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April 13, 2017

Teaching at Pitt


The bias spectrum

Examining our biases can be a difficult and painful process. We avoid some things implicitly, meaning biases lurk beneath the surface in our subconscious and often shape our thoughts and beliefs in ways we don’t recognize immediately. When we eat at a restaurant with our friends, go to a concert or watch TV at home alone, our attitudes and beliefs go with us.

They also are with us when we write a syllabus, construct a learning activity or teach in a classroom.

There are many approaches to monitoring, altering and minimizing the biases we have. Here are a few techniques faculty can use to explore where some implicit biases may exist. It’s a personal quest to sort through some of our dirty laundry.

• If you want to look at some of the more hidden areas in which you may have a bias, consider visiting Project Implicit (, an instrument developed collaboratively by researchers at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington to help uncover unconscious biases in social attitudes. By spending a few minutes taking an online implicit association test, you can learn more about yourself. While no tool is perfect, your results can shed light on kinds of bias that you might not have considered before.

• Facebook also is a great place to start your exploration. Consider using PolitEcho (a free plug-in that works in Chrome) to analyze your connections and likes. A simple visualization will tell you a lot about just how far to one side you lean politically. It requires no tool to know whom you unfriended over the years. It’s interesting to question whether you might be “blocking” a student subconsciously because they are saying or doing something that makes you uncomfortable, or because they represent something about which you hold a bias. Facebook isn’t your classroom, yet it could shed light on the way you think about some topics.

• Have you ever looked at your student opinion of teaching survey (Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching) results to see if students make a comment that speaks directly (or indirectly) about a bias they perceive in your teaching? While student evaluations of teaching should just be one component of how we look at teaching effectiveness, the comments can reveal things that we might otherwise overlook. Students can offer some thoughtful comments that might be helpful to you.

Another way to explore where you fall on the bias spectrum is to pay close attention to your reactions, responses and heart rate in your classroom. What topics do your students bring up that have you running for the door? Are there certain students with whom you avoid interacting simply because they represent something that makes you uncomfortable? How many times have you had a physical response (increased heart rate, increased sweating) to something a student said, and how did that physical reaction affect your interaction with the student? You probably aren’t even aware of it in some cases.

When you have these reactions, it’s good practice to acknowledge your feelings shortly after class. Answering questions in a reflective journal can be very helpful. You might ask yourself:

— What happened in class today?

— What did I do and say?

— Did I ever feel uncomfortable?

— Did I do anything that shut the student down?

A journal gives you the space to speak freely and openly about what took place in your classroom. Over time, you might see trends in your response to certain topics, attitudes or even people. Once you recognize this, you can look at whether you want to take some kind of action to improve or change your teaching, facilitation or even your belief system.

We are living and teaching in a time of deep conflict in our country. Pennsylvania, and the many communities that make up the state, are fragmented into small sects of people who often believe that they cannot talk to the other side.

Faculty should make it a personal and professional goal to not let that spirit invade their classrooms. Students must learn how to examine, take apart and share conflicting ideas in a way that is respectful. They learn this best when faculty model those behaviors and offer an environment where everyone is heard. We must find ways to host and promote civil conversations in the classroom, whether face-to-face or virtual.

An important part of teaching is learning a little more about ourselves and the biases of which we aren’t fully aware.

Joe Horne is the director of the Teaching Commons division of the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

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