Unless you work in your school’s psychology department, you may not be familiar with the “halo effect” — a term used to describe the tendency for our initial assumptions and biases regarding someone to color our subsequent evaluations of their individual traits or actions.
How Unconscious Biases Hurt Students
One study explored this phenomena, requiring 159 faculty members from several disciplines to grade an oral presentation alongside a written assignment, both from the same student. And while the same paper was delivered to every reviewer, the oral presentation varied in quality — providing some reviewers with a poorly-developed presentation and others with a well-prepared one.
Not surprisingly, those faculty who had viewed the better version of the oral presentation offered a higher grade on the written paper, while those that witnessed the poorer presentation scored lower for the exact same paper.
Similarly, one professor recently recounted his own experience with preconceptions regarding a student whose writing skills dramatically improved over the course of a semester. While initially suspecting plagiarism since he had labeled the student a poor writer, the professor subsequently learned that personal issues in the student’s life had prevented them from spending sufficient time on their coursework earlier in the year.
In either of these examples, the halo effect was demonstrated as the initial impression made by the student led to an entrenched identity that could have affected their academic career. And the tendency for these initial biases to influence academic performance becomes downright concerning when issues of race or gender — and associated biases — are raised.
3 Strategies for Reducing Unconscious Bias
One of the most challenging elements of dealing with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious, involuntary responses. But research directed by Carey K. Morewedge suggests that actively training against these biases can help people overcome them.
In fact, the study found that “a single training intervention can improve decision making,” so much so that the research team recommended using education “alongside improved incentives, information presentation, and nudges to reduce costly errors associated with biased judgments and decisions.”
Given this research, your campus should consider using outside resources and training to help your staff identify their own unconscious biases. As your faculty become more aware of their personal blind spots, they can actively prevent these assumptions from undermining their decisions or impacting the student body.
Recognize the individual
Depending on the size of your classes, this can be a daunting recommendation, but by making personal connections with each of your students, you can reduce the likelihood that any biases — whether conscious or not — will impact the grading of their work.
If the class structure allows it, offer students the chance to share their personal experiences and perspectives during discussions, and encourage them to visit you during office hours.
And above all else, remember that whatever personal impressions that you do draw will still only reflect a small portion of the complex nature of each of your students.
Rethink the curriculum
Before the semester, spend some time reviewing the resources that are being used for the course. Do they embody the diverse nature of your campus? Do your examples or illustrations reflect these varying backgrounds in non-stereotypical ways or do they make unfair assumptions?
Similarly, reflect on your teaching approach. If your style is more “traditional,” are there alternate strategies or approaches that you could use to reach a broader range of students? By embracing methods beyond your “comfort zone,” you are less likely to allow your personal assumptions to color your interactions with students.
Get Help Creating in Inclusive Campus
While unrecognized biases can dramatically harm your students, with a little training, mindfulness, and conversation, your campus can better draw these assumptions into the light and mitigate their impact.
If you would like to learn more about how Campus Answers can help your school to create a more diverse and inclusive space for your students, faculty, and staff, request a demo of our services today.