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Headlines Published on 22 September 2008

SCIENCE & SOCIETY
Title Stereotype threat may affect student performance

Does ethnicity play a role in how medical students perform in the United Kingdom? Latest research from the UCL Academic Centre for Medical Education (ACME) suggests that it does. According to the research team, the underperformce in exams of ethnic minorities may be due to 'stereotype threat', the risk of confirming a negative stereotype of a group with which one identifies. The findings were recently published in the British Medical Journal.

Underperformance during exams is an issue for ethnic minorities © Shutterstock
Underperformance during exams is an issue for ethnic minorities
© Shutterstock

The data showed that about a third of the UK medical student population is represented by ethnic minorities. Compared to their white counterparts, said the researchers, these students have been shown to significantly underperform during exams.

Australian and US researchers have reported similar results in recent years. The current study, led by UCL ACME, was sparked by US research that discovered that African American university students achieve poorer results in their exams because they are concerned about living up to negative stereotypes about how capable their ethnic group is. Researchers call this psychological phenomenon a stereotype threat.

Katherine Woolf, a PhD student at UCL ACME and lead author of the study, said: 'The problem in applying stereotype threat to UK medical students is that the majority of ethnic minority medical students here are from South Asian backgrounds, and it is not fully clear whether negative stereotypes exist about that group.'

For the purposes of this study, the researchers interviewed an ethnic mix of Year 3 medical students and their clinical teachers. Based on the results, the researchers reported that negative stereotypes about UK Asian medical students existed for both the clinical teachers, the majority of which are doctors, and medical students. These students, they said, are too dependent on book learning and extremely quiet in the classroom. It should be noted, however, that the research team found no evidence of direct discrimination.

Ms Woolf remarked that the purpose of the study was to determine whether negative stereotypes of that group are actually present. The study also aimed to determine whether stereotype threat influences the performance of the students; if it is 'one reason that UK ethnic minority medical students are underperforming academically', she said.

Does the stereotype threat occur because of the negative stereotypes that exist with both the teachers and students? Ms Woolf said it's possible. 'We found that both students and teachers considered the student-teacher relationship to be a vital part of learning, but some clinical teachers disliked teaching and could behave antagonistically towards students whom they perceived as having "negative" attributes (e.g. being quiet in class),' the doctoral student explained.

'Students also reported being unable to learn from unenthusiastic or intimidating teachers, suggesting that negative stereotyping might adversely affect Asian medical students' learning by interfering with their educational relationships with teachers.'

Professor Jane Dacre, who is UCL's Division of Medical Education chief, said the findings show that more research is required into the effects of stereotype threat in UK medical schools, as well as in 'fostering positive education relationships between all students and their clinical teachers'.









More information:

  • ACL Academic Centre for Medical Education
  • British Medical Journal







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