5 Stereotype Threat: An Approach to Motivating Non-English Speaking Students to Speak Up Confidently

Sara Jalali


Stereotype threat is known as a phenomenon in which some students experienced more tension and difficulties than other students who don’t have the same feelings in similar situations. This will cause them to underperform (Spencer et al. 2016) significantly. Stereotype threat can impact anyone, but minorities and women can be affected dramatically in some specific incidents. As a result, the performance in academic and non-academic domains will be affected following this situation. Using self-defeating behaviors, disengagement, and altered professional aspirations are also a few potential outcomes afterward.

This stereotype threat phenomenon was first observed and named by Stanford Professor Emeritus Claude Steele and colleagues (1995) and independently verified by a number of other researchers (O’Connor, 2015). Too often it is assumed that students arriving in English speaking countries have not been contacted with different subjects as they cannot interpret themselves very well in English and as a result, this will be a call to dumping down the students as a stereotype effect. Looking Glass Self is a sociological-psychological concept presented by Charles Cooley in 1902. Interpersonal interaction in society is described by this concept. According to this model, we believe what people think we are and start seeing ourselves like what they see us. Cooley also goes beyond this definition and emphasizes on how other people impact on our self-concept. The definition of Looking Glass Self contrasts the basic idea that other people have the greatest impact on an individual’s self-concept (Siljanovska L; Stojcevska S, 2019). This results in us changing our actions and behaviors based on how others see us. International students might have a feeling that since their English is not as good as natives, they will make them bored. Other students might give a negative impression to them that causes them to speak less in the class, and as a result, they will get a negative reinforcement to speak less at the class. Fear of failure is another reason to be a volunteer to talk. Fear of failure has been defined as “persistent and irrational anxiety about failing to measure up to the standards and goals set by oneself or others” (American Psychological Association 2007, p. 369).  Even with the digital world, it’s not possible to hide behind the computers forever to avoid people and feel safe for not making mistakes.

In this article, we will investigate the sources of the stereotype threat in international students that prevent them from feeling confident to speak up in classroom settings and also in online environments. We will also talk about the different ways to motivate students and help them to self-regulate the situations for a better outcome in the classroom and real-life situations. Providing an equal opportunity for all of the students in a class will help to have a more productive environment to enrich the process of learning and teaching. We will also discuss this phenomenon and will discuss some practical recommendations for both students and instructors to deal with similar situations in academic environments. International students come from different cultural, academic, economic, and social backgrounds, and they need to have some time to adjust themselves to the new environment.

Literature Review

The term, stereotype threat, was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995). In some of their research, they showed that Black college freshmen performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. It has also shown that stereotype threat can impact academic performance negatively. Everyone belongs to at least one group that is characterized by some sort of stereotype. “women in math, Spencer et al. 1999; Whites with regard to appearing racist (Frantz et al. 2004); students from low socioeconomic backgrounds compared to students from high socioeconomic backgrounds on intellectual tasks (Croizet & Claire, 1998; and men compared with women on social sensitivity (Koenig & Eagly, 2005).

Chue and Nie (2016) examined the psychological factors that contribute to motivation and learning among local and international students. In their research, they found out that there is a difference in the effects of motivation on learning approaches between the two groups.

Over 300 experiments have illustrated the deleterious and extensive effects that stereotype threat can inflict on many different populations. Pentington et al. (2016) had extensive meta-analysis research which has examined different factors, conditions, or situations that may irritate the stereotype phenomena in educational or social settings. The stereotype threat may impact on many psychological aspects of learning, memory (Schmader & Johns, 2003), mental rotation, math tests, sports activities, driving (Skorich et al., 2013), and fine motor skills following some major changes in working memory, cognitive load, mind-wandering, negative thinking, cognitive appraisal, and self-efficacy (Pengtinoton et al., 2016).

Skorich et al. (2013) examined whether effort mediated the effects of implicit and explicit stereotypes on drivers’ performance on a perception test. They concluded that participants in the explicit group showed more hazards because they might have aimed to disprove the stereotype. Goldberg (1973), in an experiment, showed that students with low self-esteem have more fear of failure than the other experimental group with higher self-esteem.

Another concept that needs to be considered in motivating students in the classroom settings is Self-handicapping. This term was originally conceived by Jones and Berglas (1978). Self-handicapping strategy is used by some students to protect themselves when they are threatened to lose their self-confidence. Bringing excuses prior to activities such as I am sick, or I had a bad day can be used to protect him or her to lose self-esteem prior to doing a task. The students might use this strategy to construct obstacles to future success in case of the failure to be referred to that reason.

Chu & Nie, 2016 suggested self-determined motivation and support for international students. Running separate dialogue sessions for them can also develop a sense of connectedness (Niemienc and Ryan, 2009). Instructions during lessons could also emphasize a caring aspect by recognizing that each student has his or her own interests and emotions (Sheldon & Filak, 2008).

