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Confronting Stereotypes in the Classroom: Part 2

By Kayla Burrow, Communications Specialist, AVID Center

Stereotype threat is real; it is here.  In our previous blog, we showed how it affects performance.  Now, we will look at ways you can reduce the threat.  The impact of our identities varies depending on the contexts we are in, so we must do what we can to change those contexts.  In Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Steele outlines many solid, simple ways of reducing stereotype threat in academic settings, and many of them can be found in our best AVID strategies.   Along with great instruction from teachers, the following steps can be taken to reduce stereotype threat and the achievement gap: 


  • Remind test takers of identities that counter the relevant stereotype. [Researchers] dramatically reduced stereotype threat’s impairment of women’s math performance by reminding them, just before the test, of positive women role models” (94).  The AVID Elective classroom is a great forum for inspiring guest speakers, tutors, and previous AVID students to be held up as role models.  By introducing our students to new exemplars right in our classroom through guest speakers or analyzing the writings of such role models through our critical reading strategies, we can help remind students that there are many people who disprove the stereotypes that affect them. 


  • Encourage students to work and study in groups.  Dr. Uri Treisman had his African American students start groups that spent at least six hours a week together outside of class, studying or discussing calculus, and it worked.  Those students began to outperform their white and Asian classmates.  In AVID, we have weekly tutorials that allow our students to find the help they need and know that they are not alone in their struggles in those tough AP classes.  We are also modeling highly effective study group habits, so that our students know how to do the same in college.


  • When giving feedback, explain that it is based on high standards and that you believe the student can reach those standards.  This type of feedback is perceived as more genuine and elicits better results than feedback that is neutral or prefaced with a positive comment.  High standards-based feedback shows students that they are not being seen in terms of a negative stereotype.  In AVID, students are held to high standards and expectations, and AVID site team members are there to remind them that they are in AVID for a reason and that we believe in them. 


  • Help students develop a narrative about their setting that explains their frustrations and helps them envision success.  Treisman found that his African American students who had isolated themselves from other classmates did not realize that there were others who were facing the same problems.  These students had developed a “vigilance-to-threat narrative” instead of a narrative of belonging (166).  They felt defeated and worried about confirming a negative stereotype.  By allowing people to hear stories from both students like them and students from different cultural backgrounds, it makes them less likely to take their troubles so personally.  They will be more likely to reach out for help and believe that their problems are normal and solvable.  


  • Encourage more intergroup relationships and discussions, so that minority students feel more comfortable.  Grades go up when students feel that they belong to the larger group.  The AVID Family is one of the most important parts of the AVID classroom.  Through team-building exercises and community service projects, the AVID students begin to feel that they are a part of something bigger.  AVID Family is truly powerful.    


  • Allow time for self-affirmation.  In one study, students were asked to write down their two or three most important values and then explain why these were important.  The minority students who wrote for this assignment were able to reduce the achievement gap, while students who were asked to write about another topic showed no change in grades, and their achievement gap continued to widen.  Researchers theorize that developing this self-affirming narrative reduces the power of stereotype threat and negative stereotypes in general.  Here the AVID teacher can make great use of that W in WICOR! 


  • Mentors should stress the “expandability of intelligence.”  In one study, college students worked closely with low-income minority students at a junior high in Texas.  Half of the mentors focused on drug abuse prevention as part of the mentorship, while the other half focused on how the brain works, how neural connections are created as we learn.  When students took their standardized tests at the end of the year, the students who had been taught about the expandability of intelligence performed significantly better than the group that had only been told about drug abuse prevention, and the gender gap on the math portion of the exam was completely erased for the girls whose mentors had discussed the expandability of intelligence with them.  Our AVID tutors, teachers, and site team members must continue to stress the idea that intelligence is malleable; this can be incorporated into our AVID classroom very easily.


  • Present tough conversations about controversial topics as learning opportunities to encourage students who have different social identities to feel comfortable having in-depth discussions.  Taking on a learning goal for the situation dissipates the concerns over seeming prejudiced.  “With a learning goal, mistakes become just mistakes, not signs of immutable racism” (208).  The only way to actually quell the root causes of many stereotype threats will be through critical thinking and thoughtful, open discussion.  Our Socratic seminars and philosophical chair debates in the AVID classroom are the perfect opportunities for such open and thoughtful discussions.


AVID remains true to its mission of closing the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.  We are our students’ champions – we know them, love them, and we can truly change their lives.  I encourage all AVID teachers and site team members to keep up their good work and to be proud of it.  You are planting seeds that will change your students’ world.  You are difference makers! 

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