A number of college students were tested on their ability to play miniature golf.  “All were told that they would complete a brief questionnaire, perform a sports test that was based on the game of golf, and then answer questions about their performance after the test was completed.”  But one extra factor was added:  Half were told the test was of “natural athletic ability [NAA]”; the others were told this was a measure of “sports intelligence [SI],” a.k.a. “the ability to think strategically during an athletic performance.”  

The results were stark.  White students who were told the test measured SI played golf better (23 stroke average) than those told it was a test of NAA (27 stroke average).  Dishearteningly, Blacks who were told the test was for SI performed more poorly than those told it was testing NAA. 

 The study was Stone, J., *Lynch, C., *Sjomeling, M. & Darley, J. M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on Black and White athletic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1213-1227.  But what does miniature golf have to do with law students studying advocacy or doctrinal subjects such as Evidence?  

 Look out at a law school advocacy classroom and (hopefully) you will be confronted with a sea of faces from diverse backgrounds.  A natural reaction might be that since they all were accepted at law school, made it through first year, and now are 2Ls, they are all equally comfortable at the performance tasks we will be giving them.  Perhaps we need to think again.  Certainly we need to proceed with care and affirmation. 

Valerie Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo, in their exceptional book DO RIGHT BY ME: LEARNING TO RAISE BLACK CHILDREN IN WHITE SPACES, explain that “Black students in a predominantly white school may feel pressure that white students do not experience to dispel the stereotype of intellectual inferiority.  The extra pressure to succeed can…deplete the student’s memory[] or require energy to suppress negative thoughts, which means that less of the student’s energy and effort can be focused on the task.”  Id. at 103-104. 

The label for this phenomenon, studied for a quarter-century, is “stereotype threat.”  It has been defined alternately as 

  • When people are aware of a negative stereotype about their group, they often worry that their performance on a particular task might end up confirming other people’s beliefs about their group. Psychologists use the term stereotype threat to refer to this state in which people are worried about confirming a group stereotype.  
  • [N]egative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-taker’s mind, resulting in the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” Psychologists Claude Steele, PhD, Joshua Aronson, PhD, and Steven Spencer, PhD, have found that even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance.  

Research studies have shown the following: 

  • When women were given a math test, some were told that men and women had performed equally well on this type of challenge and others were told that men and women scored differently.  Those who received the latter type of information scored lower than those told that men and women did equally well.  All were “top performers” in math. 

These are exemplary of numerous studies confirming the phenomenon of stereotype threat.  They leave two questions.  How can such threats be mitigated or removed; and is there anything in how we teach advocacy skills that might engender such threats? 

Without studies in the law school (and skills course) contexts there aren’t specific proven preventive or ameliorative steps.  But drawing from the numerous studies in other educational setting, some possibilities emerge.  These include: 

  • Having a diverse faculty. 
  • Encouraging self-affirming reflections before or at the beginning of a semester. [One option is to ask every student to submit a paragraph or two listing what strength(s) or trait(s) the student believes will make them good advocates and to elaborate on why these are positives.  This proposal models ones detailed in the Cohen et al paper listed in the resources section, below, and in the book THE GUIDE TO BELONGING IN LAW SCHOOL by Professor McClain.] 
  • Affirming abilities and performances. 
  • Showing videos or having demonstrations of skills using diverse students rather than only Whites. 
  • Having testimonials (live or video) of students of all backgrounds explaining how, even if difficult at the beginning of the course, they gained the skills and excelled. 
  • Finding video clips of more than My Cousin Vinny – whether Hollywood or actual trial recordings – where the lawyers are from diverse backgrounds. 
  • Making clear that the skills practices are not a test but a tool for learning.  The same may be true with practice exams in doctrinal classes. 
  • Avoiding any messaging that certain skills are proxies for or correlate with intelligence or that might trigger concern over stereotypes (e.g., critiquing attire or speech patterns). 

I don’t claim expertise here.  There is more to be studied and learned, but one thing is beyond dispute.  Stereotype threat is real, and ‘disabling’ and avoiding triggering it should be core to our teaching and coaching. 


For more resources beyond those cited here, see 

Claude M. Steele, WHISTLING VIVALDI, W.W. Norton & Co. (Norton 2010) 

Russell McClain, THE GUIDE TO BELONGING IN LAW SCHOOL (West, 2020)  

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N. & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310, 

Mindset and Stereotype Threat: Small Interventions ThatMake a Big Difference 

Posted By Marie K. Norman, PhD, and Michael Bridges, PhD On January 11, 2018 @ 5:52 am InDiversity and Inclusion,Motivating Students | Focus _ Higher Ed Teaching and Learning Minds