Asking students about their needs and providing some modified versions of the lesson can help them to adjust their pace with the whole class gradually (Stefanou, Perencevich, DiCintio, & Turner, 2004). International students may not be proficient in English, display patience, and understand their struggles to concentrate and talk about the subject will increase their self-determination level.

Practical Recommendations for Instructors and Instructional Designers

  • Create a learning environment where mistakes are valued as opportunities to facilitate and enhance the learning process. Learning about scientists that have been in the same situation might encourage the students to think out loud and not being afraid of making mistakes. Hong and Lin-Seigler (2012) have identified that learning about struggles faced by famous physicists and introducing role models, enhanced students’ interest in science and problem-solving.
  • When creating oral tests and assessments that students need to answer promptly, providing enough time for international students can help them to think about what they are going to talk about. To encourage a sense of belonging is another important factor to give the feeling to students that are seen and acknowledged in class. Students in similar situations have shown improvement in their academic and health status compared with students who do not receive these messages (Walton and Cohen, 2011).
  • An instructor needs to allocate enough time for students, depending on their needs and abilities. Providing a friendly environment by using some strategies for students to get to know each other and learn from each other is an essential parameter to have a successful class.
  • Instructional designers need to consider the motivational models while establishing and developing courses for international students. ARCS model by Keller, 2009 is proved to be useful to consider, especially in the “relevance” part of the model, to establish the courses according to the personal needs of the international students, which might be significantly different from native students. Using a different type of communication, including visuals, verbal, auditory files, and PDFs will help the students to have a better understanding of the subjects.
  • Building confidence also plays an important role in designing and teaching courses. It is important to give a feeling to all students that they are welcomed and respected. As an instructor, there are some tips that might help to give that feeling to students. Having pause while speaking and making sure that all students have learned and understood what you just said. Rephrasing is also, asking questions and giving feedback are also important to apply in a classroom setting.
  • There are some cultural allusions that might affect learning that also needs to be clarified. International students might need more time to adjust their pace to the class. Be patient. When calling on volunteers, it’s always important to consider the individual difference and different abilities to respond to the questions. Again, being patient and fair is the key to having a productive environment. Calling names is another strategy when there are only some specific students who are answering the questions. Instead of asking questions like: did you understand? Do you have any questions? Ask some content questions to provoke and evaluate their understanding.
  • Clustering students in groups with different backgrounds and ethnicity might help to have a more friendly environment. It is important to check with students to make sure they are comfortable with each other and encourage them to share their knowledge and learn from each other.


The acknowledgment of diversity is the key to help international students to build confidence. When students come from abroad, they might not be given enough credit for what they know in their own language. By celebrating diversity, students will feel more comfortable to speak up and spread the ideas in classroom settings. The whole idea of writing this article was to investigate some solutions for international students to have more confidence to speak up in classroom settings. All students and the instructor need to respect the idea that a classroom is a place for all ideas and good conversations, and they need to practice their responsibilities to participate in making an energetic, productive class that is beneficial for all students, including international and local students.

In general, helping students to construct their learning environment is the job of the instructor or facilitator. Learning about the students’ backgrounds, needs, and desires will help both the instructional designer and the instructor to set suitable goals for each student and lead them to achieve their goals. Motivating the students is an important role for both the instructional designer and the teacher to reach the goals. According to Keller, 2009, gaining attention, writing relevant goals according to the needs of the learners, Helping them achieve confidence in what they are doing and taking them to a level of satisfaction of what they have done, will reach the role of the instructional designer and the instructor to the point. These four items together will help the instructor to lead the learners to complete the task and reach their goals while enjoying it the most.

Gaining the learner’s attention and interest for learning the subject, providing a bridge between the subject and the real world, providing success expectations, which will lead to confidence. It will also assist them in earning satisfaction with what they have done in this process. Moreover, it will help all students, including non-English speaker students, to experience an enjoyable moment together, along with an equal opportunity for all to study and learn. Fostering a positive learning environment, building rapport with all students and helping them to know each other and learn from each other will provide a productive class which will benefit both students and the instructor. To ensure a fear-free environment is another responsibility of the instructor in a classroom setting. Fear will act as a barrier and will diminish the process of learning, especially for new students or students with a minority. Trying to know students and providing the opportunity for them to know each other will also help them to overcome that fear and be more predictive.

Mistakes can also need to be considered as a learning opportunity to reduce the fear among students to speak up and be comfortable to share their understanding with class. Fostering mastery as an intrinsic motivator will help students to act more productive as it is shown that people are highly motivated when they are at a high level of mastery in what they do (Green, 2015). Mastering in speaking up can be considered as a desirable goal for an international student to achieve in an English-speaking environment.


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