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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whistling Vivaldi - should community college teachers care about stereotype threat?

Is stereotype threat just one more thing to worry about, or is it just one more thing to not worry about in the community college classroom?

Claude Steele defines stereotype threat as the pressure one experiences in a challenging academic setting as a member of a group - woman, black, Asian, old, etc. - because one's performance could confirm a bad view of that group and of oneself, as a member of that group. (p. 59)


For example, a woman in an advanced college math class knows that she could be seen as limited because, stereotypically, men are perceived as being better at math than women. So, her performance in that math class puts that extra pressure on her: she is not only performing to achieve her own goals, but also to proof or disproof something about the whole of women studying math.

Makes sense? Can you relate?
But let's see where that takes us.

Steele set up experiments where the subjects were reminded of their group membership before a difficult task; for the woman in the advanced math class, it could be something as trivial as seeing a picture of a woman holding a child. Steele showed over and over, across many group membership possibilities, that subjects showed depressed performance under those circumstances.

Now for the good news.

If the woman was given the same math test, but the test was presented as gender neutral - for example, by reading a statement that this test previously showed equal success by men and women alike, or maybe even that women showed to be especially successful on this test - the subject demonstrated a statistically significant increase in performance on the math test.

How can I apply this in my community college classroom?

Depending on the specific group membership I am concerned about, I could make a statement that, in previous semesters, students did equally well on this test.

What will it take for me to do this? To be more aware of stereotypes and how they might show up in my classes. By paying attention and giving consideration to stereotype threat, I might be able to get one step closer to leveling the academic success 'playing field.'

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