Racial marginalization contributes to significant educational gaps between white and minority students. Among the many factors that may contribute to the minority achievement gap, “stereotype threat” appears especially troubling. Experimental evidence demonstrates that when students fear that their performance on a test will confirm a negative stereotype, they tend to underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype. Although these effects are robust, it is unclear whether stereotype threat affects mainly test performance or whether it also interferes with other aspects of learning and memory.
To answer this question, psychologists Bonita London and Suparna Rajaram will examine the contexts in which minority students encounter stereotype threat in three distinct phases of learning– encoding, memory consolidation, and information retrieval. At each stage, they will compare how two modes of delivering stereotype threat – via interpersonal and environmental cues - influence cognitive performance. The researchers will also use cortisol samples and stress inventories to explore how physiological arousal interferes with each phase of the learning process. They hypothesize that social cues of a stigmatized identity increase physiological arousal in ways that impede the entire process of learning. However, they expect stereotype threat to disrupt certain stages of learning more than others. Results of the project will be presented at two conferences and published in at least three social and cognitive psychology journals.