How Bias Influences Decision Making, Instruction, Behavior & Outcomes for Students

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Bias is the way your mind colors your experiences. When you expect a person or situation to be a certain way, you tend to see it that way, and this can affect the way you act. In this article, we will explore the impact that bias has on students.

What is Bias?

'You know Susan. She can't do that. Only people that come from more successful families are able to succeed in this class.'

Bias is when you consistently favor one way of feeling or acting over a different one. It is the loss of objectivity. It is quite common, even inevitable. Every one of us looks at life through 'colored lenses'. With regard to the student-teacher relationship, however, bias can be unjust and crippling, and must be carefully guarded against.

Bias in Decision-Making

'The tennis club just isn't as important to this institution as the chess club.'

'Why not?'

'Oh, I don't know, it just doesn't seem like they matter as much.'

Often, we will make decisions based on our 'gut instinct', and our own internal bias helps shape those decisions. If we, as teachers, administrators, parents, or students, don't monitor our prejudices, we will find that we can make inappropriate decisions, which can negatively impact ourselves or the students with whom we come in contact.

Bias in decision-making generally has its roots in our experiences. For example, if college presidents are former football players, they might be much more likely to make beneficial decisions regarding the football programs, and may also tend to want to 'cull out' the players that don't seem to 'make the cut'. A male teacher may unconsciously shape his exercises and programs to the advantage of the male students, or may change his grading decisions based on how attractive or friendly a student might be. A parent may steer a student away from an attractive college, just because it used to be a 'hated rival' of the parent's college.

It is important to consider decisions carefully, and to make sure that we watch for illogical or irrational biases as we're making those decisions.

Bias in Instruction

Mary's hand shoots up in response to a question, but the teacher gives her a brief glare, then continues to look for other students who wish to respond. Finally, when no other student responds, the teacher glares at Mary again. 'Yes, Mary? Did you have something you wanted to contribute?'

Why does the teacher treat Mary that way? How would it make you feel if a teacher treated you that way? Often a teacher has preformed impressions in her mind, and if she's not careful, those impressions will come out in the way she treats certain students. For example, she might have seen Mary do things that seem irritating, or she might know things about Mary that make the teacher dislike her. Or maybe Mary is of a different race. Or perhaps the teacher would rather deal with male students. Or the teacher has a bad relationship with Mary's parents. There are many causes for bias, but the negative results are the same.

This sort of treatment can go a long way toward discouraging otherwise interested and engaged students and producing dissatisfaction and apathy in the classroom. Instructional periods should ultimately be times of fairness, in which every gender, ethnicity, learning style and personality type is given an equal chance at success.

This is a difficult task, but the rewards are enormous. A female student who has felt disadvantaged all of her life might suddenly realize that, in this class at least, she has the chance to contribute at a high level. The immigrant student, watching a teacher who allows for her difficulties with the English language, suddenly realizes that this is truly a place for equal opportunity.

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