Can We Close the Racial Grade Gap?

July 25th, 2015 / By

In response to last week’s post about the racial gap in law school grades, several professors sent me articles discussing ways to ameliorate this gap. Here are two articles that readers may find useful:

1. Sean Darling-Hammond (a Berkeley Law graduate) and Kristen Holmquist (Director of Berkeley’s Academic Support Program), Creating Wise Classrooms to Empower Diverse Law Students.

2. Edwin S. Fruehwald, How to Help Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds Succeed in Law School.

Another excellent choice is Claude Steele‘s popular book, Whistling Vivaldi. Steele, who is currently Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley, is a leading psychology researcher. He originated the phrase “stereotype threat,” which explains a key cognitive mechanism behind the reduced performance of minority students in higher education. In his book, Steele offers highly accessible explanations of this mechanism.

Even better, the book describes some experimentally tested approaches for reducing stereotype threat and improving performance of minority students. The psychologists have not found a magic tonic, but they are pursuing some promising ideas.

How Hard Will It Be?

Many of the ideas offered by Steele, Darling-Hammond, Holmquist, and Fruehwald rest on principles of good teaching. We should, for example, teach all of our students how to read cases and analyze statutes, rather than let them flounder to learn on their own. The analytical skills of “thinking like a lawyer” can be taught and learned; they are not simply talents that arise mysteriously in some students.

Similarly, we should cover the basics in our courses, explaining the legal system rather than brushing over those introductory chapters as “something you can read if you need to review.” The latter approach is likely to increase stereotype threat, because it suggests “you don’t belong here and you’re behind already” to students who lack that information. Besides, you’d be surprised how many law students don’t understand the concept of a grand jury–even when they take my second-year Evidence course.

Positive feedback and formative assessment are also important tools; these techniques, like the ones described above, can benefit all students. They may be especially important for minority students, however, who are likely to suffer from both social capital deficits (i.e., lack of knowledge about how to study for law school exams) and culturally imposed self doubts. By giving students opportunities to try out their law school wings, and then offering constructive feedback, we can loosen some of the handicaps that restrain performance.

Harder Than That

These approaches, as well as others mentioned in the articles at the beginning of this post, are worth trying in the classroom. I think, though, that it will be much harder than most white professors imagine to remove the clouds of stereotype threat.

In law schools, we like to imagine that racial bias happens somewhere else. We acknowledge that it occurred in the past and that some of our students still suffer inherited deficits. We also know that it happens in communities outside our walls, where bad things of all types happen. We may also concede that bias occurs in earlier stages of education, if only because many minority students attend low-performing schools.

We assume, however, that racial bias stops at our doors. Law schools, after all, are bastions of reason. Just as we refine “minds full of mush” to sharp analytic instruments, we surely wipe out any traces of bias in ourselves and out students.

This is a dangerously false belief. Race is a pervasive, deeply ingrained category in our psyches. The category may be cultural, rather than biological, but both science and everyday experience demonstrate its grip on us.

Humans, moreover, are exquisitely expressive and acutely sensitive. Micro expressions and body language convey biases we don’t consciously acknowledge. Other people receive those signals even more readily than they hear our spoken words. Reading the psychology literature on implicit bias is both humbling and eye opening. When designing cures for the racial grade gap, we need to grapple with our own unconscious behaviors–as well as with the fact that those of us who are white rarely know what it feels like (deep down, every day) to be a person of color in America.

For Example

Here’s one example of how difficult it may be to overcome the racial gap in law school grades. One useful technique, as mentioned above, is to give students supportive feedback on their work. To help minority students overcome stereotype threat, however, the feedback has to take a particular form.

On p. 162 of his book, Steele describes an experiment in which researchers offered different forms of feedback to Stanford undergraduates who had written an essay. After receiving the feedback, conveyed through extensive written comments, students indicated how much they trusted the feedback and how motivated they were to revise their essays. Importantly, students participating in the study all believed that the reader was white; they also knew that the reader would know their race because of photographs attached to the essays. (The experimental set-up made these conditions seem natural.)

White students showed little variation in how they responded to three types of feedback: (1) “unbuffered” feedback in which they received mostly critical comments and corrections on their essays; (2) “positive” feedback in which these comments were prefaced by a paragraph of the “overall nice job” kind; and (3) “wise” feedback in which the professor noted that he had applied a particularly high standard to the essay but believed the student could meet that standard through revision. All three of these feedback forms provided similar motivation to white students.

For Black students, however, the type of feedback generated significantly different results. The unbuffered feedback produced mistrust and little motivation; the Black students believed that the reader had stereotyped them as poor performers. Feedback prefaced by a positive comment was better; Black students were more likely to trust the feedback and feel motivated to improve. The wise feedback, however, was best of all. When students felt that a professor recognized their individual talent, and was willing to help them develop that talent, they responded enthusiastically.

Some researchers refer to this as the “Stand and Deliver” phenomenon, named for the story of a high school teacher who inspired his underprivileged Mexican-American students to learn calculus. Professors who set high standards, while conveying sincere signals that minority students can meet those standards, can close enormous achievement gaps.


The key word in the previous paragraph is “sincere.” To overcome stereotype threat and other forces restraining our minority students, it’s not enough to offer general messages of encouragement to a class. That worked for Jaime Escalante, the teacher who taught his disadvantaged students calculus, because he was talking to students who all suffered from disadvantage. Delivering the same message to a law school class in which most students are white won’t have much impact on the minority students. The minority students will assume that the professor is speaking primarily to the white students; if anything, this will increase stereotype threat.

Nor will individualized messages work if they follow our usual “overall nice job” format. I cringed when I read those words in the study described by Steele. How often have I written those very words on a paper that needed lots of improvement?

Instead, we have to find ways to convey individually to minority students that we believe they can meet very high standards. That’s a tough challenge because many of us (especially white professors) suffer from implicit biases telling us otherwise. Even if we use the right words, will our tone of voice, micro expressions, and body language signal those unconscious doubts?

Moving Forward

Some readers may dismiss my worry about unconscious bias; they may be certain that they view students of all races equally. Others may be discouraged by my concern, feeling that it is impossible to overcome these biases. Indeed, Steele and others have documented a phenomenon in which whites avoid close interactions with minorities because they fear that they will display their unconscious bias.

A third group of readers may whisper to themselves, “she’s overlooking the elephant in the room. Because of affirmative action, minority students at most law schools are less capable than their white peers.” That potential reaction is so important that I’ll address it in a separate post.

For now, I want to offer this thought to all readers: This will be hard. If we want to close the racial grade gap and help all students excel, we need to examine both our individual and institutional practices very closely. Some of that may be painful. If we can succeed, however, we will achieve a paramount goal–making our promises of racial equality tangible. Our success will affect, not only the careers of individual students, but the quality of the legal profession and the trust that citizens place in the legal system.

I will continue blogging about this issue, offering information about other cognitive science studies in the field. For those of you who would like to look at the study involving written feedback (rather than just read the summary in Steele’s book), it is: Geoffrey L. Cohen, Claude M. Steele & Lee D. Ross, The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide, 25 Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 1302 (1999).

If you want to explore the field on your own, use the database PsycINFO and search for “stereotype threat” as a phrase. Most universities have subscriptions to PsycINFO; if you are a faculty member, staff member, or student, you will be able to read full-text articles for no charge.


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