Research conducted many years ago by Claude Steele at Stanford University, and later confirmed by Professor Steele and other researchers, has shown that black students perform poorly on standardized tests because they fear mistakes will confirm negative stereotypes about their group. When efforts to alleviate these concerns are made, black students’ scores improve.
A new study at Stanford has shown that this “stereotype threat” can also hinder black students in learning new material. In an experiment, groups of black and white students were asked to study the meanings of 24 obscure words. One group was placed in a threatening environment by being told that they were participating in an experiment to see “how well people from different backgrounds learn.” Another group was simply told the researchers were examining different learning styles and there was no hint of any racial undertones.
One to two weeks later, the students were quizzed informally about the words they had studied. The results showed that black students who were initially in the group that was told racial differences were being examined, scored 50 percent lower than black students who had studied in the nonthreatening environment. But when an actual test was administered, the stereotype threat kicked in and both groups of black students performed poorly.
The lead author of the study is Valerie Jones Taylor who was a graduate student at Stanford and now is conducting postdoctoral research at Princeton. The paper was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.