How Do You Create an Unbiased Classroom?

Aug. 16, 2016

Instructors: 5 ways to ensure a balanced academic environment for your students.

Creating a learning environment where all students are treated equally no doubt sounds like something you already do. But it’s often the unrecognized bias that can hinder cultivating a truly balanced classroom.

“Unconscious bias occurs from normal cognitive processes within all people,” says Laura Hunter, PhD, associate diversity officer for the University of Arizona’s Office of Diversity and Inclusive Excellence. Hunter also offers a workshop for UA faculty and instructors called Diversity and Unconscious Bias in the Academy. “It is unconscious and without any malicious intent. For example, there are false assumptions that people with physical disabilities or older students need more attention in the classroom or take longer to learn. Because the thought process occurs on an unconscious level, it is challenging to address easily. It takes vigilance and incorporating various strategies to reduce the impact of unconscious bias in the classroom. ” 

Here, Hunter offers up five ways educators can work to remove that bias from their classroom, and create a learning environment where all students are given equal opportunities to succeed and participate.

  1. Ensure good assessment practices. Put simply: Grade assignments and tests without looking at names to ensure a fair response to all students. In addition to blind grading practices, “construct detailed rubrics for grading to create a more evidence-based approach that will be less influenced by unconscious bias,” Hunter says. Lastly, talk with all students with low grades, rather than assuming students from certain backgrounds are OK with lower scores.
  2. Record yourself teaching and take note of student participation, language used and body language. “You may become aware of patterns you didn’t know were occurring,” says Hunter. “For example, studies have found that male students tend to receive more attention from instructors, but instructors who observed these behaviors on video and participated in training changed. They began calling on male and female students about equally and gave more precise responses to all students’ comments. Student behavior also changed — male and female students began to participate in the class about equally, and all students responded more frequently and accurately to instructor comments.”
  3. Gather anonymous student feedback. Whether it’s a formal mid-term assessment or short “minute papers” at the end of class, student feedback is one of the best barometers of the classroom climate.
  4. Encourage group processes. Activities and assignments should provide a way for instructors to get to know students and students to get to know each other as individuals rather than basing assumptions on stereotypes, Hunter says. “Use a variety of methods to create groups as self-selection into groups may reinforce differences.”
  5. Use varied instructional strategies. “Because students have different learning styles, you may provide effective instruction for only a small subset if you rely on a narrow type of instructional strategies,” Hunter says. If you typically give mini-lectures to students, you might consider using things like visual materials, demonstrations, hands-on activities and group work to mix it up.