Author: Liam Greenslade, Project Officer – Canterbury Christ Church University

Any educational intervention that seeks to address comparative disadvantage across lines such as ethnicity, gender, and/or socio-economic position faces a number of significant issues.  Amongst the most notable of these are:

1. Sensitising participants to the existence of a disadvantage of which they may not have already been aware which may affect their subsequent performance negatively rather than in the hoped for, positive, direction;

2. Creating tensions amongst the relatively advantaged and disadvantaged groups in the same cohort which affect relationships within the learning environment negatively;

3. Fostering a ‘deficit model’ of the disadvantaged groups that re-presents them as the bearers of a stigma or problem which somehow has to be ‘fixed’.

In addition, when we begin to discuss the issues surrounding stereotyping and prejudice another difficulty emerges. As Emerson and Murphy (2014, p.3) put it

When situational cues make stereotypes salient—or bring stereotypes to mind—minorities may become concerned about being viewed through the lens of those stereotypes by their peers and supervisors.

The subsequent effect of situational cues on performance may be highly unpredictable, motivating some students, demotivating others, or fostering a sense of ‘not belonging’ to the wider group (Lewis & Sekaquaptewa, 2016).

In the context of the Changing Mindsets intervention at Canterbury these issues have cropped up frequently and most commonly they have been raised by colleagues during discussions around their participation in the project. Of the three principle components of the project, growth mindsets, implicit bias, and stereotype threat, it is the last of these that has provoked the most critical commentary.

These responses came as something of surprise since of all the project components stereotype threat is perhaps the most established, robust, and well supported by a significant amount of research and citation (e.g. Nguyen & Ryan, 2008). Also, on the basis of the published research, it would also seem to be the most straightforward to apply to practical situations and is both effective and cost effective in ameliorating one of the worst effects of structural disadvantage.

However, there are a number of issues surrounding stereotype threat  that need to be understood. First it is often misinterpreted as a ‘between-groups’ phenomenon.  In fact, the original study by Steele and Aronson (1995) does not show a closing of the gap between their White and African-American participants, it shows a difference occurring within the African American group from condition to condition (Sackett, Hardison, & Cullen 2004).  Since the problem being addressed by the Changing Mindsets project is precisely one of reducing between group-differences, this confusion is not merely a methodological quibble.

In this context, misunderstanding or failing to recognise the significance of within-groups and between-groups interpretations may introduce both an unpredictable stereotype salience effect on students’ behaviour and expectations and open the door to the perception that there is a deficit characteristic of the disadvantaged group which needs compensatory action on the part of the teacher. Explicitly or implicitly communicating this to student can prime the stereotype threat and lead paradoxically to a number of self-handicapping tactics to preserve a sense of self-worth in the face of the challenge it presents (Spencer et al, 2016). In one study, for example, merely asking students about their race before a test produced a detrimental effect on performance. As its authors note (Steele & Aronson, 1995, cited in Davies et al 2005 p. 277).

What this experiment shows is that mere cognitive availability of the racial stereotype is enough to depress Black participants’ intellectual performance, and that this is so even when the test is presented as not diagnostic of intelligence.

So, how do we go about ameliorating the worst effects of stereotype threat without creating a situation in which it becomes focal and leads to self-handicapping and performance decline? One idea, which was originated by Steel and Aronson (1995) has started to come to the fore in recent years: the concept of ‘identity safety’ (e.g. Davies et al, 2005; Walton et al, 2014).

Rather than focus on negative consequences of stereotype threat, identity safety concentrates positively on creating an inclusive learning environment which accentuates the positive aspects of diversity, valorises the experience of learners and what they bring to the university, and challenges stereotyping and discrimination (Davies et al, 2005, Steele & Cohn-Vargas, 2013).

A number of techniques exist for accomplishing this.  These include the use of positive role models, peer-learning paradigms,  and encouraging greater intergroup communication and interactions in the lecture room (Spencer et al, 2016). I shall outline and explore how we at Canterbury plan to use these and other techniques in the second part of this blog.


Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: Identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 276–287.

Emerson, K. T. U., Murphy, M. C. (2014, August 18). Identity Threat at Work: How Social Identity Threat and Situational Cues Contribute to Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Workplace. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication.    Accessed 10/10/17

Lewis, N.A., Sekaquaptewa, D. (2016) Current Opinion in Psychology 11 40 -42 Available on-line  Accessed 10/10/17

Nguyen, H. H. D.,  Ryan, A. M. (2008). Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1314–1334

Sackett, P.R., Hardison, C.M., Cullen M.J. (2004) On interpreting stereotype threat as accounting for African American–white differences on cognitive tests American Psychologist January 2004 7-13

Spencer, S.J. Logel, C., Davies, P.G. (2016) Annual Review of Psychology, 67 415–437

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811

Steele, D. Cohn-Vargas, B. (2013) Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn Thousand Oaks : Corwin

Walton, G.M, Logel, C., Peach, J.M., Spencer, S.J., Zanna M.P. 2014. Two brief interventions to mitigate a “chilly climate” transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. J. Educ. Psychol. 107(2) 468–85

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

From Stereotype Threat to Identity Safety: Part 1
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