How Does Unconscious Bias Impact Teaching and Learning?

How Does Unconscious Bias Impact Teaching and Learning?

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious biases are beliefs we have about certain groups that operate outside our conscious awareness. Teachers may hold unconscious biases about students even if they intend to treat all students equitably. 

Being aware of common biases against student identity groups can help teachers improve teaching and learning and build classroom inclusion.

How Does Unconscious Bias Show Up in the Classroom?

Let’s focus on two areas where unconscious bias may slip into teachers’ decisions—discipline and expectations of achievement.


Research shows that students of color, especially Black students, are disciplined more frequently and harshly than majority group students. This is true even when students of color misbehave the same number of times and in the same ways as their majority group peers.

Disproportionate discipline is fueled by conscious and unconscious biases about students of color being more violence-prone and aggressive. These are false perceptions that teachers may unknowingly employ when making disciplinary decisions.

Although unconscious bias may show up in small ways, the impact couldn’t be more serious. Disproportionate discipline for students of color is an early stage in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Expectations of Achievement

Despite progress over the past few decades, there are lingering stereotypes about inferior ability that often get applied to certain identity groups. A nationally representative longitudinal study shows that high school teachers have lower expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, even when these students perform at the same level as their peers.

Another example is teachers’ misconceptions about disabilities. A 2019 report shows that 1 in 4 K-12 teachers still believe learning and attention issues can be outgrown, and 1 in 3 perceive students’ learning and attention issues as laziness—even though these misconceptions have been debunked by research.

Expectations of achievement can affect how teachers grade students’ work and participation, the level and quality of attention and feedback students receive, a teacher’s decision to place students in lower tracks or special education classes, and students’ access to opportunities, extracurriculars, guidance, and support.

How Can Teachers Address Unconscious Bias?

How can teachers address unconscious bias, especially when they’re busy managing the classroom, maintaining test performance, and teaching to standards?

  1. Self-reflect: School administrators should recognize the importance of scheduling in time for teachers to pause and re-assess. Teachers need time to consider the impact their decisions have on each student.
  2. Read up: Self-reflection includes educating oneself on common biases against identity groups. Learning about the history of racism, sexism, ableism, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments makes it easier to recognize unconscious bias as it manifests today.
  3. Listen: Educating oneself can also take the form of listening to students and acknowledging their experiences and perspectives. Teachers can replace their assumptions with knowledge by learning about common challenges expressed by students.
  4. Interrupt: Finally, teachers can interrupt bias when they notice it, whether the bias comes from themselves, their colleagues, or among students. Learn how to effectively address unconscious bias in the classroom with Vector Solution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion training.

Additional Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Resources for K-12 Schools

For additional resources from Vector Solutions to support your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, please view our recent webinars and guides:

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