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  October 25, 2004

Diversity Conference Explores Student Success

For years, common wisdom has been that minority students feel more comfortable and are more apt to succeed when they see more faces that look like theirs in class.

During a day-long conference at UConn last week, a Stanford University researcher said that comfort alone – whether the student is black or white, male or female, rich or poor – cannot guarantee success, as long as stereotypes, and the threats to individual identity created by stereotypes, exist.

Molly McGrane and Hyewon Kang

John Matlock, director of the University of Michigan's Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, was one of the speakers at an all-day summit on diversity held in the Rome Commons Ballroom on October 14.
Photo by Jordan Bender

“It’s not prejudice, but threats to our identities that keep people apart,” said Claude Steele, a psychology professor and renowned researcher. “Every one of us has experienced some form of stereotype threat. It’s something that brings us all together.”

Steele, whose work has focused on social identity and stereotype threats for about six years, said he believes all people hold a number of different identities, among them age, color, economic background, and job. Along with these identities go stereotypes. Put anyone into a situation where one of those identities is threatened, and the opportunity for success is also undermined.

Steele spoke Oct. 14 at The Northeastern Alliance Diversity Identity & Academic Success Summit. The event brought together several hundred educators and others from across the country to explore opportunities for collaboration between institutions, and to discuss research into the recruitment and retention of diverse populations in higher education, especially in the sciences, math, and technology.

Steele described a study in which he gave a group of equally talented students – men and women – a challenging math test, telling the women beforehand that women generally perform poorly on the test. They did, achieving scores well below those of the men. But when he told another group that men and women generally perform equally well on the test, all the students in that group scored well, regardless of gender.

In another study, Steele gave a test to three white males and a single Asian-American woman. The woman scored far lower than the men. When he gave the same test to a group that included three white males and three Asian-American women – thus eliminating the stereotype threat – all six achieved at a high level.

More recently, Steele and his colleagues conducted studies that brought together students of different racial backgrounds, placing them in settings where they would discuss both general and racially charged topics, such as profiling. For the general discussion, the black and white students placed their chairs close together. When race was the issue, the white students put their chairs “pretty much in the next room,” Steele said.

“The potential discussion of racial profiling was loaded,” he said. “The white males knew if they said one thing wrong, they would be labeled as racist, and that posed a threat to how they perceived themselves.”

Steele said stereotype threats can be overcome if people who feel threatened receive positive cues regarding their social identifications, which provide “a sense of identity safety.

“You have to create a sense that ‘who I am’ brings value to a setting, whether it’s in the classroom or the office,” he said. For example, professors can help students who seem to be experiencing some form of stereotype threat by having high expectations of those students, he added.

Earlier in the day, Sally Reis, professor and head of educational psychology at UConn, discussed her recent study of what causes some talented high school students in Hartford to underachieve, while other students in similar economic and home situations persevere and achieve at very high levels.

Her three-year study determined that high-achieving students refused to let the stereotypes associated with economically deprived, inner-city minority students derail their ambitions.

The underachievers, she said, apparently saw their failure as a group problem and, faced with the nearly impossible task of individually changing a group dynamic, stopped fighting.

“Most of the students who underachieved did not finish high school. Some of the females became pregnant, some of the young men turned to drugs. It’s a societal tragedy,” said Reis, who is also a researcher with The National Center on the Gifted and Talented.

“The high-achievers believed in themselves,” she said. “They had an inner will. They persevered, they were determined. They built support systems, found people who cared – parents, other adults, coaches. They took tough classes, participated in after-school activities, played sports.

“One of the most ridiculous ideas ever is that gifted and talented students can make it on their own,” she said. “Every one of the high-achievers that made it found a champion in their high school – usually a teacher who was a supporter and mentor – but none of the underachievers did.”