This is hard! Stereotype Threat Part 2

In a previous TABS blog, Stereotype Threat & the Unique Advantage of Community, I discussed an in-depth conversation I had with Andrew Watson of TranslateTheBrain, about Stereotype Threat and the problems it causes for Working Memory. One of the primary strategies to diffuse Stereotype Threat or null its consequences, is to Normalize Struggle. But it’s not a crazy thing to wonder, does telling students that something is hard, make it harder?

In a second conversation, Andrew assured me that research says No. The way we learn things is by taking on a challenge, struggling with it and succeeding. Self-esteem is built when success is achieved against a challenge. Just like if you lift at the gym, you increase the weight and your muscles get stronger. Andrew elucidated a number of additional ways that boarding schools can use the tool of Normalizing Struggle to dissolve Stereotype Threat.

But first a quick review. Stereotype Threat “ST” is underperformance caused by a person – let’s say, a student – perceiving that a stereotype is directed against him or her. Andrew had explained that Working Memory – a sort of mental scratch pad our mind uses when incorporating new information – employs the same visual and auditory channels used by negative self-talk caused by ST. When ST comes on the scene, the negative self-talk grabs some of the cognitive channels away from Working Memory and leaves the student with an impaired capacity to learn new things.

When struggle is perceived as normal for everybody, the student does not attribute struggle to Stereotype Threat and the cycle of ST just doesn’t get started. The difficulty or challenge is “handled” in the brain – “this is hard for everyone, this is normal.” Working Memory doesn’t get highjacked by negative self-talk about Stereotype Threat because “difference” is a non-issue. We find that Normalizing Struggle can diffuse the consequences of Stereotype Threat and we don’t even have to know what particular stereotype might be perceived by the student.

Andrew suggested that a discussion about how to use the tool of Normalizing Struggle might be a great topic for a department meeting. For example, if the English department is teaching The Great Gatsby, teachers might mention, “If you are confused by the timeline, that’s normal. Everyone gets confused. Don’t worry about it.” Andrew explained that the key in singling out a particular thing as hard or challenging, is that the difficult task needs to be a plausible target that the kids can latch onto in their own experience. Hence, being specific about the timeline.

He expanded on this strategy, using the example of the French “R” which is generally very difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. Most educators are now familiar with the strategy of Wise Feedback, embodied in the phrase: “I have high standards. I’m confident you can succeed and I am going to help you do that.” Andrew applied the concept to the beginning of the lesson, modeling the phrase, “Pronouncing the R is hard for naive English speakers. Don’t worry about it. Here’s an R heavy poem so you can practice and get it!” Here, he identifies a specific challenge, frames that challenge as helpful and provides a bridge to advancement. Isn’t that just what boarding schools do!

Andrew applied this strategy to how we talk about one of the most dreaded student challenges – tests. One way to introduce an exam is to say, “Let’s see who knows this stuff and who doesn’t.” This is a way of sorting – and branding. An alternative introduction could go, “This test is going to be hard because the way you learn things is by taking on new challenges and struggling through them.” A study by Adam L. Atler et al. shows that these statements did not make a difference for students not under Stereotype Threat, but for students under Stereotype Threat, the second statement improved performance.

Grading does sort, but there is a choice about what kind of meaning can be assigned to the sorting. Andrew advocated the Growth Mindset model, framing the comment, “This is the work you did this time. This is the grade on this test. It’s not a brand.” The idea of branding is more consequential for students under Stereotype Threat because a stereotype is a kind of brand. It lives within a Fixed Mindset, as in – “You are this kind of person. You are a B student. End of story.” The Growth Mindset provides a paradigm in which the student can improve grades or get out from under a stereotype, by taking action.


But interestingly, we can use the mechanics of a Fixed Mindset to help a stereotyped group. On the flip side of the same coin, studies have shown that positive associations applied to a stereotype threatened group can improve that group’s performance on tests. Rusty B. McIntyre et al. ran an experiment in which “college women performed significantly better on a difficult mathematics test when they first read about four individual women who had succeeded in architecture, law, medicine, and invention.” Similarly, a study observing French seventh graders taking the French SAT showed that when girls did math first, their math fell and their verbal fell. When the girls did the verbal first, they did well on verbal and that carried on into math.

Andrew noted that a teacher doesn’t have to design a different test structure or positive association for each stereotype threatened group. He suggested that providing tests with multiple starting points can allow students to self-direct, whereby they do the parts they like first and this instills confidence for the rest.

Andrew added that in helping students in the transition to boarding school, not only is it is useful to tell new students that adjusting to boarding school is difficult for everyone, but to add that it is difficult for everyone – for their own reasons. The addition normalizes each student’s personal challenge without us having to know what all those challenges are. This strategy can be especially useful for helping international students who may have more challenges adjusting to boarding school, because of cultural variety. Again, we see the tool of Normalizing Struggle provides a pathway for all students to work through a challenge unhindered, to grow and become stronger.

Alter, Adam L., Aronson, Joshua, Darley, John M., Rodriguez, Cordaro, Ruble, Diane N. “Rising to the threat: Reducing stereotype threat by reframing the threat as a challenge” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) pp. 166–171

McIntyre, Rusty B., Paulson, Rene M., Lord, Charles G., Alleviating women’s mathematics stereotype threat through salience of group achievements Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 1 January 2003, Pages 83–90

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