First (and later) Impressions

Why do we dress up and behave more formally than usual for job interviews? Because we know that first impressions and stereotype expectations are important. Research has shown how being informed of stereotypes can affect negatively one's performance, as when women are told about men being better at math before taking a math test. The opposite is also true. That is, being informed about a stereotype threat can reduce or eliminate its effects). And, in addition, belonging to a positive stereotype ethnicity can impair performance as in some research with Asian-American women.

As the Mungers (Cognitive Daily) point out,

The impact of stereotypes clearly is complex—we've reported on positive, negative, and neutral effects (as in the case of gender here). Perhaps this experiment's findings on Asian-American women won't be replicated with other groups. What's certain is that stereotypes do have an important impact on performance.

So, how does this play out in the second language classroom? One way is in the stereotypical expectations my students have concerning writing in English as represented by their comments, often at the beginning of a course, and occasionally throughout the semester. They often say,

  • Writing is hard because it's not my native language.
  • Writing in Spanish (or another L1) is easy [although they may not have any experience writing in Spanish].

Some of their comments imply,

  • I must be stupid because I don't understand what I should be doing.
  • I must be incompetent because I can't get this right.

Obviously, it's important to establish a classroom environment that's supportive and nurturing. Just as important is an environment that counters stereotypical expectations. In this case, students have the impression that learning should be easy and that because they're ESL students, writing will be too difficult for them to master. To counter these impressions, on the first day of class, I begin with,

In this class, you will be confused throughout the semester. And that's great! Because it means you're learning! If you aren't confused, at least a little, then it means you already know this material and will be bored. In contrast, confusion means an opportunity for learning to take place.

Simply setting the tone at the beginning that "confusion is normal" and "confusion is important for learning" is not enough; it must permeate the course environment. So throughout the semester, as students show confusion and sometimes frustration, my response is, "Great! We're about to learn something!" And I remind them of Dudley Herschbach, Nobel laureate in chemistry, who stated,

You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.

Thus, by building a new stereotype (a true one) that confusion is a normal part of learning, students' expectations about writing in a second language slowly change toward an attitude supporting their learning instead of one defeating it.