10 Oct 2017

Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious Bias?

The start of a new academic year invariably leads me to reflect on the previous one. Whilst results and data inevitably play a key part in this process, actually my reflections tend to be broader; what went well and what didn’t. I also consider areas of my practice I want to develop and improve and this results in my ‘New Year Resolutions’, those key things I want to try out and experiment with throughout the year. Whilst doing a bit of educational Googling, I stumbled across a guide to unconscious bias produced by University of Plymouth entitled ‘7 Steps to: Mitigating Unconscious Bias in Teaching and Learning’. This struck a chord with me on a couple of levels; firstly, I studied for my Sociology degree at Plymouth so it holds a warm and fuzzy place in my heart but, more importantly, it led me to specifically consider the relationships and processes within my classroom in more depth and any unconscious bias that might influence my practice.

As a sociologist, considering the impact of labelling, stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecy are fundamental parts of the A Level I teach, and I am often to be found in my classroom discussing the research in this area and, in particular, the impact of teacher expectation on student performance. Therefore, I considered myself to be well-versed in the impact of stereotyping and consciously try not to allow any bias into my professional judgements. However, taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (https://implicit.harvard.edu) referenced in the article, I had to face the uncomfortable truth that I am perhaps not as unbiased as I thought!

And this is where the University of Plymouth summary comes in. It highlights the increasing evidence that we all make stereotypical judgements about people without explicitly being aware that we are doing so; unconscious bias. In our professional context this can result in us making generalisations about students and having differing expectations, which can impact on student outcomes.

The 7 steps it suggests to mitigate unconscious bias are:

  1. Recognise that everyone uses unconscious bias. It is useful as a teacher to consider whether we interact more easily with certain groups of students and why this might be. Reflection is key.
  1. Identify your biases. This is where the Harvard IAT mentioned above could be useful. Think objectively about your interactions in and out of the classroom with students.
  1. Avoid snap decisions and consider assessment criteria carefully. Evidence suggests that members of certain groups are discriminated against even where individuals possess identical skills (Milkman et al., 2014). Using anonymous marking could be one way to overcome this along with questioning your own first impressions and justifying your decision making about marks and grades.
  1. Incorporate examples which question stereotypes and value diversity. The summary suggests using examples and illustrations that are counter-stereotypical and research evidence suggests that this can help to minimise bias (Dasgupta and Asgari, 2004). From doing this in my own classroom, it does get students to reflect on their own unconscious bias.
  1. Encourage participation of under-represented groups in class. It will come as no surprise to any teacher that certain groups of students can dominate classroom discussions, teacher time and group activities! (Cotton et al., 2013) The summary suggests reflecting on student participation in your classroom and simply organising group activities where students get to work with students from differing backgrounds.
  1. Adopt an affirming approach. Taking an approach that aims to motivate all students can be a key way of overcoming unconscious bias.
  1. Create an atmosphere of openness in discussing biases and best practices to minimise them. Everyone has unconscious biases – the important thing is to be vigilant in mitigating the impact they have on our behaviour. Indeed, talking to our students about unconscious bias and how to manage this can help them to mitigate the biases they have towards each other and towards teachers.

The brief and very readable summary can be found here:


All the references in this blog are referred to in the summary from the University of Plymouth.


Cotton, D., George, R. and Joyner, M. (2013a) ‘Interaction and influence in culturally-mixed groups’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 50 (3).

Dasgupta, N., and Asgari, S. (2004) ‘Seeing is believing: exposure to counterstereotypic women leaders and its effect on the malleability of automatic gender stereotyping’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), pp. 642–658.

Milkman, K., Akinola, M. and Chugh, D. (2014) ‘What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations’, Social Science research Network, Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2063742