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Claude Steele explains stereotype threat

In light of DIAP, Claude Steele discusses risk of lower performance from perceived stereotypes

Claude Steele, professor of psychology and former executive vice chancellor and provost at University of California at Berkeley, spoke Wednesday evening in Salomon about the dangers stereotypes pose in a diverse learning environment.

Hosted as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan lecture series, the lecture, titled “Stereotype Threat: The Science of a Diverse Community,” addressed the power of biases to negatively affect academic performance. Steele defined the phenomenon of stereotype threat as “being in a situation or doing something to which a negative stereotype about (an) identity is relevant.”

When members of a minority group are exposed to stereotype threat, they will often achieve at a lower level than their non-minority counterparts in spite of the same initial level of preparation. Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and African-American students are two examples of groups that frequently encounter stereotype threat, Steele said.

When a student faces stereotype threat, the anxiety created by that negative assumption increases cognitive stress, Steele said. As a task or exam becomes more difficult, a student wastes time and energy by focusing on the implications of the stereotype, he added. Steele addressed multiple studies that prove that stereotype threat is one primary reason for underperformance of minority groups in academic settings.

Steele proposed multiple solutions to the lower achievement caused by stereotype threat. Communities can help individual students cope with the stressor by reminding students that everyone faces challenges solving difficult problems, irrespective of stereotypes, he said. Additionally, saturating the environment with cues that show interest in diversity and highlighting role models with minority identities who have achieved success can make scenarios less threatening.

In order to avoid conflict and accusations of racism, non-minority students generally disengage from conversations about identity, he added. Approaching those conversations as a learning opportunity and asking questions rather than stating opinions can decrease tension and encourage students to engage.

“I hope to give people the language … to talk about things that are otherwise difficult to talk about. I want to help a community come together,” Steele said. “I admire the commitment of Brown to have (diversity) be a chief value of the community,” Steele said.

Steele was chosen to speak due to demonstrated interest in stereotype threat during the development of Departmental Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans, said Liza Cariaga-Lo, vice president for academic development, diversity and inclusion. “As an academic administrative leader, (Steele) could speak to the work that we’ve been doing related to diversity and inclusion at Brown,” she said.

“Faculty (members) and advisors … can use the knowledge of stereotype threat to create a learning environment that addresses it,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. Conversations on Steele’s work can help faculty members introduce more inclusive methods in education, she added. “The more you know, the more you’re able to address issues when they arise,” Mandel said.

“Our goal is to bring the thought leaders and provide the sort of larger context in how this research should be informing the work that we do on the ground in terms of professional development,” Cariaga-Lo said. She hopes that faculty members can incorporate the solutions Steele discussed into their curricular development.

“I found the lecture very positive and forward looking,” said Hannah Duron ’17. “I found it very interesting that when you tell people about stereotype threat, they do better.”


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