Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology Department at Seminole State College in Florida.
What is Implicit Bias?
Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, are attitudes and stereotypes that we unconsciously apply to certain groups of people. The term, implicit bias, was defined in 1995 by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald and is supported by many scientific articles in psychological literature. We all tend to organize, associate and categorize groups of people by color, age, gender, disability, etc., and this can both negatively and positively affect how we engage with them. Our world is a complicated place and these biases come from a need to find patterns and make sense of the people we come across on a daily basis. Culture, upbringing and the media also contribute to our biases, but many of us don’t even know they exist. However, research shows that engaging in bias training can help create awareness and combat implicit bias.
Effects of Implicit Bias
According to Johns Hopkins and Harvard research studies, the effects of implicit bias on students of color in higher education have been directly linked to lower expectations, over-critical grading procedures and indirectly to higher dropout/failure rates and lower outcomes. But they are not the only ones feeling the effects of implicit bias in higher education. Studies show that many other student groups are adversely affected as well, depending on the professor and their unconscious biases.
Every fall at Seminole State College (SSC), we sift through program data compiled by our institutional research department. This year our Dean, VP and President paid extra close attention to the difference in success rates between our white students and students of color. The difference was quite drastic between white women and black men. So much so that we have been tasked with addressing these discrepancies and creating a plan to make all student groups successful. Could this be a result of instructor bias toward students of color—especially black males—or the students’ own stereotype threat?
Tackling the topic of teacher bias can be uncomfortable. No one wants to think they are biased, especially those of us who devote so much time and energy to teaching our next generation. But even the most dedicated professor holds stereotypes and implicit biases that can affect their students and be harmful if not addressed.
Identifying Implicit Bias
Due to the racial unrest in the summer of 2020 and data from our college program reviews, all staff and faculty at SSC were required to complete unconscious bias training last fall. Understanding your biases is the first step in managing them, but because they are unconscious this can be difficult. Our training explained unconscious bias, how it affects the workplace/classroom and encouraged us to use this knowledge to combat our own biases.
Project Implicit, a non-profit organization run by academics at multiple universities, offers the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to help uncover implicit biases. Implicit bias is not necessarily directed to one specific race or gender but can also be towards those of a certain height, hair color, religion or age group. Do not feel ashamed by what you learn; we all have unconscious biases, the important part is being open to the process and learning from it.
How to Overcome and Avoid Implicit Bias
So how do we overcome implicit bias? Once you have the increased awareness, there are things you can do to limit and combat your biases.
- Talk about it, anticipate it, create systems to reduce it and hold yourself accountable.
- Be conscious of, reflect on and question your decisions.
- Work to increase empathy and empathic communication.
- Continue bias training and expand your contact with those groups you find you have biases towards to help counter any stereotypes you might have.
Research shows that prejudice and stereotypes decrease as we have more contact with different groups of people and the same applies to unconscious bias. One method that I have found very useful, especially during these isolated COVID times, is to “blind” yourself from others. Online learning is a perfect medium to practice “blind” teaching. If you can shield yourself from names, race, gender, language, age and appearance, you might have a more unbiased impression of your students. By not exposing yourself to information that could trigger your biases, you are less likely to act on it!
As an online instructor, I feel I have become more inclusive, equitable, empathetic and fair because I often don’t know my students’ gender, race, age, size, disability or nationality so my implicit bias does not get in the way. I create and encourage a community of learners and make a point of getting to know my students as personally as I can in an online environment. In fact, I feel like I get to know them better because they seem willing to share more online, than in person. Names of students with disabilities are provided, but once their accommodations are set in the system, I don’t memorize who they are or that they have a disability, unless they bring it up. The same goes for my student athletes. For me, this has alleviated any unconscious biases I might have based on that knowledge.
Becoming Part of the Solution
It is important that we all get comfortable being uncomfortable as we engage in dialogue about race and bias. Having discussions with college faculty and administrators about how implicit bias affects our students is a good start to addressing the problem. And recognizing and acknowledging our own implicit biases helps to ensure the well-being of those around us. In becoming more aware of our unconscious biases, we will be able to make better, fairer decisions in the classroom. We will also be in a better position to realize the benefits of diversity, and support equity and inclusion across our campuses. We may never be completely free of our biases, but if we work at it over time, we can reduce the effects of implicit bias and achieve better outcomes for all our students.
To learn more about creating an equitable learning environment, listen to our panel of expert educators in a recorded webinar: Online Inclusivity: Inspiring Learning for ALL Students.