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.