Making Excellence Inclusive in STEM Classes - Barrier #1: Stereotypes

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This fall and spring, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops(1), the third of which was held on November 7th:

Many thanks again to Andres Tellez for the beautiful mandala image used in the flyer for our event.

In this research-based workshop, we discussed the characteristics and benefits of an inclusive classroom, identified common barriers to inclusivity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes, and discussed some new strategies for tackling these barriers constructively in STEM classes.

This blog post is the first in a series of follow-ups to the workshop intended to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the session, and also make resources available for further reading on the topic. When possible, in the discussion of specific scholarly works I have linked to both public summaries and journal articles so that those with and without fulltext journal access can read about this research.

But first, here's the workshop prezi:

Note: at the time of this first post, the references sections in the prezi for Barriers #2 and #3 are still being compiled, and will be completed when I post the blog entries for these barriers (forthcoming). This embedded prezi will automatically update. 

As you can see in the prezi, the bulk of the workshop was organized around three barriers to making excellence inclusive in STEM classrooms. The first barrier we identified was Stereotypes.

Wherefore art thou stereotype?
At its most basic level, of course, a stereotype is merely an oversimplified conception of a group of people. Stereotypes develop out of longstanding cultural assumptions and tend to self-replicate and become rooted in popular belief. In the workshop, we brainstormed a number of stereotypes specific to STEM including which types of people "naturally" possess STEM-specific abilities and skills, which types do not, and who STEM practitioners are and are not. The stereotypes we came up with involved categories of gender, race, learning style and ability. Images like the "mad scientist" were invoked - male, white, out of touch with the world, cares only about work, has no social skills, and can't get a date to save his life:

Image credit:

While at times humorous, this activity highlighted the proliferation of problematic images involving STEM - stereotypes that involve both the perception of STEM fields by those outside the disciplines, as well perceptions of who "belongs" in a STEM field. Research shows that these perceptions form early - for instance this 2011 study (journal article here) found that children started linking math with gender as early as the second grade:
The kids, 247 children (126 girls and 121 boys) in grades one through five in Seattle-area schools, sat in front of a large-screen laptop computer and used an adapted keyboard to sort words into categories.

As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.

In our workshop, one participant asked "How are children picking up these stereotypes so early?" Many scholars who study the social construction of gender and race argue that these cues are embedded in the fabric of our lives from a very young age (for a well-researched and accessible introduction to some of this work, check out the excellent Sociological Images blog. Specifically, here's a primer on the Sociology of Gender). For instance, children's toys often incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) visual cues about what jobs are performed by men and which are performed by women:

Image credit: Caroline P. via Lisa Wade, Sociological Images

Or which intellectual skills girls are okay to possess or not possess:

Teen Talk Barbie (swiftly reprogrammed in 1992) says "Math class is tough!"

Another recent study (journal article here) comparing Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts handbooks found that children who participate in scouting programs are being exposed to subtle messages about STEM - for instance, while both scouting groups offer scientific pursuits for boys and girls, boys' badges tend to use more career-oriented language than girls' badges. While boy scouts are pursuing the "Geologist", "Astronomer", or "Mechanic" badges, girls work toward earning their "Rocks Rock", "Sky Search" and "Car Care" badges.

AstronomyRocksRock.jpg"Astronomer" and "Sky Search" badges

Additionally, the author found that while scientifically-oriented activities make up only 2 percent of all girls' activities, they make up nearly three times as many - 6 percent - of all boys' activities. A chi-square test revealed a statistically significant relationship between sex and type of activity (art vs. science), leading the author to assert:
The disproportionate and gendered distribution of art and science projects aligns with the large body of research that finds girls being systematically derailed from scientific and mathematical pursuits and professions due to cultural believes and stereotypes about their relative ineptitude in these areas (Denny 2011: 36-37).

How do stereotypes impact STEM classes?

The example above regarding gender and STEM highlights how stereotypes operate in suggesting and reinforcing the idea that intellectual achievement in STEM fields is limited to certain types of people and that, by extension, people outside these groups do not belong in STEM. This assumption has been proven to have a variety of impacts related to career satisfaction(2), career choice, and even student learning.

