Think about the last student you picked out in class, to lead a group discussion or activity, or simply answer a question. Why did you pick them? Was it because you recognised their name? You liked what they were wearing? Or because you already knew them from another class? As academics, we rarely get time to stop and process why we do or say things, even more so now being online where we are having to multi-task on steroids. But has it ever occurred to you that your unconscious bias might be secretly at work undermining your professional integrity without you even realising it?

At some point we all do it, whether we’re the teacher or the student. Why? Because we’re human and are hard-wired that way. Some scientists argue that stereotypes serve a general purpose by bunching people into groups with similar traits in order to help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by too much information. Unfortunately, that means we can all be prone to prejudice and generalisations whether we like it or not. But what can we do about it?

Here are three ways to start combatting unconscious bias in the classroom:

  1. Understand it – Education and Reflection: what is it?
  2. Recognise it – Awareness: call it out!
  3. Act on it – Behaviour change: do it/say it differently.

Let’s start by defining it in basic Wikipedia terms: Unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behaviour. (For a longer definition, check out the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.) Put simply, it’s discrimination.

We absorb bias in the same way we breathe in smog—involuntarily and usually without any awareness of it.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

Understanding unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often contradicts one’s conscious values. The brain makes snap judgments based on our past experiences and background, especially when working under pressure or multi-tasking. As a result, certain people may benefit while others are penalised depending on their class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, age, disability and more.

Sadly, these tricky bias traits seep into decisions that affect our daily lives in recruitment, access to healthcare and outcomes in criminal justice, as well as right here on campus. Consequently, students can suffer unfair disadvantages if we don’t stay vigilant. You can learn more about common cognitive biases from this graphic (Business Insider).

Recognising unconscious bias

The next step is to catch it in the classroom. These instances are sometimes called microaggressions, defined by Columbia University’s Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” These can be in the form of microassaults, microinsults or microninvalidations.

  • A microassault is a “verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behaviour, or purposeful discriminatory actions.”
  • A microinsult is insensitive communication that demeans someone’s racial identity, signalling to people of colour that “their contributions are unimportant.”
  • A microinvalidation involves negating or ignoring the “psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of colour.”

Source: Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Is subtle bias harmless? (Psychology Today)

Here’s a simple example of stereotyping in the classroom. A student may resist looking a teacher in the eye while speaking because some cultures interpret direct eye contact as a lack of respect; on the other hand, some Eurocentric teachers might think that same lack of eye contact indicates disrespect or shyness. Equally, some students online may not feel comfortable turning on their cameras in Zoom due to their living situations, but they should not be penalised for this. Instead, try to find other ways of engaging them in the virtual classroom in chat or verbally. Not all students will have the same cultural assumptions as their teachers, and it is our responsibility to try to bridge the gap.

Acting on it

There are many ways to combat unconscious bias:

  • By promoting self-awareness: recognising one’s biases using the Implicit Association Test (or other instruments to assess bias such as LookDifferent or Understanding Prejudice).
  • Understanding the nature of bias and how it manifests itself through education and training. Try integrating TED talks on unconscious bias, assigning projects on gendered marketing, and reading books that explicitly tackle issues of race, gender, and class. Although unconscious bias encounters may be inevitable, the negative impact on your students is not!
  • Being mindful of the different aspects of identity like race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, weight, level of ability. When we practice mindfulness, we also strengthen our ability to focus our attention, so are more able to engage with the facts. For example, when making decisions, we often do not have enough information and our unconscious bias fills in the gaps. When we have strong control over our attention, we are more able to recognise this and bring our attention back to the facts.
  • Championing culturally inclusive classrooms and establishing ground rules that promote inclusive language and behaviours.
  • Finding opportunities to have discussions with others (especially those from socially dissimilar groups) before there’s an occurrence. It’s important to have these conversations in a safe space where individuals are open to alternative perspectives and viewpoints.
  • Encouraging and supporting professional development in the workplace.


There are huge benefits to combatting unconscious bias from increasing group innovations, productivity, and creativity to enhanced self-esteem, relationship and community-building, as well as greater inclusion, equity and appreciation for diversity. By simply being aware of the types of bias that exist, participating in professional development programs that emphasise diversity and equality, and reflecting on the fairness of your own teaching practices, you can help to close the gap.

Don’t be afraid to own it if you catch yourself out; sharing your biases can help others feel more secure about exploring their own. And by encouraging students to examine themselves and the world around them, you can help prepare them for being self-aware and open-minded citizens who can embrace inclusivity in their personal and professional lives.

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Feature image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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