Implicit Biasses and Inclusive Pedagogy

Until recently, most of my thoughts associated with teaching concerned “what” I am going to teach, I had never consciously thought about “whom” I am going to address. After reading this week’s literatures, I found this blind spot in myself. I had never before reflected upon this fact, that in a classroom, one addresses diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, races and religions; that, everyone may not have similar reaction to the teaching practices and discussions; and that just by being aware of this diversity, we can have more inclusive pedagogical practices.

I would like to mention a couple of instances from the scale-up introductory Physics class that I TA for, that made me consciously think about my own implicit biasses:

This is the discussion-based class where we have students sitting in groups in round tables. While grading the free-response questions for their first exam, we found that the group of international students in the class did not perform as good as the rest of the class, in fact their average score was significantly lower that the rest of the class. This reflected poorly on the instructors as well as the TA’s. So the first step for us was to identify the problem. We immediately inferred that language-barrier was one of the major issues that could have led to this disparity. The students chose their own sitting arrangement on the first couple of days of class. One of the corner tables is occupied by 90% international/ non-English speaking students. So, while in-class discussion goes on in each table, this corner table is one of the last that we cover and hence they always get a little less time to interact with us. Except for one or two who are confident English speakers, most of them barely ever participated in discussion. Since then, we have modified our approach to be more inclusive. Having recognized that these students need more attention, we spend more time on their table, we urge them to take part in the discussions. We specifically ask them to come to office hours and recitations where we can spend more time on them individually. The ones among them who are faster at understanding and more confident, we encourage them to help and explain to their friends in their own language.

Upon reflection, I also realized that I would unconsciously tend to interact more with those students who are already eager and enthusiastic to discuss their answer and thoughts. Similar bias creeps up when I grade their homework. I would tend to be more lenient or more carefully grade the students who are visibly putting an effort and are eager to perform better. However unintentional and natural this behavioral trend may be, I realized this doesn’t serve the goal of being an effective TA. I have since been making a conscious effort to work on these biasses. Now I make sure not to look the names of the students when I am grading. Also, in class I would go and talk the less interactive students sometimes forcing them out of their comfort zone. However, it is surprising to see how these little acts of encouragement have improved some of their performances!

Human brain is not perfect and I am sure there are many more such hidden unconscious biasses within us. For me, the most important assignment from this week’s GEDI prompt was to self-reflect and recognize some of these biases, their origin and how they are affecting the people around us.


12 Replies to “Implicit Biasses and Inclusive Pedagogy”

  1. Thank you so much for your post! It was so interesting and encouraging to hear about some of your experiences in the classroom and how you are becoming aware of and changing some possible biases. One of the difficult things (and something that honestly makes me nervous personally) is that our biases usually are what you said, a blind spot. They’re usually something that we are not even aware of, but that nonetheless impact our actions. Though I have become aware of some of my personal biases and am actively working against those, I wonder how many subconscious biases I am yet you become aware of. Thanks again for your courageous post!

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    1. Thank you Shannon, yes mostly we are unaware of such biasses. But also, being biassed is quiet natural. I think becoming more mindful and aware of their existance is what is important.

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  2. Great post-Riya. It was fun reading your personal experiences involving biases. I am starting to realize this as well. We are unknowingly biased a lot of times. I wonder if we can work on this as you said. I have also experienced my biased behavior when it comes to assignment corrections.

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  3. Great post-Riya! Thank you for sharing your experience. When I think about it I can relate to your experiences. Because most of the time, you interact with the students who talk and ask questions. In the class I was a TA last semester, the instructor asked all the TAs to be there in the lecture to help the students(when they are doing problems or group activities). There were few tables who ask questions all the time and there were few who did not ask questions or help at all. The lecture was not structured as yours so with the limited time we had, students who don’t talk much won’t get enough attention. It is really great what you did in your class. So that all the students get attention and help in the classroom.

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    1. Thanks Rathsara! Yes, I think it is great we are part of these interactive class structures, and gives us scope to go beyond regular methods and try different approaches. Of course we can never have 100% students fully involved, but we can always try and engage as many of them as possible.

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  4. This is a perfect example where building trust between educator/TA and students can be a great asset. So, in your example, deciphering the reason why some students are not engaging requires a deeper understanding of their world. on the other hand, the students have to trust their TA with their vulnerabilities to be able to move past it. What I really like about it is that it HAS to go beyond knowing the material and having the technical knowledge.

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    1. Hey Arash, yes you are absolutely right! If technical knowledge was all, then everything these days is available online, no one would bother to physically attend a class (which happened to me during my college time, where I conveniently skipped classes because I could find better online lectures). The whole point of holding lectures or having teaching assistants is to make sure “learning” is a lot more than that; so that the students can engage and interact more. And the interaction doesn’t have to be just about the lecture content but also about anything else that they might need help with!

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  5. Riya, thank you for sharing your experience. I found it very relatable when you talked about unconsciously interacting and engaging more with students who were eager and enthusiastic in class. I have noticed myself doing this as well and try so hard to not favor certain students. I think that these biases/favoritism elements will always be a part of us because of human nature but as long as we are recognizing, acknowledging, and reflecting on how these may effect our students, we are doing the best that we can.

    -Minh

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  6. Riya, thank you for this post! Sounds like you did a lot of self-reflection, which is an important part of teaching. It’s true that we will never really be completely unbiased, but it is important to recognize it. I too, have stopped looking at names when grading and have made more of an effort with students that don’t participate as much in class. Unfortunately, until recently I didn’t realize that I am biased in the way I approach students, I tend to be more drawn to students that participate more because it makes me feel more fulfilled. which is just not okay!

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  7. During my Master’s I had an econometrics professor who would only truly interact with students who were mathematicians or statisticians and could engage in theoretical discussions on whatever he was interested in talking about. The rest of the class sort of sat there, lost for semester. The difficult part, was when this was raised in office hours of reaching to the middle, he refused. From this moment, I have always told my classes that we are co-creating education and attempt to be humble.

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