For instance, multiple studies have shown that regardless of actual ability, women tend to have lower confidence in their mathematical and technological skills than their male counterparts, which can lead to fewer women choosing a STEM career, and fewer women staying in a STEM career (journal article here), once obtained. Certain teaching practices specific to the culture of STEM classes (like high failure rates on exams, or low average course grades relative to non-STEM classes) could easily exacerbate the already-lower confidence women in these classes experience, relative to their male peers.

scantron.jpgAnother way that stereotypes can negatively impact STEM classes is through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs in situations where a stereotype about a group's intellectual abilities is relevant (for instance while completing a challenging exam, or being called on to speak in front of the whole class). During these moments, studies show that a stereotype-threatened individual experiences additional anxiety, stress, and fear that can significantly lower their performance relative to non-stereotype-threatened individuals. Since its identification in the early 90s, stereotype threat has been observed in hundreds of studies: When a person is reminded of their status as a member of a negatively-stereotyped group, they score lower on tests relative to a control group of people in that group who are not "cued" to consider the stereotype. Women score lower on tests of math (journal article here) and science; African-Americans score lower on tests of intelligence; men score lower on tests of social sensitivity, the elderly score lower on tests of memory; and interestingly, Asian-American women score higher on math tests when their ethnic identity is cued, but lower when their gender identity is cued.

This research shows that when challenged to operate at the edge of his or her ability, a stereotype-threatened individual's fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype in fact fulfills the negative stereotype, because his or her cognitive processes are diverted to coping with their anxiety. The effect has been observed even in cases where the threatened individual does not believe the stereotype, and the effect may have an especially strong impact on women and people of color who experience solo or "token" status as the only member of their social category present in an otherwise homogenous group - a common scenario in some STEM classes. 

What can we do?
As the examples and research above demonstrate, the impact of stereotypes on learning and achievement in STEM fields is wide-ranging, but thankfully, there are also practical ways that instructors in college courses can address some of these issues and lower the impact of stereotypes in their classrooms.

1. Address stereotype threat through direct intervention
Research shows that while teaching students directly about stereotype threat can have mixed results depending on the approach (sometimes helping stereotype-threatened individuals and sometimes further stressing/distracting them), there are two types of classroom interventions that have proven to significantly reduce the impact of stereotype threat on student performance, especially in STEM contexts.

The first type of intervention involves short writing assignments given to students at various times throughout the semester. These assignments are designed to affirm students' values or sense of self, identity, and/or to address their conscious or unconscious anxieties related to the course material or exam.

Physics Class.jpgIn 2010 the journal Science published results from a randomized, double-blind study (journal article here) of 399 STEM majors in a college physics course at University of Colorado at Boulder. As part of the course, researchers implemented two short reflective writing assignments in which one group of students was asked to write about their most important values. As compared to a control group given a different writing assignment, these "values affirmation exercises" substantially reduced the gender gap on exams, and elevated women's modal grades from the C to B range. Effects were especially pronounced for women who tended to endorse a gender stereotype: "according to my own personal beliefs, I expect men to generally do better in physics than women".

The first exercise was assigned during a recitation session one week into the semester, the second took place as part of an online homework assignment a week before the first midterm exam. For each assignment, students were given a list of values (such as "relationships with friends and family" or "learning and gaining knowledge"), and in response to structured prompts, asked to write about for 10-15 minutes on the values most important to them.

The intervention was based on a similar 2006 study that used values affirmation to successfully reduce the racial achievement gap in the performance of middle school students. The positive effects of that intervention were witnessed even two years later. According to the authors, even though students are not writing specifically about course-related topics, these values affirmation exercises work because they serve to subtly buffer stereotype-threatened individuals against the additional anxiety that accompanies their situation.
As Cohen explains, a values-affirmation exercise might prompt thoughts such as these: " 'In spite of all the adversity in my environment, here is what I care about. Here's what gives me my internal compass. Here is what I stand for.' And that can be alleviating in a stressful situation." (Science Daily)

Homer.jpgThe second type of intervention proven to mitigate stereotype threat focuses on students' implicit beliefs about intelligence - whether intelligence is fixed at birth - a talent or gift that is unchangeable - or whether intelligence can be developed and expanded. Research shows (journal article here) that a belief in the latter view - or a "growth mindset" predicted an upward trajectory in mathematics grades over two years of junior high school, while students who believed in a "fixed mindset", experienced a downward trend.

