Reducing stereotype threat as a barrier to student success

Project Details


Our project focused on addressing unequal student experiences and outcomes for two student groups: Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and socio-economically disadvantaged students. It was a multi-university partnership led by the University of Portsmouth (UoP), partnering with the University of the Arts London (UAL), the University of Brighton (UoB), and the University of Winchester (UoW).

In March 2019, results from a multi-year longitudinal study conducted at Indiana University found that there is a statistically significant correlation between teaching staff with fixed mindsets and unequal outcomes of their students from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds. This aligned with findings in the US and UK (some of which from the team and the University of Portsmouth) showing that Changing Mindsets interventions could also have an impact on the influence of stereotype threat and attainment. Concurrently, Patricia Devine's Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention was showing positive results in the US.

Thus the project team at the University of Portsmouth along with partner institutions and the support of Particia Devine, developed a combined intervention utilising our previously used Changing Mindsets and Habit Braking interventions. Our goal being to make them part of institutional strategies to address persistent inequalities in student experiences and outcomes while testing their efficacy.

The intervention workshops, which were carried out with staff and all students, to avoid a deficit model to explain gaps in experience and attainment were underpinned by psychological (Dweck, 2017; Devine et al, 2012), sociological (Bhopal and Preston, 2012), and educational (Apple, 2015) concepts and theories. Utilising the conceptual framework proposed by Mountford-Zimdars et al (2015), the intervention seeks to address the impact of stereotype threat on student retention, progression, experience and attainment, by focussing on mindsets and bias.

The intervention, by design, was flexible and adaptable. While there are five key learning outcomes and five project aims, each university partner has been empowered to embed the intervention in a way that fits with their institutional needs and existing programmes. This enabled us as a partnership to pilot and evaluate a variety of approaches but based on the same theoretical model, to share best practices, and to share challenges we have faced and different strategies we have implemented to tackle those challenges.

The workshops take staff and students through a process in which they explore their own beliefs around the nature of ability and intelligence. This is conceptualised within the context of Mindset research, and leads them to explore their own Mindset, and the impact of this on their expectations for self and others, on their behaviour and decision making, and on their language and feedback (internal and to others). From here they explore strategies to develop a Growth Mindset, inclusive behaviours, bias habit breaking strategies, setting high expectations (of self and others), and using Growth Mindset language for all learners. The pedagogic approach taken in both staff and student workshops is to present concepts, evidence and strategies in an engaging and interactive way, using, as examples, multi-media presentation, self-assessments, illustrative examples, sharing of own experience, individual and group discussion, practical exercises, modelling language, interaction and self-voice, and exploring common scenarios.

Key findings

In addition to detailed intervention stories from each of the institutions involved as project partners, providing insight into their different approaches to workshop delivery for staff and students, this report includes findings from the data collected for the project.

• Institutional average attainment gaps may hide substantial variations and outliers. Across the project partnership, findings within the pre-cohort data (five-year average attainment gaps for the schools and programmes participating in the intervention) vary widely, including lows of three percent and highs of more than 30 percent.

• Without department and even course based analysis of student data staff were forming hypotheses to explain average gaps. Analysis of this level of data enabled hypotheses to be tested and in some cases mythologies to be challenged and thus more evidence based hypotheses to be formed and resources better directed.

• The pre-intervention data collected across the project indicate that the attainment gaps cannot be explained by a student’s tariff on entry (qualifications) into university, which is aligned with findings from previous attainment gap research (Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015).

• Students who have growth mindsets were more likely to want to create inclusion and to overcome bias.

• For staff there appeared to be no relationship between mindset and the degree to which they want to create inclusion and overcome biases. However, staff with a growth mindset were less likely to have stereotypical thoughts.

• After the intervention, students that did not attend workshops held more stereotypical beliefs compared to those that did. There was no difference in scores on the bias subscale.

• For staff there was no difference in the bias, creating inclusion or belif subscale based on whether they attended the intervention workshop or not.

• Most staff and student survey participants indicated that they are committed to speaking out against hate and to making all students feel welcome and part of the campus community. However, nearly all staff and students who completed the survey also admit to unintentionally stereotypical thoughts.

• Qualitative data indicates that the intervention workshops created positive transformations in attitude and behavioural habits in some staff and students.
Effective start/end date1/11/1631/10/18


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