SCIENCE
01/28/2016 01:29 pm ET

Shielding Students From Stereotypes Helps Way More Than We Thought

Focusing on just a few can impact an entire classroom, a new study shows.
Helping just&nbsp;a few students combat "stereotype threat"&nbsp;benefits <i>everyone's</i>&nbsp;academic performance in a cl
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Helping just a few students combat "stereotype threat" benefits everyone's academic performance in a classroom, new research shows.

We all know that negative stereotypes exist and that as a result, people may be discriminated against or denied access to resources without justification.

But there's another disturbing effect that often goes unnoticed. It turns out that "stereotype threat," or simply knowing that others view you as a negative stereotype, may impair your academic performance.

Scientists have long known about psychological exercises that can reduce the effects of "stereotype threat," but now it seems that such exercises not only benefit those experiencing this, but also the people around them.

New research suggests that when students who are vulnerable to being stereotyped complete exercises that cause them to reflect on their own personal values, they perform better in class -- and so do other students around them, even if those other students don't complete the self-reflection tasks themselves.

It's unclear how an entire classroom can benefit from just a few students taking moments to self-reflect, but the researchers are excited to further study this question, Joseph Powers, a psychological scientist at Stanford University and lead author of the research, told The Huffington Post.

He said it's possible that the other students in the classroom felt motivated to perform better when they saw that their classmates' grades improved. Or perhaps the improvement in grades of some students allowed teachers to focus more time on other students who needed more attention to learn.

"This research suggests that psychological processes go beyond the individual," Powers said. "Protecting people from negative stereotype threats benefits them, and these less threatened people benefit their entire group. As a field concerned with social change we could gain a lot by considering these collective effects when we measure the impact of experiments and social programs."

The researchers analyzed data from two previous studies conducted on 550 seventh-graders, in which the students were asked to complete a 15-minute writing assignment about their personal values -- unaware that this was part of a study, Powers said. Meanwhile, a control group of students wrote about neutral topics.

About 40 percent of the students were black, 40 percent white and 20 percent of other ethnicities. 

"This kind of personal reflection can broaden and protect a person's identity during difficult transitions, such as the start of seventh grade," Powers said. "Affirming core values has been shown to protect students from some of the negative effects of stereotype threat and improve students' sense of social belonging and academic performance."

The researchers found that individual student grades improved just from being in a class with a greater proportion of African-American students who completed the self-reflection task. This improvement appeared to be especially strong for low-performing students of all ethnicities.

We changed a few students and the students triggered a collective change in their environment that benefited everyone..." Joseph Powers, lead author of the new research

The researchers' analysis showed that adding just two or more black students who completed the self-reflection task to a classroom resulted in low-performing students' grades to increase on average by a third of a letter grade, so from a C to a C+.

"We were surprised that the effect of sharing a classroom with more affirmed students was almost as large as the effect of receiving a values affirmation," Powers said. "Who would have thought that the indirect benefits of an intervention could be almost as large than the direct benefits?"

It seems that while stereotypes can negatively impact an entire society, protecting individuals from stereotypes can positively impact society at large.

The research was published last month in the journal Psychological Science.

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