In another study, researchers implemented an instructional intervention designed to harness the power of these mindsets on stereotype-threatened African American students. They found that when students in the experimental condition were encouraged to see intelligence - the object of the stereotype - as malleable rather than fixed, they reported "greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and they obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups".

In Chapter 2 of the AAUW report Why So Few?, authors point out that these findings are especially important in a STEM context because "encountering obstacles and challenging problems is in the nature of scientific work." Because of the many stereotypes specific to the skills and abilities necessary for STEM achievement, if someone with a fixed mindset encounters a challenging task or experiences a setback in a STEM class, they may be more likely to believe the stereotype that someone must be born brilliant to succeed. On the flipside, if students are told that intellectual skills can be attained through passion, hard work, and tenacity, they are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty:
Good, Rattan, and Dewck (in press) followed several hundred women at an elite university through a semester of a calculus class. Women who reported that their classrooms communicated a fixed mindset and that negative stereotypes were widespread showed an eroding sense that they belonged in math during the semester, and they were less likely to express a desire to take math in the future. Women who said that their classrooms promoted a growth mindset were less susceptible to the negative effects of stereotypes, and they were more likely to intend to continue to take math in the future. (AAUW Why So Few?)
Thus, the authors suggest that STEM instructors can play a key role in buffering students from the negative impact of stereotypes by "highlighting the struggle" - emphasizing that difficulties, mistakes, and setbacks are a key part of scientific learning, rather than evidence that a student 'just doesn't have what it takes'. Also, it's important for instructors to emphasize that contrary to the stereotype of the stoic, out-of-touch academic, passion, enthusiasm, and personal investment are key to success in science too.

I mean, seriously, where would this guy be without passion?

Thumbnail image for Mad_scientist.gif

Ahem. Lastly, just in case your too-good-to-be-true alarms are going off (like mine did when I first read about this research), the article "Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic" published earlier this year, goes into more detail about why and how these interventions work, and how they can be scaled appropriately for course application.

Note added 12/2: The authors of the "Magic" article above caution against incorporating structured intervention without properly considering the theoretical basis for these techniques and tailoring them to the specific course context. They argue that not doing so could result in an ineffective or improper application of the psychological principles at play. Thus, it's best to proceed with caution. As with any new pedagogical tool, application is best accompanied by a plan for assessing the impact on student learning. If you are a Penn State teacher and you would like help in designing and assessing such an assignment, Schreyer Institute consultants can help.

2. Support accurate self-assessment
The next way that instructors can mitigate the effects of stereotypes in STEM classes is by using pedagogical tools that enable students to more accurately assess their progress. too-pretty-to-do-math.pngDeveloping learning objectives for lectures and course assignments and then sharing them with your students can help them to understand the purpose of these activities and allocate energy and time accordingly. Designing grading rubrics for lab assignments, projects and reports and then sharing them in advance with your students can not only optimize your (and your TAs') grading efficiency and heighten objectivity in the grading process, but provide valuable feedback to students as to what they missed and why. This enables students to avoid falling back on stereotypes to explain their shortcomings on assignments and allows them to make adjustments in moving forward.

Also, be sure to communicate both positive and negative feedback in your grading practice - to sustain success, students need to know what they're doing right, as well as what they're doing wrong. Especially if they are new to a STEM field, students likely possess certain preconceptions about what is required for success in those courses (i.e. a suite of innate talents and abilities gifted at birth, as opposed to the grasp and successful implementation of key scientific concepts and processes through hard work and perseverance). Communication through constructive and positive feedback helps students appropriately calibrate their confidence level and enables them to focus on what works.

Lastly, as perhaps the most salient form of feedback (and certainly the most attended to by students!), tests and exams should be optimized so that they effectively assess student learning of key concepts, promote critical thinking, and don't cause unnecessary levels of anxiety and stress.

