Study finds stereotyping affects minority learning

July 21, 2011, 2:02 a.m.

Negative stereotypes in classrooms or other learning environments can lower performance as well as the ability to learn and retain new information, a recent Stanford study found.

According to co-authors Valerie Taylor Ph.D. ’09 and Gregory Walton, assistant psychology professor, the threat posed by stereotypes, or “stereotype threat,” has a measurable impact on many students.

“It [stereotype threat] doesn’t only affect how much that they can learn–it will necessarily affect how well they perform on a task with that material,” Taylor said. “If we could help them to improve these issues in the learning environment and pull down their barriers that may be aborting their ability to learn…then we surely can improve their performance over time.”

The study focused on African-American students affected by negative stereotypes and consisted of two separate experiments that tested students in “threatening” and “non-threatening” environments. An environment is “threatening” if it fosters the negative stereotype in any way.

The first study asked groups of African-American and Caucasian students to study “novel or rare words” in either a threatening situation or a non-threatening situation. The students were called back around a week later to test how well they retained the information in a warm-up and a test.

According to Walton, the stereotype threats lay in the instructions of the study sessions, warm-ups and tests.

“In the first session, we randomly assigned [whether the subjects were] told this task was about evaluating people–learning ability–how well they learn and acquire new academic material,” Walton said. “This is instruction that makes it relevant to negative stereotypes.”

“[In the other condition] we talked about how people have different styles of learning and some people learn one way and some people a different way,” Walton added, asserting that this eliminates the threat of any stereotype from the situation. “It’s not evaluative; we’re not evaluating people.”

According to Walton, the students that performed best in the later session were the African-American students who had studied in the non-threatening condition on the warm-up.

“When the stereotypes are off the table both in the learning environment and the performing environment, black students did very well; and when black students had to both contend with the stereotype when they learned the words and when they had to recall the words, they were the worst performing group overall,” Walton said.

The second part of the experiment tested a solution to the stereotype threat: self-affirmation, or asking students to write values that are important to them before taking the test. Taylor said that self-affirmation increased performance by nearly 40 percent.

Taylor also explained that there were many other ways to lessen the effects of stereotype threat on students, citing having role models that belong to a stereotyped group and promoting the mindset that intelligence is malleable.

Although the study focused mainly on African-American students, stereotype threat affects many different groups, according to Taylor. She cited women in the fields of math and science and minority groups as two other demographics exposed to stereotypes.

Both Taylor and Walton highlighted room for future research. Taylor said that finding other factors that cause under-performance and “employing interventions in classrooms with younger students” are the things she would like to pursue. Walton talked about applying solutions in the real world to see if these solutions will decrease the problems of stereotype threat.

“It’s a relatively solvable problem,” he said.

Taylor emphasized that stereotype threat could be canceled out in a student’s environment.

“I think it can be applied in actual school settings for students, and I think that if it’s applied properly, it could decrease the achievement gap that we see between different groups of students,” she said.

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