App Reveals Unconscious Bias in Classroom Discussions

App Reveals Unconscious Bias in Classroom Discussions

Teachly seeks to reduce conscious or unconscious bias in both virtual and in-person classrooms by generating evidence about an instructor’s teaching.

By: Amelia Knudson
The Teachly team after being awarded the Culture Lab Innovation Fund grant.

From left to right: Amelia Knudson, Research and Training Manager; Teddy Svoronos, Faculty Director of Training at EPoD; and Victoria Barnum, Faculty and Program Assistant.

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Using data to fight classroom participation inequities

Evidence suggests that unconscious biases play out in classroom participation. Research has found that participation gaps can exist for underrepresented groups, by gender, and even by seat-position due to classroom blind spots. As universities continue to value classroom participation as part of student grades, it heightens the importance of taking action to ensure equal opportunity-- especially now that courses will be held online and there are many unknowns about how this could exacerbate existing inequalities. Although most professors aim to create an inclusive classroom with high-quality discussions, classroom multitasking makes it difficult to notice participation trends if unsupported by data, and most professors have little participation data to inform their instructional behavior. 

In 2014, Professor Dan Levy was thinking a lot about the question of inclusion in his own teaching. Working closely with a student, he developed a prototype of Teachly to examine his own call patterns with regards to gender. Certain that no participation gaps existed, Levy was shocked to find that he was calling on female students 14% less relative to their proportion in the class. After consistently tracking his classroom data with the use of Teachly, Levy was able to achieve a 0% participation gap across most demographic groups. 

Other instructors have also found that using Teachly has helped them identify and correct their unconscious bias in participation. 

“Teachly showed that I was calling on men 20% more often than women…I adopted a practice of starting each class by calling on a woman, sending a signal to the entire class. Within three weeks, there was an equal number of women and men participating in class discussions, but the most important benefit was that the discussion was richer and the class culture felt more trusting.”

— Rand Wentworth, Louis Bacon Senior Fellow in Environmental Leadership and Adjunct Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School

Teaching for Inclusion Online

With the move to an all online learning environment for the Fall semester at Harvard, actively ensuring that all students are engaged in the learning process is more important than ever. Online learning can open up new channels of communication and participation, but evidence suggests that certain groups may continue to be systematically excluded.

One way to ensure that instructors can bring students into online conversations is by providing them with data and evidence on their teaching practices. Instructors can then see if patterns emerge in which specific groups under-participate in the course relative to their proportion in the classroom. EPoD faculty Dan Levy and Theodore Svoronos have been exploring this question through the Teachly webapp, a software that they pioneered and developed with support from Harvard. Since 2015, Teachly has been deployed by 100+ faculty in 121 classrooms, reaching approximately 5,000 students. By equipping instructors with data on their teaching, Teachly nudges instructors to create classroom environments in which every student in the class feels welcome and encouraged to participate. 

The Teachly App dashboard

The Teachly app dashboard

This past Spring, almost all Harvard Kennedy School classes that were using Teachly continued to do so after the switch to online learning; survey results suggested that it was easy for the app to work with a virtual setting, such as a Zoom classroom. This finding is important as faculty members plan their Fall courses completely online and look for new ways to engage students.

Faculty use Teachly in collaboration with their teaching teams to track attendance and participation of each student in the class. After enough data is collected, Teachly’s dashboards populate with classroom participation trends, broken down by percentiles, gender, ethnicity, and non-native English speakers. Armed with this data, instructors can then plan their class discussion with an evidence-based awareness of inclusion.  

Equipping instructors with data can have positive outcomes in the classroom, not just for inclusion but for more effective and personalized learning experiences for students. Instructors can also learn more about their students as individuals by viewing their Teachly student profiles where students are able to report qualitative information about their interests and experiences. Instructors can use this information to “warm call” on students in an effort to include them in discussions where they can add relevant detail. 

Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School,  teaching and interacting with students

Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, calls on a student in his classroom.

Using Teachly to ease the move to online learning

The core competencies of Teachly are more important than ever as we shift to remote learning for two main reasons. 

1) Teachly can make a difference by helping faculty get to know their students.

While the shift to online learning in the Spring of 2020 permitted faculty to build off relationships with students that had already developed in the beginning of the semester, in the Fall everyone will be starting from scratch. Knowing the background, interests, and goals of students will play an immensely important role in fostering a sense of community in the online classroom, and Teachly’s student profiles can be a powerful tool in this process.

2) Teachly allows faculty to get to know their teaching.

Simply put, there is a lot that we do not know with respect to classroom dynamics in an online environment. Will engaged students engage further with the shift to online, and disengaged students disengage further? Will existing inequalities in participation patterns be exacerbated? What strategies can faculty employ to ensure equitable participation over Zoom? Teachly’s analytics and dashboards will provide insights into these questions, which a large share of our faculty will be encountering for the first time.

As new classes begin online, it will be more challenging to learn about our students and understand our teaching unless we proactively leverage data. In light of recent world events, it is ever the more salient that equity and inclusion should be at the core of teaching and that instructors can always do more to check their unconscious biases. Teachly can help faculty create effective, dynamic, equitable, and inclusive virtual classrooms. 

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