Overcoming stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety when you could potentially confirm a negative stereotype about your social group e.g. women are inferior to men at maths, black people are less intelligent than white people. Steele (1997) found that negative stereotypes can negatively impact a person’s ability on specific tests (if they belong to the negatively stereotyped group) as they become worried about fulfilling the stereotype and this anxiety impinges their score. But how can this effect be overcome? There have been a variety of methods which have sought to negate this effect, and I will detail some of them here (successful intervention techniques underlined).

Ambady et al. (2004) either primed the participants gender before they answered a set of questions in the study (by flashing words that were linked to being female e.g. “aunt”, “girl”) or primed them with neutral stimuli. They were then asked to either individuate themselves by listing positive and negative aspects of themselves and provide examples of these personality traits manifesting themselves or answer comparably formatted questions about lions. They found that the gender primed individuated participants performed as well as the non gender primed participants and better than the gender primed non-individuated participants.

Schmiel et al. (2004) made students focus on their (self-rated) most important characteristics  e.g. being a musician, athlete etc. They were then exposed to the different conditions. In the intrinsic self-affirmation condition, the participants were asked to say why those aspects of their nature made them feel good regardless of socially imposed standards and performance contingencies e.g. “Being a         makes me feel           “. Participants in the extrinsic self-esteem condition were made to think about the contingent nature of their most-valued features (the worth of those traits being dependent on other people’s judgement) e.g. “When I am a successful         I receive        “. They found that female participants who affirmed the intrinsic worth of their characteristics performed better than extrinsic self-esteem condition females on a mathematical problem solving task.

Martens et al. (2006) found that female participants who affirmed a valued attribute (by describing how these characteristics were personally important and an instance when they had displayed this trait) performed better than female participants who had not (though the sample of this study was very small).

Good et al. (2008) presented final year calculus students (at a prestigious university) a standardised maths test which was preceded by a paragraph that either emphasised this tests’ ability to measure maths proficiency (stereotype threat condition) or one that highlighted that there were no gender differences in score for this test (non-threat condition). They found that female participants in the non-threat condition scored higher than stereotype threat females (they had higher accuracy and answered more questions) and males in both conditions. They found that removing the gender bias before starting a maths test reduced stereotype threat in female participants (though this analysis was only found for Anglo-American participants).

McGlone & Aronson (2006) administering a spatial reasoning test to male and female college students. Prior to this, the researchers presented the participants with one of 3 questionnaires: one that primed gender (by asking questions that made them think about their gender), another that primed the fact they were at a private school (by asking them questions to do with the fact they had earned admittance to a private school), and the third primed the fact they were residents of the Northeastern United States (control group). They found that the the female students who had been primed with the idea they had earned their place at a private school (their “achieved” identities were made salient) performed better than those whose gender had been primed (though this effect wasn’t very large).

Ambady, N.; Paik, S.K.; Steele, J.; Owen-Smith, A. & Mitchell, J.P. (2003). Deflecting negative self-relevant stereotype activation: The effects of individuation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 401-408.
Good, C.; Aronson, J. & Harder, J.A. (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women’s achievement in high-level maths courses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29 (1), 17-29.
Martens, A.; Johns, M.; Greenberg, J. & Schimel, J. (2006). Combating stereotype threat: The effect of self-affirmation on women’s intellectual performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42 (2), 236-243.
McGlone, M.S. & Aronson, J. (2006). Stereotype threat, identity salience, and spatial reasoning. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27 (5), 486-493.
Schmiel, J.; Arndt, J.; Banko, K.M. & Cook, A. (2004). Not all self-affirmations were created equal: The cognitive and social benefits of affirming the intrinsic (versus extrinsic) self. Social Cognition, 22 (1), 75-99.
Steele, C.M. (1997). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist, 52 (6), 613-629. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

Learning styles

The idea of learning styles is that people have a preference for which mode information is presented in and that they learn better when the information is presented in this modality. There have been a huge number of different types but I’m going to focus on VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) as it’s the most well-known. This idea intuitively makes sense; people will learn something better if it’s presented in the mode that they are most comfortable/ they find the easiest to learn.

The idea that some students learn better than others is not controversial but that’s to do with their ability (how good they are at doing something e.g. remembering facts or navigating through a space) among other things. But the idea of learning styles relates to how they process this information (which in turn affects their ability to recall it/ understand it). Now it’s true that students display a preference for information to be presented in a certain modality, but do they actually learn better when the presentation of the information matches their preferred learning style or not? Kraemer; Rosenberg & Thompson-Schill (2009) found no evidence to support this idea.

There have also been two large-scale reviews of learning styles (Coffield; Moseley; Hall; Ecclestone, 2004 and Pasher; McDaniel; Rohrer & Bjork, 2008) and they found no evidence to support learning styles (and that it may even exacerbate issues in education as it can further segregate learners by dividing them along non-existent lines). In a recent Nature article (2015) it was classed as one of the “science myths that will not die”. Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi (2015) discuss how there is a paucity of scientific support for learning styles, as do Rohrer & Pashler (2012). It may even make the situation worse if a student chooses a learning style that is unproductive (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). The previous paper is an excellent overview of education urban legends and I recommend reading it.

Unfortunately, it appears to be relatively prevalent in all education including Higher Education (Newton, 2015) and 93% of participants in one study agreed that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” (Dekker et al., 2012).

Now I’m not saying that teachers should present all their information in the same way (e.g. just reading to them) as this may get boring and you need to differentiate between learners and help them accordingly. But there is no evidence for the idea that people learn information better if it matches their preferred modality regardless of what the information actually is, so to devote time to it is to waste time that could be spent doing better things. This also isn’t to say that they definitely do not exist, but rather that the evidence for it isn’t strong enough to justify belief in it.


Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning Skills and Research Centre. 1-173.

Dekker, S.; Lee, N.C.; Howard-Jones, P. & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429.

Kirschner, P.A. & J.J.G. van Merriënboer. (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.  Educational Psychologist, 48 (3), 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Kraemer, D.J.M.; Rosenberg, L.M. & Thompson-Schill, S.L. (2009). The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles. Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (12), 3792-3798.
Newton, P.M. (2015). The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 15 (6), 1908.

Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105-119

Reiner, C. & Willingham, D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retried from URL: http://www.changemag.org/archives/back%20issues/september-october%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46 (7), 634-635.

Scudellari, M. (2015). The science myths that will not die. Nature, 528, 322-325.

Willingham, D.; Hughes, E.M.; & Dobolyi, D.G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3), 266-271.