilitated by an external group), we discussed some of the ways that institutions and systemic forces help create problems like 'stereotype threat' that we face today. We also had some STEM alumni who are from underrepresented groups in the sciences come and discuss their experiences as undergraduates. For me, it was the students who were willing to share how faculty or peers made "assumptions" about them because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status that reinforced for me that if we don't discuss these issues as a group, we will not reform STEM (or biology) education for all students.

I gave a keynote talk a few years ago about the impact of fear on learning, and used stereotype threat as an example of one source of fear in the classroom. It is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy where students who believe they are less capable because of gender or racial stereotype perform below their potential. The paper Malcolm talks about also described a pretty simple intervention that can help offset stereotype threat. Can't find the reference at the moment but happy to share if anyone wants it. The implications for undergraduate biology are manifold - anyone who starts out believing they are handicapped for ANY reason will perform below their potential, and it is the responsibility (and the power) of the instructor to work to offset this particular source of lowered performance from day 1. It requires primarily an awareness that such a thing exists, and a willingness to be compassionate toward our students' experience. We need to make extra effort to acknowledge that many barriers might exist for student success, but many of these are also based only in perception not reality. 

Teri -

It would be great if you could post that reference to the PULSE website.  I think that many of us would find it useful.

Thanks!  Judy

The ADVANCE project on campus helped us to understand stereotype threat, and we discussed and pondered its implications to faculty advancement.  Also, I've counseled aspiring graduate students who express real fear that the GREs are biased, and this fear dramatically impacts their ability to score well on the test.  Our introductory biology instructors have asked whether the reliance on multiple choice questions in large-enrollment classes disadvantages students from some economic or cultural backgrounds.  Some of our instructors have implemented exercises such as those described by Miyake et al (2010) Science 330, page 1234, but we don't have any data on the impact.

I first encountered the term “stereotype threat” at a meeting of the Biology Education Research Group (BERG) at the University of Washington – Seattle.  It is something that comes up frequently in BERG discussions of papers, STEM education research and teaching & learning.  It has been very useful to have the local BERG community to discuss these issues and examine ways of mitigating them.  The following resources may be helpful:

Tanner, K & Allen, D. 2007. Cultural Competence in the College Biology Classroom. CBE Life Science Education 6(4):251–258. http://www.lifescied.org/content/6/4/251.full.pdf 

Ramirez, G and Beilock, S. 2011. Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science 331:211

Toni Schmader (at UBC) has a list of publications, including many on “stereotype threat” at http://schmader.psych.ubc.ca/publications.html

We encounter the effects of stereotype threat in our community college students.  Two efforts (RISE, http://www.edcc.edu/rise/& MESA, http://www.edcc.edu/mesa/) at Edmonds Community College are working, in part, to address some of these issues.  Relationships in Science Education-RISE (a 5-year NSF-funded project to “increase the number of STEM students graduating and transferring, increase the diversity among STEM majors, graduates, and transfers, and increase the successful progression of STEM majors through gateway STEM courses.” “The MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) program provides support to low-income, educationally disadvantaged students studying science and seeking to transfer to bachelor’s degree programs. The center aims to increase the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities studying science.”

Jenny, thanks for these resources!

Jenny - Thanks so much for sharing these resources!  Judy

There is an interesting physiological model for the mechanism for how stereotype threat reduces cognitive functions by Schmader, Johns and Forbes (Psychology Review, 2008, 336-356). The model posits that stereotype threat disrupts cognitive performance through three mechanisms: physiological stress that impairs pre-frontal processing; greater self-vigilance in monitoring performance, which tends to create yet more stress; and active efforts to control the resulting anxiety and negative thoughts that uses even more executive function resources. The bottom line impact is there are fewer higher level cognitive resources for whatever task is called for in a threat producing situation as a result of the fear of validating the stereotype which lowers performance levels. There is other work that shows that academic stress influences cortisol and other glucocorticoids that activate the HPA axis. 

Thank you,

I believe that is a fruitful direction for the conversation/research (i.e. biological and or evolutionary notions). When I have some more time, If you would like I can send you my reference. As I indicated, I explored the literature for some time. In fact, I attempted to complete a PhD, but ran out of money, so I have a sense of what some of the issues are regarding stereotype threat and academic performance.


I have explored the literature on stereotype threat (ST) for a approximately 8 through 10 years. As a social-psychological phenomenon and or construct, it provides another avenue into ongoing discourse regarding important challenges human beings face. I believe Steele's and Aronson's (1995) seminal work is important to get a sense of context. Likewise, other insights may be obtained with reading later works (Steele's book; I believe "Whistling Vivaldi..." and Aronson et al's work on buffering ST). I also learned a lot of sophisticated statistical arguments, from Nguyen's work, including her dissertation.

The writings and research regarding ST have exploded since the Steele and Aronson's early work. Hence, there is a lot of supporting evidence for various hypotheses that ST is associated with under-performance in a variety of groups (even white males; see Steele's "Whistling Vivaldi;" other researchers have advanced positions of disadvantages in sports among white athletes).

There seems to be an association, either explicitly or implicitly, with "social change" that the stereotype threat literature advances. Some scholars might stay clear or this area, as it eventually wades into potentially academic mine fields that call to mind conversations such as Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" and Birnbaum's "Radical Renewal"

One of the things I have attempted to do, over the years, is to journal some thoughts on a variety of areas in psychology, including stereotype threat. One idea was to write with less censor than is required in empirical-rational oriented writing. Secondly, I hoped to "articulate" a sense of some limitations of stereotype threat hypotheses. The journal-ing is a work in progress. One recognition: Some members of the stereotyped group do not under-perform when exposed to stereotype threat.

I recall some studies have looked at biological processes associated with stereotype threat (e.g. Blascovich et al).

Lastly, I was surprised to see that some of Steele's early investigations were in self-esteem. I have also looked at that phenomenon. While I appreciate scholars such as Baumeister's caution regarding self-esteem, if self-esteem is approached primarily from a global/social (there are some distinctions) versus from an individual/performance (there are distinctions) avenue, we think and feel differently about associated constructs such as stereotype threat.  

I believe an older view, similar to today's multi-modal self-esteem approach, may contribute to our take on self-esteem and stereotype threat. This view was articulated by Rousseau's "love of self" and "self love". As with any other meaningful areas of human life, Rouseau's ideas are no less problematic than current ones. 



Some Refs:

Aronson, J., Cohen, G., McColskey, W., Montrosse, B., Lewis, K., &  Mooney, K. (2009).

Reducing stereotype threat in classrooms: A review of social-psychological intervention

studies on improving the achievement of Black students (Issues & Answers Report, REL

2009–No. 076). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education

Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional

Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.

Blascovich, J., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D., & Steele, C. (2001). African Americans and

high blood Pressure: The role of stereotype threat. Psychological Science, 12(3), 225-229. 

Nguyen, H. D., & Ryan, A. M. (2008). Does stereotype threat affect test performance of

minorities and             women? A meta-analysis s of experimental evidence. Journal of Applied

Psychology, 93, 1314-1334. DOI: 10.1037/a0012702

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995).  Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of

African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New

York: W. W. Norton & Company.

I wonder if any of you have thought about this concept with respect to the faculty ... is there, for example, stereotype threat against those faculty who elect to make undergraduate education a priority?



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