Drawing from the Research to Teach in the Pandemic: Pt 1: Stereotype Threat

My mind is swirling with ideas, so I’m going to capture them here when I can. The write-ups won’t be pretty, but I need to get the ideas down somewhere, quickly, so they don’t take too much time away from my colleagues, my friends, my cat, my workouts, my quiet timeRead them with a generous heart.

We all know we’re teaching under extra-ordinary circumstances. The emergency shift to remote teaching has destabilized students and faculty alike. Faculty are doing their best to adapt, drawing on what they know about good teaching. (See “What the Research Tells Us about Higher Education’s Temporary Shift to Remote Teaching: What the Public Needs to Know, from the SoTL Community.“) Students are doing their best to finish the semester, and not lose hope about their future. Many are also suddenly teaching their own children subjects that they haven’t thought about in years. Most are trying to stay informed, as each day brings something new related to the pandemic. Everyone is caring for and concerned about their family, whether under the same roof or at a distance. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and well.

The above doesn’t do justice to the weight we all carry right now. Another way of thinking about this “weight we all carry right now” is our cognitive load. Put very simply, the idea of cognitive load is that there’s a limit to how much we can think about or process at once. We’re guided by this principle in, for instance, using instructional technology: we want students’ energy to be focused on the subject matter, not how to work the technology. Overly complicated technology will divert some of their cognitive load, limiting what they can devote to what we want them to learn. So we ideally choose technologies that most simply support the learning goals, rather than become or even overwhelm the learning goals.

Cognitive load is also at play in the phenomenon of stereotype threat, “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype” (Steele, 1999). Also put very simply — learn more here, here, or herethis fear of confirming a stereotype of “not being good at” math or science or college steals some cognitive load during high-stakes activities:

“[I]t is a serious intimidation, implying as it does that they may not belong in walks of life where the tested abilities are important—walks of life in which they are heavily invested. Like many pressures, it may not be experienced in a fully conscious way, but it may impair their best thinking.” (emphasis added; Steele, 1999)

The research on how to mitigate stereotype threat is rich, all looking for ways to help students think about the task at hand and “buffer them from” the weight of low expectations and other harmful thoughts (Borman, 2017).

Follow me now. What if we looked to some of the successful strategies for minimizing the load of stereotype threat in order to minimize the current load of the pandemic? This is an extrapolation that may be a bridge too far for some, but we’re all just trying to do our best right now to help in these unprecedented circumstances. This might help.

So what are the successful strategies for mitigating stereotype threat? There are quite a few that don’t seem relevant right now (see here, here, here, and here.) The most relevant and easiest to implement is the values-affirmation exercise described in multiple studies (see here, here, and here). In this brief writing activity, students “selected their most important values from a list (such as relationships with friends and family or learning or gaining knowledge) and, in response to structured prompts, wrote about why these values were important to them” (Miyake, et al., 2010, p. 1235-36). In this particular study, students wrote for 15 minutes as a homework assignment before the midterm exam. In others, students write for just 5 minutes right before an exam. (See below for the specific prompt.) In short, the performance improved for students most affected by stereotype threat. I’m getting too far into the weeds, so let me pan out to what’s pertinent here.

The thought processes during high-stakes activities is complex, only some of which are conscious, so there’s a variety of explanations for why this brief writing exercise serves as a “buffer” from some of the distractions and doubts. One is about where a student’s mind is focused at the time. Cognitive load. Working memory. Processing ability. Preventing something that may “impair their best thinking,” as Steele wrote.

So maybe — just maybe — asking students to do a values-affirmation exercise before an exam this semester will serve as a buffer and briefly lift a little of the weight they’re carrying right now.


Here’s an example of the prompt you can give directly to students:

Image source: Pixabay, no attribution required