Posts tagged ‘stereotype threat’

Marvel Girls in Stem Mentor Contest: The value and challenge of role models

I’m glad to hear that Marvel wants to get involved in drawing more women into STEM.  The involvement of Natalie Portman is interesting, but also challenging.  There are these interesting studies showing that role models of women in STEM can trigger a kind of stereotype threat: “That can never be me, so I’d better not even try.”  They’ll have to be careful in how they frame her involvement in science.  Since I’ve been thinking about live coding, I’ve been wondering more about the importance of seeing embodiments of STEM workers that are otherwise invisible.  Perhaps Marvel can provide that through this effort.

Marvel has announced the Ultimate Mentor Adventure, part mentor program, part contest, that gives American girls in grades 9-12 the resources to find and interview professional women in science, technology, engineering, and math, and then rewards them for doing it.

Natalie Portman has always been a consistent voice for greater screentime and opportunities behind the scenes for female characters and real women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that she’s the first face you see on the Ultimate Mentor Adventure’s explanatory video. Portman talks about her character Jane Foster, an astrophysicist, amid finished and behind the scenes clips of Jane in Thor: The Dark World, and, while the bombastic music of the trailers plays, she says, “the truth is, I really do love science. And the role gave me an amazing opportunity to explore science in all its possibilities.”

via Marvel Girls in Stem Mentor Contest | The Mary Sue.

October 31, 2013 at 1:44 am 1 comment

Unreliable research: How replicable is Stereotype Threat?

The Economist has an article in a recent issue that’s leading to lots of discussion: Are we making mistakes with science?  Can scientists really tell the good stuff from the bad stuff?  Are we really making sure that our key results are replicable?

One of the topics that they explore is “priming” research.

“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

via Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab | The Economist.

Stereotype threat is a kind of priming effect.  Stereotype threat is where you remind someone of a negative stereotype associated with a group that the person belongs to, and that reminding impacts performance.  The argument is that stereotype threat might be leading to the gaps between races and genders.

A common situation of stereotype threat for girls and women is when they are tested on their knowledge of math or science. The Educational Testing Services performed an experiment to see if girls performed better or worse on a math exam if they were asked their gender either before or after the exam. Researchers found that the group of girls who were asked their gender before the exam scored several points lower than the boys, while girls who were asked their gender after the exam scored on par with the boys.

via The Stereotype Threat and How It Affects Women in Computing » Anita Borg Institute.

If there are questions being raised about “priming” research, I got to wondering about whether anyone was checking the reliability of the stereotype threat research.  They are, and it’s not promising.

Men and women score similarly in most areas of mathematics, but a gap favoring men is consistently found at the high end of performance. One explanation for this gap, stereotype threat, was first proposed by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn 1999 and has received much attention. We discuss merits and shortcomings of this study and review replication attempts. Only 55% of the articles with experimental designs that could have replicated the original results did so. But half of these were confounded by statistical adjustment of preexisting mathematics exam scores. Of the unconfounded experiments, only 30% replicated the original. A meta-analysis of these effects confirmed that only the group of studies with adjusted mathematics scores displayed the stereotype threat effect. We conclude that although stereotype threat may affect some women, the existing state of knowledge does not support the current level of enthusiasm for this as a mechanism underlying the gender gap in mathematics. We argue there are many reasons to close this gap, and that too much weight on the stereotype explanation may hamper research and implementation of effective interventions

via Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog: Shortage of female math geniuses not due to “stereotype threat”.

As I dug into this further, I found that there has been a lot of misinterpretation of the research on stereotype threat.  There is already a gap between genders and between races on many of these tests.  If you remind someone of a negative stereotype, that can make the gap larger.  But if you don’t remind someone of the stereotype, the gap is just the same.  The gap was already there.  If you adjust the scores so that they’re the same pre-test (that’s the “statistical adjustment of the preexisting mathematics exam scores” referenced above), you find no difference absent the threat invocation. The measured impact of stereotype threat has worked when the test-takers are consciously aware of the threat.  The blog post cited below goes into alot of detail into the efforts to replicate, the problems with interpreting the result, and how the methodology of the experiment matters.

Thus, rather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American–White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American–White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is larger than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores.

via Race and IQ : Stereotype Threat R.I.P. « Meng Hu’s Blog.

