Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

A rhyme I’m sure we’ll all familiar with, perhaps one that we hurled back at someone teasing us as kids. We teach our kids that words don’t hurt, when we know darn well that they do. And science has proved over and over that words impact the way that we take tests and perform in the classroom (anywhere actually). It’s called stereotype threat:

…the fear that one’s behavior will confirm an existing stereotype of a group with which one identifies. This fear can sometimes affect performance.

One recent study [pdf] on stereotype threat had women taking math tests and looking for the cause of poor performance due to the threat.

Because it is not enough to say we know stereotype threat exists and then lather women and other stereotyped groups with love. Why does a woman excellent in math crumble under the weigh of mentioning that “girls don’t do math” before an exam? It seems that our brains spend precious time and energy sorting out our feelings about the stereotype during the exam AND not just that, but it lingers. Thus if we fear the math in a class, say economics, we will fear everything that goes with economics.

We know that economics and statistics is far more than just algebra and geometry, but if that is our weak spot, we will focus so much on that, that we just might submarine our efforts. During graduate school the #1 class that caused students to flunk out was stats. During that year long course (two semesters!) I heard women say time and again, “I’m just not good at math.” My program had also experimented with teaching a math prep course using a computer program before the semester started. Despite the fact that I am a total math geek and my favorite class in high school was geometry (Mmmm….proofs….) and I have a bachelors in science, I was floored at how much basic algebra had rotted away over the years. I am pretty ashamed that I can’t just tell you what sine and cosine mean off the top of my head.

But here’s something I learned in my years working in a lab as an undergraduate: Scientists have reference books on hand. They aren’t doing science off the top of their brilliant heads. Yes, they have it pretty much in their heads, but when it comes time to do an experiment or calculate the frequency of fish fins flapping, they reach for a book or list of formulas. Scientists being pure geniuses is a stereotype!

Lesson? You do need to remember how to calculate wavelength during an exam, but once you get past that, you can whip out that formula sheet anytime. Yes, you will need to know certain things off the top of your head, but when you study the same molecule over 20 years, things will start to stick.

The next time you sit down at that math exam  and you start to sweat, stop and breathe. Remember that you are you. If you miss one problem, no biggie. No one is perfect. But do you want to spend your energy remembering that one jerk teacher who said you can’t do it or do you want to prove to yourself how much you kick ass? OK, so maybe love does have a place in killing off stereotypes.