Pre-Gaming the Game of Assessments: Helping Students Conquer Stereotype Threat
Updated: Oct 16
In doing reading and research over the past 15 years and then more specifically for my book, The Gender Equation in Schools, it's almost impossible to read anything regarding the impact of gender bias and students without being barraged with footnotes, citations and the scholarship of Claude Steele.
As one of the most important social scientists of the late 20th/early 21st century, Steele coined the important term and concept, stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is, simply put, the deleterious impact that negative stereotypes have on people who care and are concerned about their success in areas aligned with those stereotypes. This may have to do with racial, ethnic, or cultural biases. And, the more a person cares, the more a person shoots for success in a certain field, the greater the impact of the threat. Steele's initial research into this phenomenon focused on the issue of gender. (I highly recommend his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do for an excellent primer on this issue.)
Steele and his associates discovered that women who saw themselves as competent in the areas of math and science were likely to underperform under conditions where the false and pernicious stereotype of men being innately good at math and women being innately bad was being reinforced. All that was needed was a simple suggestion or the feeling of isolation, of being a minority within a learning environment. These research results have been repeated in multiple studies over time and across cultures in which this bias persists. When the conditions of this stereotype threat are alleviated, women perform equally to men. Research also indicated that students as young as 5 and 6 years old are susceptible to the impact of stereotype threat.
So what can teachers do to alleviate these threats, particularly during exams and tests where students feel under the most pressure to perform? It's by doing what I call, pre-gaming assessments. This technique is simply executed by reinforcing with students, before testing, that assessments are not a measurement of intellectual ability but are simply a way for teachers to measure growth and support students' ability to advance academically. This message also critically reinforces that teachers believe in students' ability to learn and want to support their efforts to feel successful. This teacher communication to students needs to happen regularly throughout the school year. What seems almost ridiculously simple as a method of eliminating stereotype threat, not just for gender bias but also race and ethnicity, is a well documented and researched phenomenon.
Teachers all want their students to feel successful and that no unnecessary barriers or stumbling blocks are placed before them. Unfortunately, teachers find themselves combating larger social and cultural realities that walk into classrooms with their students, often uninvited. Pre-gaming assessments is another tool a teacher can rely on in their toolkit to alleviate and mitigate these unwanted influences, clearing the path for a more positive learning experience for students.