Instructor Identity: Part I. Student Implicit Bias

id-wheelby Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

As part of our year-long theme, Inclusive Teaching, we have been focusing on ways in which instructors can create equitable learning environments for all of their students. While we examine the variety of student needs and identities in our classrooms, it can be easy to forget that instructor identities, and how they are perceived by students, are also an integral part of the learning context.

When an instructor’s identity and a student’s implicit bias[1] are mismatched, an undercurrent of dissonance can occur, which can lead to small and large disruptions of the teaching and learning that occurs in a class. For instance, a friend of mine who identifies as Asian-American, discussed with me the fact that although she has lived in the U.S. since she was a very young child and speaks perfect English, she receives at least one comment in her teaching evaluations each semester that states, “Because Dr. Blank is foreign, I cannot understand what she is saying in class.” Regardless of how clear and articulate her language is, some students will register her as unclear because the way she looks matches an implicit bias those students have toward people who look like her.

Other common biases that instructors talk to me about on regular occasions are notions about how “nurturing” female instructors should be and what that looks like in a classroom setting, or about what type of hairstyle or attire is “professional” for an instructor. The list goes on and on, but what makes these biases so powerful in the classroom is that, for the most part, they are subconscious[2]; students often do not realize they have these preconceived ideas nor that these biases are getting in the way of their learning. Not only does students’ implicit bias impede their own and other students’ potential learning, but also it can be extremely damaging to instructors who are working against stereotype threat[3]. The implications for instructors in these situations can be quite stark both personally and professionally.

Assisting students in uncovering their implicit biases by taking some class time in the first week of the term to discuss expectations for teaching and learning as well as to present some common biases that instructors experience and witness can go a long way to setting up the course to be a positive experience for both students and the instructor.  Presenting a mixture of both identity bias and content bias in the conversation works as a way to triangulate those ideas that may hinder learning, as well as to make it clear why this conversation is an important and useful one to have regardless of the subject area of the course.

One way to enter into this kind of discussion is to start with students’ own identities. It is common to use one of the many different identity “inventories” to start students down the path of uncovering who they are and which values impact their identities and viewpoints. In order to add another layer of insight to the discussion, these inventories can also be modified to be inventories of the “identity” of a content area, which will uncover some of those implicit biases students have about a course as well as who and how that course “should” be taught. Some areas to examine are: Who is a (scientist, journalist, nurse, philosopher)?, What type of knowledge is learned in (insert course or subject area)?, How is knowledge in (insert subject area) used? Who benefits from knowledge in this area? Who teaches (insert subject area)? How do I learn (insert subject area)? Adding this new layer of exploration can be the essential component to moving the discussion into effects on teaching and learning that implicit bias may exert.

If you would like to discuss the effects of implicit bias on the teaching and learning happening in your classroom, contact the Reinert Center to set up a teaching consultation.


[1] To learn more about implicit bias, read Sandy Gambill’s Notebook post here. [LINK]

[2] Certainly, not all bias is implicit. Many instructors also face very real, very explicit bias on a daily basis from their students and colleagues.

[3] To learn more about stereotype threat in the classroom consult the following resource guides: “Reducing Stereotype Threat in the Classroom” [LINK] and “Understanding Stereotype Threat” [LINK], or join our conversation of Claude Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu.

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