A school that is committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion in its academic programs ensures that these values are not only infused throughout its curriculum but also integrated into every course. Integration includes course topics, readings, assignments, activities, and assessment. It also means creating a culture or climate that is reflective of these values. To accomplish this goal, it is important that instructors and students are knowledgeable about and sensitive to possible sources of bias and inequity.

Implicit bias refers to unconscious beliefs, attitudes, or stereotypes that impact thoughts and behavior in an unconscious manner. Harvard’s Project Implicit offers perhaps the most straightforward definition of implicit bias as “thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control.” These biases, which comprise both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.

In a school environment, bias may affect both instructor – student interaction and student – student interactions. Assumptions that instructors hold about students’ learning abilities and capability for academic success can influence how they facilitate discussions, grade assessments, evaluate performance, or interact – both verbally and nonverbally – with students. These behaviors, in turn, can affect student achievement, including course performance and success and career plans.

According to the Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, the following are examples of implicit bias:

  • Instructors may assume that students from certain backgrounds or social groups have differing intellectual abilities and/or ambitions. For example, an instructor might assume that a student from a certain background will be satisfied with lower achievement levels.
  • Instructors may expect students who speak with certain accents to be poor writers.
  • Students with substandard writing abilities may be stereotyped as lacking intellectual ability.
  • Instructors might treat students with physical disabilities as if they may also have mental disabilities and thus require more attention.
  • Students who are affiliated with a particular identity group may be treated as experts on issues related to that group.
  • Students of certain groups may be expected to have certain participation styles (quiet, argumentative, agenda-oriented).

Ways to Mitigate Implicit Bias

The following are suggestions, gleaned from several sources, for mitigating the expression of implicit bias in classes: ​​​​​​​

  • Engage in reflective teaching practice, which might take the form of an informal teaching journal in which instructors briefly jot notes after each class session or regular conversations with colleagues about shared classroom challenges and strategies.
  • Make implicit biases explicit so they can intentionally be addressed. For example, instructors can take an Implicit Association Test (IAT) so they are aware of their biases and can better regulate these biases in the classroom.
  • Gather feedback from students that specifically asks about their experience of the classroom climate. This could take the form of a formal mid-term assessment or briefer “minute papers” at the end of class sessions.
  • Ask a colleague to observe teaching and gather data about matters such as student participation or language used when responding to student contributions. Such data can help instructors become aware of behaviors or patterns they are unlikely to notice on their own.
  • Grade papers and tests without knowing the students’ identity to eliminate the cues for implicit bias.
  • Use transparent and clearly defined grading protocols (e.g., grading papers with rubrics that are distributed to students in advance) to provide structures to mitigate bias.
  • Show the diversity of contributors to the field (e.g., assign readings by a wide range of authors).
  • Create structures for more equitable participation in the classroom activities, especially in planning and implementing pair, team and group experiences ((e.g., have clearly defined roles for group members).
  • Use discussion participation formats that create equal opportunities for all to ask or answer questions rather than simply calling upon students in response to a raised hand. In a small class, an effective strategy is to go around the room. In a larger class, instructors might ask all students to briefly prepare a response in writing and then use a class roster to call upon students randomly and keep track of who has been called upon from class to class.
  • Get to know students as individuals, preferably in office hours. This can help correct any inaccurate assumptions instructors have made and help ensure instructors are responding to students’ particular learning needs.


Additional Resources

Interactive Webinars

Sponsored by the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden has presented the following interactive webinars:

Culturally Responsive Mentoring

Diversity Flashpoints in the Classroom

Implicit Bias: What It Is and How to Interrupt It ​​​​​​​