I come away with the opinion that stereotype threat is real, but it needs more experimentation to understand just how reliable the effect is and what triggers it. It’s probably a small impact, more like the impact of general test anxiety than an explanation for much of the gaps between genders and races.

October 23, 2013 at 1:27 am 1 comment

Interaction between stereotypes, expectations of success, and learning from failure

An interesting study suggesting that role models and how they’re described (in terms of their achievements, or in terms of their struggles) has an interaction with students’ stereotypes about scientists and other professionals in STEM fields.  So there are not just cognitive benefits to learning from failure, but there are affective dimensions to focusing on the struggle (including failures) and not just the success.

But when the researchers exposed middle-school girls to women who were feminine and successful in STEM fields, the experience actually diminished the girls’ interest in math, depressed their plans to study math, and reduced their expectations of future success. The women’s “combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls,” the authors conclude, adding that “gender-neutral STEM role models,” as well as feminine women who were successful in non-STEM fields, did not have this effect.

Does this mean that we have to give up our most illustrious role models? There is a way to gain inspiration from truly exceptional individuals: attend to their failures as well as their successes. This was demonstrated in a study by Huang-Yao Hong of National Chengchi University in Taiwan and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University.

The researchers gave a group of physics students information about the theories of Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein. A second group received readings praising the achievements of these scientists. And a third group was given a text that described the thinkers’ struggles. The students who learned about scientists’ struggles developed less-stereotyped images of scientists, became more interested in science, remembered the material better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson—while the students who read the achievement-based text actually developed more stereotypical images of scientists.

via why you’re choosing the wrong role models.

July 23, 2013 at 1:31 am 3 comments

Stereotype threat and growth mindset: If we tell students intelligence is malleable, are we lying?

This week at the NCWIT Summit, I heard Joshua Aronson speak on stereotype threat. I’ve read (and even taught) about stereotype threat before, but there’s nothing like hearing the stories and descriptions from the guy who co-coined the term.  Stereotype threat is “apprehension arising from the awareness of a negative stereotype or personal reputation in a situation where the stereotype or identity is relevant, and thus comparable.”  Aaronson has lots of examples.  Remind women of the gender (and implicitly, of the stereotype that says women are worse than men at math) and their scores drop on math tests.  Remind African Americans of their race (and implicitly, of the stereotype about African Americans and intelligence) and their scores on IQ tests drop.

I took a picture of one of Aronson’s slides.  He observed that most of the tests in the laboratory experiments were, well, laboratory experiments.  They weren’t “real,” that is, they didn’t count for anything.  So what if we tweaked the AP Calculus test?  Typically, the AP Calc asks students their gender just before they start the test, which makes the stereotypes about gender salient.  What if you moved that question to the end of the test?  Here are the results:

If you ask before, women do much worse than men, as past results have typically shown.  If you ask after, the women do better than the men, but the men also do much worse than before!  Reminding men of their gender, and the stereotype, improves their performance. Don’t remind them, and they do worse. Which leaves us in a tough position: When should you ask gender?

Now, there is a solution here: Dweck’s fixed vs growth mindset.  Many children believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity, so if they do badly at something, they believe that they can’t do better later with more work.  What if we emphasize that intelligence is malleable?  Writes Dweck in Brainology:

The wonderful thing about research is that you can put questions like this to the test — and we did (Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Mueller and Dweck, 1998). We gave two groups of children problems from an IQ test, and we praised them. We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We praised the children in another group for their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic. We did studies like this with children of different ages and ethnicities from around the country, and the results were the same.

Here is what happened with fifth graders. The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn. When we offered them a challenging task that they could learn from, the majority opted for an easier one, one on which they could avoid making mistakes. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from.

The children praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the problems got more difficult. Now, as a group, they thought they weren’t smart. They also lost their enjoyment, and, as a result, their performance plummeted. On the other hand, those praised for effort maintained their confidence, their motivation, and their performance. Actually, their performance improved over time such that, by the end, they were performing substantially better than the intelligence-praised children on this IQ test.

Aronson and colleagues asked in their Department of Education report: “Does teaching students to see intelligence as malleable or incrementally developed lead to higher motivation and perfor­mance relative to not being taught this theory of intelligence?”  They did find that teaching a growth mindset really did result in higher motivation and performance. They recommended the strategy, “Reinforce for students the idea that intelli­gence is expandable and, like a muscle, grows stronger when worked.”

