Beating Implicit Bias

As a teacher of philosophy I’ve been eagerly awaiting some research on how to compensate for (or if possible eliminate) the negative effects of implicit gender and other biases in the classroom. I’ll be teaching introductory logic next semester, so the timing of this potentially exciting piece of research from University of Colorado at Boulder could hardly be better. The claim is bold and striking – that it is possible completely to close the gender gap in the physics classroom by setting simple 15-minute writing exercises. From Discover magazine’s helpful summary:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences aboutwhy they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. It could change your life.

This simple writing exercise may not seem like anything ground-breaking, but its effects speak for themselves. In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used it to close the gap between male and female performance. In the university’s physics course, men typically do better than women but Miyake’s study shows that this has nothing to do with innate ability. With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

In a piece on EurkAlert! the authors sound a slightly more cautious note:

Steven Pollock, professor of physics and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar, noted that the study funded by the National Science Foundation is a “small piece” of a large puzzle, and he and his colleagues stressed that the results are no silver bullet in STEM education.

While concurring, Noah Finkelstein, a co-author and associate professor in physics, added, “This is a really exciting finding. It bears further exploration. These results hold significant promise for addressing differential performance and the significant disparity of recruitment and retention of women in STEM disciplines.”

I’d love to hear what readers think of the research. Would an exercise like this be as effective in the philosophy classroom? Are people tempted to try it out? (Thanks to Rob)

UPDATE: Thanks also to Mark who sent a link to a podcast on the study from Scientific American.

8 thoughts on “Beating Implicit Bias

  1. I think (but am not positive) that implicit bias and stereotype threat are two different things. If that’s right, this is about stereotype threat, not implicit bias.

    Anyways, these results are quite interesting, and I’d like to see what happens in math and logic classes. Do women typically score lower on exams in these classes? It’s notable that there’s a significant decrease in men’s mean exam scores between the control and values affirmation groups.

  2. Dan, I think that the difference, to put it very roughly, is this: stereotype threat can degrade the performance of those following under the stereotype, and implicit bias can degrade one’s assessment of people falling within a stereotype.

    It may be that they connect in that it is because one has implicit biases against one’s own group that one is vulnerable to stereotype threat. I’m not sure about that.

    Since so many math phobics can end up in logic, I’d be inclined to think the results might not be very revealing. Here again, don’t know. I’m pretty sure that women’s scores have been lower overal in math; I think this comes out of the Dweck paper in our psych of phil page, and many other places. At the same time, the gap in math scores is closing, and may be closed now.

  3. Fascinating stuff!! Thanks for the links, Povich.

    Dan– I’ve seen ‘implicit bias’ used as you and JJ describe above, contrasting with ‘stereotype threat’. But I’ve also seen it used as a catch-all term covering both.

  4. Jender, thanks.

    And povich I’m sorry I forgot to say how important I think this may be. I got a bit distracted since I think Claude Steele has some similar ideas, perhaps in Whistling Vivaldi. However, given this appeared in Science, I think the details must be quite new. And important.

  5. povich, about your question of whether it would work for philosophy. I’m not sure we understand the kind of causation involved to say much without some research. That it would help seems a very reasonable hypothesis; it might be worth trying out. I suppose that it would be great to find people teaching two or more sections of the same course, who give the assignment to one section and not the other. I’d feel mean, though, in doing that.

  6. I teach baby logic and spend about 1/3 of the class on ‘informal logic’ where I do, among other things, implicit bias. Here is my online textbook: Ch 4, on ‘Conceptual Illusions’ has a very good piece on implicit bias. (but beware–I’ve made some bad proofreading/copyediting mistakes which I’m in the process of fixing elsehwere. I also have a link at my class website to the online IAT test for implicit bias that I have students take before the discussion of this material.

    This Colorado study sounds a little quirky to me, though not implausible. But the important thing as the the data on implicit bias is robust, and lots of it isn’t in the least quirky. There as an enormous amount of stuff, and an enormous range of stuff out there–just google.

    As a feminist evangelist I think it is very, very important to expose kids to this. They (including all the girls who are ‘not feminists but…’) are gripped by a false dichotomy: either you recognize that women are no longer disadvantaged or you hold that big, bad men are oppressing, victimizing, and intentionally putting down women. What I stress is that the problem is structural not personal, that people don’t know what they’re doing. And the results of the IAT test, which huge numbers of people have taken, show that members of disadvantaged groups are prone to buy into stereotypes about their group. It’s just in the air–we’re all affected, it isn’t a matter of playing the blame game but rather just trying to fix things. (Im a consequentialist!)

    I also have a powerpoint keyed to this section of the book at the class website. All my stuff is available to the world–free to use and tweak as you like. Just not free to modify for commercial purposes.

  7. Anyone doing the experiment in philosophy should not tell their students why – it might not have occured to many of the women philosophers that they are supposed to be worse at philosophy than the men!

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