Constant stress hurts learning. Especially when it’s stress from the fear that your actions could confirm a stereotype about your race, class or gender.
Think, for example, about a black student sitting in a mostly white physics class, whose teacher seems surprised when he answers a difficult question correctly. The student may then fear that the teacher or other students consider black students less capable — and that any mistake he makes could confirm that stereotype.
Or the Asian student who fears that answering too many math questions correctly would pigeonhole her into a stereotype. Or the female student who’s scared to make a mistake in a science lab full of men. You get the picture.
Stereotype threat — the fear that one’s actions could confirm a negative stereotype — takes up mental energy that could otherwise be devoted to learning. So it’s a no-brainer that removing stereotype threat, and the associated stress, might improve school performance.
Well, it turns out, it does. But not just for the students who feel it most.
Shielding vulnerable students from stereotype threat actually improves grades for all students in a classroom. That’s the major takeaway from a recent study published by Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers.
Researchers sought to counter deep-rooted stereotypes by affirming each students’ best qualities.
In the study, 7th graders from middle- to lower-middle-class families at a suburban northeastern middle school wrote for 15 minutes about their most important values, such as friendships or artistic ability.
Researchers found that black students who were randomly assigned the writing exercise had better grades and felt less stereotype threat. And the effects spread.
“The intervention triggered not only a change in individuals, but also through this, a change in group atmosphere … one with benefits for all students regardless of whether they received the intervention,” the authors wrote.
Researchers found that the more black students who participated in the writing exercise, the higher the overall grades for the class.
For every two black students, the classroom environment improved enough that low-performing students’ grades increased, on average, by a third of a letter grade. Regardless of their race, low-performing students saw their grades increase, on average, from a C to a C+.
“Results suggest that the benefits of psychological intervention do not end with the individual,” the authors wrote. “Changed individuals can improve their social environments, and such improvements can benefit others regardless of whether they participated in the intervention.”
The researchers concluded that shielding more students from stereotype threat may have led to stronger norms of cooperation, order and growth that benefited all students. And their grades reflected it.
“The effect of a tossed stone does not cease upon its impact with a pond,” the authors said. “The ripples it generates can create changes of their own.”