The learning process is an active one. As an active process, what happens in the classroom, or rather, the social context, shapes what is learned, retained, as well as performances on academic tasks. If learning is impacted by the social context, then prejudgments, stereotypes, and behaviors of the instructor, whether conscious or unconscious, implicit or explicit, will have an impact on the student outcomes. Unfortunately, student outcomes are frequently seen to be primarily related to the efforts and determination of the student. However, research on stereotype threat and microaggressions can help us to have a more team based approach to increasing academic achievement, retention, and persistence.
Stereotype threat is the “immediate and situational predicament” in which people are, or feel themselves to be, at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The impact of the stereotype threat on learning and performance is visceral and powerful, as stereotype threats and stereotype vulnerability have been shown to drive down performance on standardized tests and other tasks when students perceive negative stereotypes to be present. The original explanation was this: when experiencing the stress of present negative stereotypes, students become anxious. That anxiety then has an impact on and decreases the performance of the working memory (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The working memory, or the part of the memory that is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing, is a necessary part of the learning process. Stress has the ability to diminish the capacity of the working memory, as attention is focused on the stressor. In this context, the stressor is the awareness of an existing prejudgment. It is necessary for information to be held temporarily in the working, or short term memory. If the short term and working memories are impaired, it never moves over to the long term memory, where learned material is retained. Therefore, regardless of the ability of the student, performance is tied to the social context. Additionally, if students perceive discrimination of a marginalized group of which they are a member, their ability to perform declines. Reminding students of their marginalized status within the social context compounds the issue and drives down the performances even more. This research also suggests, however, that framing matters (Steele and Aronson, 1995). Instructions used to describe the task or test have an impact on the way in which the task is perceived. In other words, language within the learning environment matters as well.
Implicit Biases and Microaggressions
Of course, that language and context matters in the classroom should not be a novel idea. We know this to be true. However, we should consider ways in which implicit biases and microaggressions shape the social context. Implicit Biases are “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection” (As defined by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University). Implicit biases are the unconscious component that leads to microaggressions and the explicit display of stereotyping.
Microaggressions are defined as the everyday verbal and non-verbal, conscious or unconscious, environmental slights, insults of indignities, sent to members of marginalized groups because of their group membership (Sue, 2007). Frequently, microaggressions are described as invisible because when they occur, it is usually outside of the conscious awareness of the perpetrator and, although the recipient feels the effect of the microaggression, is frequently uncertain if and how to respond. What we know of microaggressions is that they can have an impact on the mental health of the person experiencing them, and if occurring long term, can have an impact on the physical health. Microaggressions also have the ability to create a hostile campus climate, while devaluing particular populations served. Finally, microaggressions have been seen to perpetuate the stereotype threat, lowering problem solving skills and academic achievement (Sue, 2010). For those students who experience microaggressions within the campus community, then, the stakes are high. Consider the impact of experiencing microaggressions within various departments and campus entities. For those students, by the time they reach the threshold of the classroom, they have possibly been consistently remined of their negative group membership at every turn. Performance then, is less based on ability, but more on the campus climate. The campus climate has an impact on retention and persistence rates, as students feel uncomfortable in the spaces where they experience these slights and insults. Much social science research stresses the significance of the campus climate on attrition rates for marginalized groups (Hamilton, 2009).
How do Microaggressions present?
Microaggressions may be understood in three different categories. Microinsults, which are frequently unconscious and a result of an implicit bias, convey rudeness or insensitivity to the marginalized group. Microassults are often explicit and conscious, or purposefully derogatory language or physical aggression relate to one’s group membership. Finally, the microinvalidation, also often unconscious, is an invalidation of experience (Sue, 2007). All of these have a negative impact on the campus climate, but more importantly, have a negative impact on student outcomes both within the classroom and within the broader campus community.
For the student, experiencing microaggressions in the moment leaves them in a catch-22. There are stages of coping with the microaggression. The first stage is Attributional ambiguity. The recipient, or victim of the microaggressions asks “Did that really happen? Is that what I think it is?” If the answer is yes, there is a period of Response indecision, or, “What is the best way to respond? If I respond, will the person get defensive?” By this time, the victim considers the Time-limited nature of responding frequently deciding that it is too late to respond and will then Deny their own experiential reality. The victim might justify the statement or behavior rationalizing that it was not because of their group membership. Finally, the victim arrives at the Impotency of actions, or, “no matter the response, nothing will change.”
Consider what this means for students then. As they go through these states of coping with microaggressions within the classroom, it stands to reason that academic performance will suffer. The situational effect of the stereotype compounded with the effects of and coping with the microaggression can have a disastrous and lasting effect on student outcomes. What this means, then, is that those with power in the classroom and within the campus community have a responsibility to make the invisible visible. They have a responsibility to be aware of and confront their own biases, making the implicit biases conscious to not perpetuate stereotypes through microaggressions. This could have a reverse effect, increasing academic performance, retention, and persistence. The task is ours.