The Schreyer Institute offers workshops and courses throughout the semester on each of these tools, including how to design and implement learning objectives (Course in College Teaching, New Instructor Orientation), Grading for Learning, and Designing Effective Multiple-choice Tests. STEM instructors are welcome at all of these events, and in case you were worried, facilitators always make sure that the principles cover STEM-specific contexts.

3. Diversify sources of achievement and authority
First off, unfortunately, the lack of difference in intellectual ability by people of different social groups in STEM subjects does not yet go without saying. Many students may not be aware that fixed biological differences are not in fact proven to explain variations in achievement by underrepresented groups in STEM fields. While I will not provide an in-depth review of this literature here (because, frankly, there is far too much of it), it is important that you share with students what current research shows with respect to the skills necessary for success in your field. For example, a review of 242 articles assessing the math skills of 1,286,350 people published last year (journal article here) showed that the mathematical skills of boys and girls, as well as men and women, are substantially equal, when controlling for differences in preparation and the role of stereotype threat. Another recent report shows that even longstanding gender gaps in the scores achieved by men and women on spatial reasoning (a skill deemed necessary for success in many STEM disciplines) can be narrowed if women take a simple class. As practitioners and role models in your field, make sure you're aware of this information so that you can correct students' misconceptions as they arise.

DiversitySTEM.jpgTo the degree possible, try to diversify the sources of authority and practice in your classes - be they the authors of course readings, images used in lecture presentations, or experts themselves (i.e. professors, Teaching Assistants, and guest speakers). A good deal of research exists examining the images portrayed in textbooks and other course materials, and their impacts on diverse learners. A recent study, for instance, found that introducing counter-stereotypic images in course material can improve female students' science comprehension in a secondary school context, while another study (journal article here) found that contact with in-group experts (advanced peers, professionals, and professors) can, in a sense, "inoculate" diverse learners against the negative affects of STEM stereotypes.

So review the required readings in your courses and balance as possible and appropriate. Consider inviting diverse STEM practitioners to talk about their research (as it relates to course material), notify students when successful and diverse STEM experts visit the university, and share your personal experiences with students - particularly if your own markers of diversity are not externally visible. Do you suffer from test anxiety? Do you have hobbies and passions outside your chosen academic field? Have you overcome socio-economic hardship? Letting students know that their role models do not necessarily fit the standard mold of STEM achievement can help to undermine limiting stereotypes and give students a more accurate sense of their own potential to be successful in these fields.

Noted animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin visits Penn State

A Word of Warning: I've purposefully placed this tip last on the list because unfortunately, the "just add [underrepresented group] and stir" approach to diversifying course materials is not a magic elixir for addressing the impacts of stereotypes in STEM classes. As some have no-doubt experienced, a ham-handed application of this tip can be ineffective, or worse, lead to awkward and counter-productive "diversity moments" that succeed only in singling out diverse learners and distracting the class from course material. Thus, this tip works best as a thoughtful complement to tips 1 and 2, and in cooperation with the goals and objectives of your lessons and course more broadly.

Beyond the Barriers

As always, incremental steps are steps in the right direction. If you are unsure how best to approach making these kinds of changes, you can always contact us at the Schreyer Institute for an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or a custom workshop. Our services for Penn State teachers are always free and confidential.

This article was written by Destiny D. Aman, a Ph.D. candidate in geography, and a graduate student affiliate of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University. Originally posted 1 December 2011. How to cite a blog post.

(1) Notes from Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 are available elsewhere on the SITE blog.

(2) Indeed a recent survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found "sense of fit" to be the single most important climate factor predicting job satisfaction in STEM faculty positions, with women significantly less likely to report satisfaction in this category.

Image credits for photos on the right:
Scantron (stock.xchng)
Physics classroom (Science Daily)
Homer brain (
Too pretty t-shirt (
Engineer (

Scientist (

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1 Comment

This is incredible. I just posted a link to it on the listserv of the professional society of faculty developers (POD Network). I am ready to run out and read the recent citations so that I can update my own knowledge on this topic.

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