Address bias in teaching, learning and assessment in five steps

Biases can affect personal interactions, course design, learning activities, assessment and institutional practices, thus it is vital that educators work to remove bias from their teaching. Donna Hurford and Andrew Read share helpful approaches

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University of Southern Denmark
11 Aug 2022
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Biases provide accessible simplifications that can help us manage complex situations and limit our cognitive load. At the same time, they make us susceptible to generalisations and stereotypes that limit our openness to novelty and diversity and can have damaging, if unintended, consequences for certain groups and individuals. It is therefore imperative that educators work to remove such biases from teaching and assessment.

1. Raise awareness of our own biases

By building self-awareness, we can develop sensitivity to our own conscious and unconscious biases and what triggers them. Ways to raise awareness of biases include Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT outcomes can suggest unsuspected biases, which may make us feel uncomfortable. To manage our responses to our feelings, meeting with a colleague who is also doing the IAT and discussing emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses to the test outcomes can help. However, feeling uncomfortable will not necessarily encourage us to change our attitudes or behaviour. Instead, it may evoke defensive reactions. It may be enough to watch a video about the effect of unconscious biases, such as the one by the Royal Society, to trigger bias-awareness.

You can also find more presentations on the University of Southern Denmark’s (SDU) Unlimited Thinking and Teaching website, including on the thought-provoking and informative bias codex, which categorises a range of cognitive biases.

2. Consider our interactions with others 

We need to reflect on how our interactions with other people may be influenced by biases. Our impulsive, affective responses (System 1), and our more measured and considered cognitive responses (System 2), impact on our interactions with others. Awareness of how we are hard-wired to make immediate judgements can lead us to a more reflective approach.

We often need to make quick decisions. When these are based on limited knowledge, we can be overly influenced by biases. For example, if we meet a student for a supervision session, our expectations of the student’s work may be influenced by a positive or negative expectation bias. To offset potential anchor bias, which is when our judgement centres on one point of information, we can benefit from pausing and flipping our perceptions. If we pause and think, what if the student had emailed me the draft I had asked for, would I have the same expectations? By making ourselves pause and reflect, we can review our initial judgements and work at mitigating the effects of our expectations.

Students and examiners find oral exams stressful. The time pressure can provoke more thinking fast or System 1 responses by all involved. That’s when a pre-planned list of questions and a checklist with strategies for offsetting bias can be helpful.

3. Plan inclusive learning activities

Active teaching and learning can support inclusive teaching and learning. It is, however, useful to remember that a student may be engaged with active learning although they are not participating in discussions. “The Universal Design for Learning tips for designing learning experiences by CAST offers guidance on what to prioritise when developing accessible and inclusive learning activities.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, teachers developed ways to facilitate student inclusion in class and group work. Strategies include allocating time before and after class for socialising and fielding students’ questions, and designing online collaborative learning activities using tools like Annotate in Zoom.

When we are mindful of group composition, we are more aware of how this can affect collaboration and learning. Group diversity brings advantages by introducing novelty and challenging groupthink bias. But facilitating group members' different preferences and ideas also requires perseverance and guidance. Brown University’s tips on facilitating effective group discussions and SDU’s intercultural group-work checklist offer students and facilitators useful guidance for navigating group work. 

4. Design inclusive curricula and courses 

Consider the potential learning of different students. Universal Design for Learning provides helpful parameters for course design through its three principles: 1) Engagement – why we learn; 2) Representation – what we learn; 3) Action and expression – how we learn. Another scaffold for inclusive course design is David Killick’s “Aspire, Design and Evaluate model, which starts by identifying the values, objectives and capabilities to be addressed by the course.

Checklists for inclusive practice provide questions to stimulate discussion, and frameworks for inclusive content and course reading lists. Here are some examples:

With the current focus on addressing complex global problems and sustainability, interdisciplinary courses, curricula and learning activities can embrace a holistic conception of teaching and learning beyond subject silos. By planning learning in this way, course designers can enable students to develop interdisciplinary graduate competences such as those advocated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in its Future of Education and Skills 2030 report: 1) Creating new value, 2) Reconciling tensions and dilemmas, and 3) Taking responsibility.

5. Assess coursework and exams with caution

Stay aware of possible expectation and status quo biases which may limit responsiveness to new ideas and alternative ways to construct and share knowledge. The teacher can help reduce teacher-student expectation gaps around course assessment by making the assessment criteria explicit and accessible to all students. Checklists and rubrics can help reduce the expectations gap, especially when co-constructed by the teacher and students. 

When marking, course examiners are found to rely on their own internalised conceptions of the assessment standards rather than referring to the course learning outcomes. Agreed checklists or rubrics make the assessment process more transparent, both for the teacher and students.

Anonymous marking is often adopted to address potential biases associated with recognising student names. While there is evidence that anonymising student names makes marking fairer, there are also counter findings. In view of these contradictory research findings, it is worth considering how writing style, composition, fluency, spelling and so on may influence the marking process. All students can benefit from a sensitive marking approach, which accommodates inaccuracies in writing that are not serious enough to impede the marker’s understanding.

Donna Hurford is a senior educational consultant in the SDU Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Southern Denmark; Andrew Read is a higher education consultant and former head of education at London South Bank University. Their co-authored book, Bias-aware Teaching, Learning and Assessment, explores how biases may affect course design and content, learning activities, assessment and institutional practices.

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