It’s the last week of classes this year (thank god), so one of the things that you’ve got living in your mind rent-free is probably your upcoming exams. You’re also probably tired of seeing exam-related things already since it’s all so stress-inducing, and it’s probably all anyone on Piazza has been talking about for the past few weeks. However, when it comes to exams, people are usually more focused on the content of the exams, and less so on other environmental factors that could impact exam performance.
What do I mean by this? Let’s consider the psychological phenomenon of stereotype threats.
Stereotype threats emerge in situations where individuals are at risk through actions or behaviours, of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. An example would be a female-identifying person taking a maths exam, who is made aware of the stereotype that women are bad at maths before she takes the exam.
The short-term impact of the stereotype threat is decrements in performance. Back to the above example, once the female is aware of the stereotype, her performance on the maths exam would be much worse than the males taking the same exam. This is true even if she usually excels in the course. However, if she was not made aware of the stereotype before taking the exam, then she is likely to perform just as well as everyone else.
This threat can occur in traditionally non-stereotyped groups as well. If we reverse the gender-roles in that example, and made it about a male-identifying person who took a classical literature exam, he would do worse than the females in the exam when he’s made aware of the stereotype that women are better at the arts than men, before he takes the exam.
One of the ways this threat works is by flooding and overloading your short-term memory with the stereotype, which decreases your performance as you have less capacity for things like thinking of the correct answer, and therefore increases the effects of the stereotypes.
This process is extremely resource-depleting, and since it impacts your short-term memory, the effects of doing the threatening task may ‘spill-over’ to things you do after.
Continuing with my examples, after doing those exams, the individuals may find themselves eating a whole tub of ice cream or drinking too much. This is because most of their resources have been used on doing the exam and coping with the stereotype, so they have less self-control when it comes to doing subsequent things.
Moreover, the more you are interested in that particular threatening task (like maths) and identify with the social group that is stereotyped against, the more you will be affected by the stereotype. This is especially true if you become very aware of the stereotype against your group, and when the task is extremely difficult.
Long-term impacts of this is disengagement with the threatening task. The female maths student in my example may eventually end up pursuing a career completely unrelated to maths.
A way to combat these effects is to think about your positive role models. Doing this can help you do better in the task, especially if the role models are like you. The female maths student might think about Katherine Johnson before doing her exam to combat the threat.
Some other ways would be to adopt a neutral mindset when approaching the task, or giving yourself some positive affirmations.
We may be subjected to these threats through cues in the environment before we have important things to do (like exams), and undeniably, we all encounter obstacles when it comes to sitting exams. Some obstacles we can’t control, but some we can. It’s important to recognise these threats so we can realise its impacts on our performance and mitigate its negative effects for both the short and long-term.