In the Classroom

Communicate your High Standards Coupled with Belief in your Students’ Abilities

Reducing Stereotype Threat explains this idea well:

In situations involving teaching and mentoring, the nature of the feedback provided regarding performance has been shown to affect perceived bias, student motivation, and domain identification. The effectiveness of critical feedback, particularly on tasks that involve potential confirmation of group stereotypes (e.g., when an outgroup member provides an evaluation involving a stereotype-relevant task), varies as a function of the signals that are sent in the framing of the feedback. Constructive feedback appears most effective when it communicates high standards for performance but also assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999). Such feedback reduces perceived evaluator bias, increases motivation, and preserves domain-identification. High standards and assurances of capability appear to signal that students will not be judged stereotypically and that their abilities and “belonging” are assumed rather than questioned.

It may be especially important for you to signal to your students that philosophy is difficult, will take work, but that you believe they can succeed. Philosophy is difficult, and it does take work. The key is conveying your genuine belief that students can succeed. It is all too easy to fall into thinking of philosophy aptitude as natural. Remind yourself that intelligence is malleable and that you play a key role in bringing out the best in your students. Indeed, related studies show that teacher expectations correlate strongly with outcomes.

Try to Reduce the Effect of Implicit Bias on your Interactions with Students

“Hey, I thought this was a website on stereotype threat, not implicit bias!” It’s true, the focus on this website is stereotype threat, but remember what I said about the importance of signaling to students that they belong. Unfortunately, these signals of belonging may be very subtle and influenced by our implicit biases. Some common anecdotes from the “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” blog are having instructors undervalue or misattribute comments by women students. This is one way in which implicit biases can signal to women students that their contributions to philosophy are not as valued as their peers who are men. There are some good tips for reducing your implicit bias in the classroom here. You may also try the following:

1. When a student is talking in class, be wary of interrupting them too soon. We’re more likely to interrupt women.

2. Remember who said what, and ask your students to correct you if you misattribute a point. Correct them if they misattribute, and encourage them to give other students credit for points they refer to.

3. Do as much grading as you can anonymously.

Build some Self-Affirmation Opportunities into your Class

Studies show that having students engage in self-affirmation can reduce achievement gaps. Even just writing about what students valued twice at the beginning of the year, eliminated achievement gaps between men and women in undergraduate physics courses. At the beginning of your philosophy courses, you could have students engage in a similar 15-minute writing exercise, telling them it is meant to improve writing, as the experimenters in the CU study did. A self-affirming discussion of values may fit even more cleanly in a philosophy class than a physics class, since philosophy is concerned partly with values. You may be able to achieve smaller bursts of this effect by consistently encouraging students during class to reflect on what they value in the context of philosophical problems.

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