Black History Month: Featuring Claude Steele

Learning from Claude Steele

To celebrate Black History Month this year, we’re featuring renowned scholar and educator Claude Steele, whose social psychology research and higher education leadership has inspired generations of university faculty.

Steele holds a B.A. in Psychology from Hiram College, an M.A. in Social Psychology from The Ohio State University, and a Ph.D. in Social Psychology and Statistical Psychology from Ohio State University. He was a faculty member in the social sciences at a number of institutions, including Stanford from 1991 to 2009. Since then, he has served in major academic leadership positions as the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley, the Dean for the School of Education at Stanford University, and as the Provost of Columbia University. He has also served as the President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as the President of the Western Psychological Association, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Society.

Steele was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Board, the National Academy of Education, and the American Philosophical Society. He currently serves as a trustee of the Russell Sage Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and as a Fellow for both the American Institutes for Research and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He also serves as a Boyer 2030 Commissioner and contributed to the most recent Boyer Report.

In 2010, he released his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, summarizing years of research on stereotype threat and its effects on students. We are delighted to celebrate his many achievements and share some of his advice for teaching with you.

“Stereotype threat is the very simple idea that if you’re trying to perform in an area where your group is negatively stereotyped, you’re going to feel an extra pressure—a distracting kind of pressure—and that pressure can affect how well you perform.” -from “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele”

“We found that we could very quickly, easily produce underperformance in a laboratory. For example, if you bring women and men who are equally good at math into the laboratory, and you give them a really difficult math test, at the frontier of their skills, the women, even though they’re just as prepared, don’t do as well as the men. That’s underperformance. We came up with the idea that maybe the stereotype is pressuring their performance, and if we could take the stereotype out of that situation, then women’s performance should go up to match that of equally skilled men…and when you [remove the stereotype threat], women do perform as well as men, and that was a huge relief and discovery.” -from “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele”

“We did this research with the graduate record exam. These were very talented participants in this research, really strong math students. And to find that the stereotype was depressing women’s performance that much, a full standard deviation, something like 15 points on a test of 100 points, that was really dramatic. This was something big.” -from “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele”

“We’re all members of groups, and we all have identities that are negatively stereotyped. There’s not a single identity that doesn’t have a negative stereotype about it, and whenever you’re in a situation where that negative stereotype is relevant to you, and you care about doing well, you could experience this stereotype threat. Being older, being young, being gay, being conservative, being liberal, having cancer, anything—as you go down that list of identities, you recognize that, in some circumstances, you could feel like you’re going to be seen negatively because you’ve got that identity, and that’s stereotype threat.” -from “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele”

“[The present research] focuses on a social-psychological predicament that can arise from widely-known negative stereotypes about one’s group. It is this: the existence of such a stereotype means that anything one does or any of one’s features that conform to it make the stereotype more plausible as a self-characterization in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in one’s own eyes. We call this predicament stereotype threat and argue that it is experienced, essentially, as a self-evaluative threat. In form, it is a predicament that can beset the members of any group about whom stereotypes exist. Consider the stereotypes elicited by the terms yuppie, feminist, liberal, or White male. Their prevalence in society raises the possibility for potential targets that the stereotype is true of them and, also that other people will see them that way.”  -from “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” p. 797

“If stereotype threat and identity threat are the problem in a situation, then what you need to focus on is building a sense of identity safety in the classroom…that’s a sense where a person can trust that they’re not going to be exposed to negative experiences based on having an identity. There has to be some effort put into building that kind of assurance…we have to recognize that that’s something that seems extra, but we really have to do that for everybody to feel identity safe, safe enough to function and flourish in a situation without this threat, without this pressure. A sense of safety in a classroom involves…valuing identities and seeing them as positive, and valuing the diversity that people bring to an enterprise like schooling.” -from “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele”

“Sometimes you can give people facing identity threat information that enables a more accurate and hopeful personal narrative about their setting. When this is possible, these intriguing experiments show, it improves the academic achievement of people in real colleges; it can put their achievement on very different trajectories.” – From Whistling Vivaldi, p. 169

“Minority students may wonder whether they are being viewed through the lens of a stereotype rather than judged on their own merits and recognized for their full potential. The challenge facing the mentor is to provide critical feedback in a manner that discourages attributions of bias and refutes the threatening limitation alleged by the stereotype. Although our studies focus on minority students, this challenge arises in any context where students face group-based doubts about their abilities or “belonging” within a given domain of achievement. This, as Spencer et al. (1999) and Steele (1997) argue, stereotype threat also affects women working in math and the physical sciences.” -from “The Mentor’s Dilemma,” p. 1313

When explaining wise feedback, Steele invokes a mentor who set him at ease by taking his research seriously and treating him as a worthy partner. This “changed the meaning of the other cues” in the situation which he had previously taken to indicate that he didn’t belong. When he was able to stop worrying that he didn’t fit in, he was able to learn and perform to his potential. He set up experimental conditions to duplicate this kind of trust-building for students and found that “having a narrative that requires less vigilance leaves more mental energy and motivation available for academic work.”  -from Whistling Vivaldi, p. 167

“A mind trying to defeat a stereotype leaves little mental capacity free for anything else we’re doing.” -from Whistling Vivaldi and Beating Stereotypes

Cohen, Steele, and Ross explain that students (or anyone striving to excel) need “an explicit invocation of high standards and an assurance that the student was capable of meeting those standards.” -from “The Mentor’s Dilemma,” p. 1310


Provost’s Showcase of Scholarly Teaching

Friday, April 5th | 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. | SSB 201/203 | Click to apply

We’re delighted to announce that CAT and FSU Libraries will host FSU’s inaugural Provost’s Showcase of Scholarly Teaching this spring. This event is an opportunity for you to share your teaching expertise and innovations with the larger campus community. Even if you’ve never thought about presenting at a pedagogical conference before, you likely have strategies and insights that could be of benefit to colleagues. We invite you to apply to host a roundtable discussion or present a poster. For more information, please visit our website.

If you would like to apply, please fill out our application form. The application due date is February 23, 2024. We look forward to working with you!