Better Approaches to Well-Intentioned, but Harmful Messages (Case Study 1)

Overcoming Stereotype Threat to Improve Retention


Students often approach education as a search for their inherent talents, rather than development of new abilities, because they believe that intelligence is unchanging. This belief leads students to drop challenging subjects when faced with initial difficulties or stereotype threats. A successful intervention designed to short-circuit this process was studied by Good et al. (2003). The intervention had four steps:

  1. College students mentored seventh-graders and taught them that intelligence can be increased.
  2. Mentors attributed any learning difficulties to the situation instead of students' shortcomings.
  3. Mentors gave the seventh-graders access to information about how the brain forms new connections over time.
  4. The middle-school students communicated what they had learned about the expandable nature of intelligence to others.

Results of this experimental intervention included improved test performance and no gender gap in test performance. Other interventions produced similar results when students were encouraged to believe that intelligence increases through practice and effort. And some experiments showed that in certain situations, it was enough simply to tell students that the test they were about to take had never shown gender differences in outcomes.


Calling attention to women's underrepresentation in computing can cause stereotype threat, even when it is well-intended. These true stories illustrate problems and suggest solutions.


During orientation for new computer science undergraduate majors, a woman who was comfortable in computing because her mother is a computer scientist hardly noticed the typical gender composition of her cohort. She was the only woman in her group of fifty new students, an unfortunate, but familiar situation. Then the woman was approached by a solicitous counselor who intended to encourage her by gushing, "You are so brave to major in computer science! I really admire you." The new student had not been worried until that moment.


Builds Community:
The counselor might simply have introduced herself to students, and students to each other, perhaps revealing shared values by asking them why they chose this major. Initiating conversations in this way could begin forming community and put everyone at ease.


An instructor sent students an end-of-course email saying, "Women earned three of the top four course averages in the class...The course average for you seven women was 2.6 points higher than for the thirteen men. You're showing that women can do just fine in CS: good work!" (What did he expect?)


Avoids Invoking Negative Stereotypes:
The instructor might have sent an email congratulating the top students on their performance. The message could also have included a grade distribution, so students could compare themselves with classmates. This information would allow the women to see how well they had done without making their achievement seem unusual.




  • offers a useful summary of the literature including information about minimizing stereotype threat.
  • Good, C., Aronson, J., Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 24(6), 645-662.
  • Good, C. Aronson, J., Harder, J. (2008). Problems in the pipeline. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 29(1), 17-28.

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Author: J. McGrath Cohoon