It turns out that, if you teach students about growth mindset, then they are less likely to be influenced by stereotype threat.  Dweck writes in her Brainology essay:

Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and their colleagues had similar findings (Aronson, Fried, and Good, 2002; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht, 2003). Their studies and ours also found that negatively stereotyped students (such as girls in math, or African-American and Hispanic students in math and verbal areas) showed substantial benefits from being in a growth-mindset workshop. Stereotypes are typically fixed-mindset labels. They imply that the trait or ability in question is fixed and that some groups have it and others don’t. Much of the harm that stereotypes do comes from the fixed-mindset message they send. The growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences might exist, portrays abilities as acquirable and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped — one that they respond to with renewed motivation and engagement.

Dweck is pretty careful in how she talks about intelligence, but some of the others are not  She talks about “while not denying that performance differences might exist” and “portrays abilities as acquirable” (emphasis mine).  The Dept of Ed report says we should tell students that “intelli­gence is expandable.”  Is it?   Is intelligence actually malleable?

The next workshop I went to after Aronson’s was Christopher Chabris’s on women and the collective intelligence of human groups.  Chabris showed fascinating work that the proportion of women in groups raises the collective intelligence of groups.  But before he got into his study, he talked about personal and collective intelligence.  He quoted Charles Spearman from 1904: “Measurements of cognitive ability tend to correlate positively across individuals.”  Virtually all intelligence tests correlate positively, which suggests that they’re measuring the same thing, the same psychological construct.  What’s more, Chabris showed us that the variance in intelligence can be explained in terms of physical structures of the brain.  Personal intelligence is due to physical brain structures, but we can work collectively to do more and think better.

My Georgia Tech colleague, Randy Engle, was interviewed in the NYTimes a few weeks ago, arguing that intelligence is fixed.  It’s due to unchanging physical characteristics of the brain.  We can’t change it.

For some, the debate is far from settled. Randall Engle, a leading intelligence researcher at the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, views the proposition that I.Q. can be increased through training with a skepticism verging on disdain. “May I remind you of ‘cold fusion’?” he says, referring to the infamous claim, long since discredited, that nuclear fusion could be achieved at room temperature in a desktop device. “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve solved our energy crisis.’ People were rushing to throw money at that science. Well, not so fast. The military is now preparing to spend millions trying to make soldiers smarter, based on working-memory training. What that one 2008 paper did was to send hundreds of people off on a wild-goose chase, in my opinion.

“Fluid intelligence is not culturally derived,” he continues. “It is almost certainly the biologically driven part of intelligence. We have a real good idea of the parts of the brain that are important for it. The prefrontal cortex is especially important for the control of attention. Do I think you can change fluid intelligence? No, I don’t think you can. There have been hundreds of other attempts to increase intelligence over the years, with little or no — just no — success.”

via Can You Make Yourself Smarter? – NYTimes.com.

Is intelligence expandable and malleable, or is it physical and fixed?  There is a level where it doesn’t matter.  Telling students that intelligence is expandable and malleable does have an effect.  It results in higher test scores and better performance.  But on the other hand, is it good policy to lie to students, if we’re wrong about the malleability?

Maybe we’re talking about different definitions of “intelligence.”  Engle and Chabris may be talking about a core aspect of intelligence that is not malleable, and Dweck and Aronson may be talking about knowledge, skills, and even metacognitive skills that can be grown throughout life.  But we say that “intelligence” is malleable, and the work in stereotype threat tells us that the language matters.  What words we use, and how (and when) we prompt students impacts performance.  If we don’t say “intelligence can be grown like a muscle” and instead say, “knowledge and skills are expandable and malleable,” would we still get the same benefits?

I’m not a psychologist.  When I was an education graduate student, I was told to think about education as “psychology engineering.”  Educators take the science of psychology into actual practice to create learning systems and structures.  I look to the psychology to figure out how to help students learn. While Dweck and Aronson are explicitly giving educators strategies that really work, I worry about the conflict I see between them and other psychologists in terms of the basic science.  Is it a good strategy to get positive learning effects by telling students something that may not be true?

May 25, 2012 at 8:20 am 22 comments


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