Inclusivity Begins with Overcoming Bias

Spencer Benson

Education Innovations International Consulting

One of the joys and challenges of being a university teacher is that our classes (traditional, hybrid, and virtual) are composed of students with diverse abilities, different cultural backgrounds, histories, perspectives, and biases. Diversity includes race, ethnic and cultural origins, social-economic status, gender, neurological processing, first-generation student, sexual orientation, etc. Many underrepresented minorities students (URMs) have a combination of these attributes. Unfortunately, the diversity within the student population is rarely mirrored among faculty, further marginalizing URM students.

Improving faculty diversity is necessary for many reasons, including having diverse community yields increased productivity, creativity, innovation, better problem solving, and more effective learning (Handelmann & Fine, 2010). Achieving faculty diversity is ultimately dependent upon ensuring that the academic opportunities necessary to become future faculty are equally available and promoted to all students. In addition, it is important for universities, departments, and faculty to prioritize inclusive teaching and mentoring that capitalizes and celebrates diversity.

Recent events in the United States and abroad underscore the need for increased awareness, understanding, and valuing the importance of inclusivity. In so doing, we become better prepared to address long-standing issues concerning diversity within the higher education academy and society at large that has historically favored and perpetuated white male advantages. Within the United States, student body demographics are changing. For many institutions, white students' plurality is now less than the combined plurality of non-white (African American, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and International) students. Current student diversity provides the opportunity to meet the challenge of changing the academe to be more representative of the students' diversity. But without more inclusive approaches to teaching and mentoring, students from underrepresented groups are unlikely to persist. This is especially true among the STEM disciplines where URMs are disproportionately lost from the pipeline (Estrada, M. et al. (2016), NSF (2019).

Both being an inclusive university and adopting inclusive teaching go beyond being fair and equitable. Inclusivity requires purposely and actively fostering a community where all voices can be heard, shared, respected, and honored. Additionally, it includes creating and establishing learning spaces where all can develop a sense of belonging. As educators, we like to believe that our teaching and classes are inclusive. However, the evidence, demographics, and student stories indicate too often they are not. At times bias is overt, but often the bias is due to the implicit (unconscious) biases everyone has.

Implicit biases result from our upbringing, culturalization, cultural and social norms, and how we see and perceive the world, past and present, through personal experiences and the various media. These biases often manifest toward individuals who are perceived as different based on class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, age, disability, physical traits, etc.

Unlike prejudice, racism, and other explicit biases where an individual knowingly acts in a demeaning, unfair, or harmful manner, implicit biases are often unknown, unseen, and difficult to change.

Although implicit biases can be overridden, unfortunately, they cannot be overwritten. We cannot uncouple our implicit biases, but we can become more aware and diligent in recognizing what they are. We can use this information to make more conscious, informed decisions and actions regarding our behaviors and how we view and treat others. In turn, it will transform how others perceive our actions.

In addition to working diligently to mitigate the impact of implicit biases, one can do many small things to increase awareness and facilitate the development of a community of belonging and fairness. For example, a department that declared their department a "No Criticism Zone" and agreed to refrain from saying negative things about students transformed the way students thought about math and facilitated a sense of belonging both among students and faculty (Johnson & Elliot, 2020).

On an individual level, we need to be mindful that small things that may seem inconsequential to us may have detrimental impacts on others. Numerous articles and resources are readily available detailing best practices for creating more inclusive environments for students. Small things that can help to foster a sense of belonging and inclusiveness include the following:

  • being intentional in selecting course content that reflects diverse people and voices,

  • ensuring that resources and materials reflect individuals from underrepresented groups,

  • sharing gender pronouns,

  • learning preferred names and asking students to correct mispronunciations,

  • having students do a short online biographic sketch,

  • using small group learning,

  • giving students agency in assessments and grading, and

  • using mid-term and end-of-term student surveys.

In today's hybrid and Zoom imposed teaching, small things become more important as many students experience isolation and decreased sense of belonging. This disengagement is more likely when course delivery relies on the overuse of videos or listening to asynchronous presentations (passive teaching) cover content. Online and hybrid courses can be more engaging when implementing strategies such as:

  • use of chat,

  • breakout rooms,

  • having students report out,

  • and asking students to either turn on their video or post a profile picture when speaking.

Strategies noted in this article contribute to creating a learning space where students can interact, engage in active learning, have a voice, and develop a sense of belonging even when they are physically remote. The single small thing that may be most important and useful is to become aware of our own biases and then change our default behavior to one that is more inclusive.

Three things you can do to become more informed about your own biases and be a more inclusive educator:

1. Become more informed about implicit bias and identify your own biases:

2. Explore ways to be more inclusive in your teaching:

3. Implement inclusive teaching practices

Discussion Questions

1) What biases have you experienced as a teacher or student?

2) Describe how an instructor might identify their implicit biases and mitigate the impact on how they teach, mentor, assess, or evaluate students?

3) What have you experienced in higher education that, in your opinion, creates a more inclusive learning environment?

References Cited

Johnson, A., & Elliott, S. (2020). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Model To Guide Cultural Transformation in STEM Departments. Journal of microbiology & biology education, 21(1), 21.1.35.

Handelsmann, J. & Fine, E. (2010) Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings,

Estrada, M. et al. (2017) Improving Underrepresented Minority Student Persistence in STEM CBE—Life Sciences Education 2016 15:3

National Science Foundation (NCSES) (2019) Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering

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