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Unconscious Teacher Bias Harms Black College Students

New research finds implicit racism can lead to anxiety among instructors, leading to poorer lessons and lower test scores.
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(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Racial tension has recently erupted into bitter conflict at several major universities, including Yale and the University of Missouri. While specific grievances vary, the protests are rooted in the deeply held belief that black students are not treated respectfully or fairly.

Recently published research reveals one type of unjust interaction that is both commonplace and consequential. It finds African Americans' academic achievement suffers when a white instructor unconsciously harbors racist beliefs.

A research team led by Columbia University psychologist Drew Jacoby-Senghor presents evidence that implicit racism can lead to anxiety on the part of a white person who is tutoring an African American. This lowers the quality of his or her teaching, which leads directly to lower test scores for the students.

Higher levels of implicit bias on the part of the instructor predicted lower test scores.

"Seemingly small, initial effects of subtle prejudice may produce ... drastically different long-term outcomes," the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers describe two experiments. The first featured 210 Princeton University undergraduates, who were assigned to one of 105 same-sex pairs. A white student was assigned the role of instructor; a second student, who could be either black or white, played the student.

"Instructors first completed an ostensible cognitive flexibility task that, in reality, was a subliminal priming task inconspicuously assessing implicit racial bias," the researchers write. (It is fully described in this study.) The teachers were supplied with materials for creating their lesson—on Byzantine history—and given 18 minutes to prepare.

The instructors then met their students, and proceeded to teach a seven-minute lesson. Two coders watched videotapes of these encounters and graded each teacher for nervousness, discomfort, awkwardness, and stiffness. They also rated the quality of the lesson, grading it for, among other things, clarity and the coherence of the material.

Following the lesson, while the instructor completed a test designed to measure conscious, explicit bias, the student took a test on the material he or she was just taught, which included recalling important names, dates, and other relevant facts.

The result: Once explicit bias was removed from the equation, greater unconscious bias on the part of an instructor predicted lower test scores for black, but not white, students. "Our evidence suggests this was due to higher bias instructors being more anxious, and therefore giving less effective lessons," the researchers write.

In the second experiment, 165 Princeton students—nearly all of them white—watched a randomly selected video recording of one of the lessons given to a black student. (The student's image was not visible.) They were then tested on the material.

Once again, higher levels of implicit bias on the part of the instructor predicted lower test scores. This strongly suggests the problem was with the presentation of the material, rather than any psychological blocks on the part of the black students.

Jacoby-Senghor and his colleagues report the effects of unconscious bias were quite significant—on average, the equivalent of one letter grade. While conceding that experienced teachers may have learned how to compensate for racially based anxiety, they point out that it's "also possible these effects are exacerbated when the subject matter is even more complicated, or the learning objectives are more abstract."

The researchers also note that "implicitly biased teachers may undermine the learning of all students in mixed ethnicity classrooms containing a significant number of black students."

They point out that the situation for black students may be worse than the experiments suggest, since even unbiased teachers may feel "increased anxiety while interacting with blacks," due to a fear of being perceived as prejudiced. Ironically, this could lead to poorer test scores on the part of black students.

Given that nearly half of white Americans in a recent Pew study displayed an implicit preference for members of their own race, unconscious bias is clearly widespread. Overcoming its effects in education will not be easy, but the first step is acknowledging its existence.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.