Unconscious bias in education

No, this is not about gender; it’s about something else entirely. It’s lunchtime and after two lectures in a row, I’m tired. I don’t always lecture in the conventional sense. Very often my ‘lectures’ are problem-solving sessions in which the students do the work and I float around helping them out, individually and as a class. I ‘teach’ this way because I’m not entirely confident that left to their own devices students will do the regular practice that is essential if you want to get on top of a subject like chemical engineering. The downside of this approach is that I get through far less content than I used to and that worries me. Dilution of content is an ongoing phenomenon in higher education but nobody seems all that worried about it.

The thing about the problem-solving sessions, though, is that they are pretty enjoyable. There is a bit of banter with the students and you get a real opportunity to get to know your students as people. It’s all very nice.

On the other hand, giving lectures in which you chart a course through a subject, explaining key techniques and concepts as you go along, is far more demanding. Lecturing well is hard and you have to adopt a persona that gets you through the days when you’re just not up for it. Even then, there are times when you know the students are not switched on (for all sorts of reasons), and on those days lecturing can be almost soul-destroying.

So my point is this: do we have an unconscious bias towards ‘innovative’ methods of teaching, methods where students ‘engage’ even if they are not necessarily learning a whole lot; methods where we are not  striving to keep those faces from going blank; methods where we don’t emerge from the lecture like we’ve been through the wringer?


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Unconscious bias in education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Unconscious bias in education

  2. There are unconscious biases in different directions by different people. The cool types (like me) are biased towards innovation even when there is no evidence it is effective. Those whose self-image is more solid/reliable (or can’t be arsed) may prefer traditional methods. However, both may be inefficient in different ways and it remains to be seen if the taxpayer should really be paying for labour-intensive methods that we feel are required because the students “can’t be arsed” outside of the classroom. For the “content” intensive subjects an automated competency/mastery based system that quickly identifies those who are not putting in the time (or having difficulties) and allows the learners good opportunities to catch up if they fall behind may be both more effective and more importantly better value for money for the tax-payer. Now do we need to prove this before having a crack at it.

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