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UDL in 15 Minutes with Andretesha Fitzgerald

Stereotype Threat

During my conversation with Andretesha Fitzgerald, she told a powerful story about her learners’ growth in leadership. It all stemmed from a newspaper article about the city in which they live, East Cleveland. Within the podcast, Antretesha quotes the phrase “three miles of misery” from that article. From there, she tells a wonderful story of empowerment, growth, and connection. What I want to talk about is the connection between what that newspaper writer wrote, the unseen consequences, and how UDL helps educators design an environment that mitigates those unseen consequences. What I’m talking about here is something called stereotype threat. To get to that discussion, let’s take a quick look at the affective networks as they are discussed within the UDL framework.

The affective networks are the brain networks that guide us to determine what matters to us and the actions we’re going to take. Within those networks are the emotional, motivational, and biological drivers that propel our everyday decision-making and actions. While thirst or hunger are examples of biological drivers, the emotional and motivational drivers within our affective networks (linked to the principle of engagement) are also a doorway to learning.

Learning is more accessible when we feel safe and connected to an environment. Threats that can keep students from learning can include a loud environment where it’s really hard to concentrate, popcorn reading where students don’t know when it’s going to be their turn and they experience so much stress about it that they cannot hear what’s being read out loud by others, or not feeling connected to anyone else in the learning environment. Another significant example is when learners internalize negative descriptions about themselves. They see themselves through the negative stereotype’s others use to define them and then the learners come to believe those negative stereotypes. This is called stereotype threat. These internalized threats keep the learners from performing to their potential; an unseen consequence.

A seminal research study conducted by Steele and Aronson (1995) identified stereotype threat as a reason for the achievement gap experienced by African American students. This thorough study provided compelling evidence of this issue. In another study by Cohen et al. (2009), it was found that learners who were provided several opportunities to write affirming, self-valuing statements about themselves performed better on standardized assessments. For example, the learners recognized a skill they had or a positive relationship they had with others and their part in developing that relationship. When learners participated in this simple act, the achievement gap closed by over 40 percent. Returning to the affective networks, this really demonstrates the tight relationship we have with perception. In this case, the specific link was the learners’ perception of the task difficulty and their culturally constructed identity. In short, how we perceive ourselves as learners directly impacts our learning outcomes and that perception can be deeply affected by the stereotypes others hold about us.

So, where does the application of UDL fit with all of this? Take a close look at Recruiting Interest. I’ve already talked about minimizing threats and distractions, but learners also need to see authentic examples about themselves and those with whom they connect.

Rightfully so, there is a lot of talk about giving our students the opportunity to see representations of themselves in their coursework and environment and we should be bringing those forward, but we also need to give our learners the opportunity to find and add those individuals with whom they identify. Instead of assigning who they will research for a project, give them parameters via a rubric to help them know the accomplishments or experiences that person must have (e.g., how the person contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, astronauts and the experiments they led, musicians that have been at the forefront of their genre). Give learners the opportunity to learn more deeply about the subject through the eyes of someone they connect with and then make the information part of your environment. The latter part of that is really, really important because you are affirming their choices and their perceptions.

Andretesha’s students were fortunate. They had a pair of teachers who led them through a process of identifying a personal connection with their community or issues beyond their community and then acting on that connection through a letter-writing campaign. It is a fantastic example of empowerment through advocacy. All of this stemmed from an article that laid the groundwork for the students to experience stereotype threat. Instead, these effective educators gave their students the opportunity to practice being purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. Those learners experienced what it felt like to be an expert learner.


Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie Vaughns, V., Apfel, N. & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science 324(5925): 400–403. doi: 10.1126 /science.1170769.

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Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811.