Stereotype Threat and Teaching

I missed this a few days ago, but UMich psychology professor Richard Nisbett had an Op-Ed in the NY Times last week on current research about the achievement gap “stereotype threat,” or the idea that the momentary idea about “how someone like me” is meant to perform can affect actual performance.  

Picture two students of equal intelligence (IQ, whatever).  On a test of 100 questions, they both are sure of their answers on 65 of the questions.  They will both have to do some degree of guessing on the 35 that remain.  The quality of those guesses determines whether they pass or fail the test.  Now, if Student A (perhaps upper middle class, white, and a male, given it’s a math test) assumes that 1) most people have to do some guessing to pass and 2) most people like him or her pass, then it follows that Student A will assume that he will make many correct guesses.  That confidence translates into better answers.  Student B (maybe an African American student in a low-performing school, or a female on a math test) assumes that most people like him or her don’t pass the test, so he or she will make worse guesses.  The framing means everything.  WNYC’s awesome RadioLab had a short piece that presents a sports psychology experiment where African American and white students completed identical golfing tasks.  One group was told it was a “sports intelligence” test, while the other group was told it was a “sports performance” test.  The former group showed the white golfers far outperforming the African American golfers.  The latter group showed the opposite. 

While this has been a focus of study for a while, a surprising bit of research conducted last year has been getting headlines with the term, “The Obama Effect.”  The researcher performed what are essentially IQ tests on a large group of people (diverse in age, race, class, and education) early in last year’s campaign, after Obama won the Democratic nomination, and after the general election in November.  The black-white achievement gap was significant in the first test, smaller in the second, and non-existant in the third.  While this experiment isn’t replicable, it makes the case that the mere thought of the idea that an African American could outperform the expectations of society translated into significant and immediate improvements in performance.

If this new research bears itself out, this becomes both encouraging and terrifying.  It would show that the achievement gap is not the intractable, impossibly complex problem that it has seemed over the past several decades.  If the achievement gap essentially *disappears* under the right conditions, then the gap could become a relic in a short period of time with the right training.  At the same time, the way a teacher explains the instructions on an exam or arranges the seats in a classroom can have an enormous effect on the achievement of the students.

For those of you teaching with us this summer, take this as a calling and as a caution.  Leave all of your concepts of “at risk youth” or a “struggling underclass” in your ed theory classes.  Our goal is not that our students “maybe do a bit better next year” or simply think that “learning is fun.”  Our kids hope to reach a very high bar, and they’re bright enough to do it, but they need you to believe it first.

Education Is All in Your Mind – Richard Nisbett (NYTimes)

The Obama Effect, Perhaps – RadioLab (WNYC)
(note: the second part of the podcast includes an unrelated discussion about the use of a potentially offensive or derrogatory term.  If you are offended by bad words, stop listening after the Obama Effect section and don’t blame us.)


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