I just read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a study done by Darren Linvill and Joseph Mazer, both of Clemson University, on student learning and instructor bias. I believe that the article and some of the folks interviewed about the study and the larger issue it addresses – teaching, learning and bias in the classroom – ironically ignored a larger fundamental teaching and learning issue. The implicit and explicit construction of power that emerges when students are unclear of how it will be judged that they know the content of the course (i.e. their final grade).
Bias is present in all social contexts involving humans – period. Even if they are not expressed by professors we all have our biases. This fundamental fact is at the core of research methodology. In research there are mechanisms that limit the impact of bias. This is also the case in the classroom environment, yet for a myriad of reasons, we do not employ them – which is unacceptable in the arena of research.
Pedagogically, the use of rubrics, the creation of clear and measurable learning objects (that are then incorporated into the rubrics), and the use of student centered learning practices (that focus on said learning objectives) make it clear to the students how they earn their grades in the course. Therefore it isn’t about their opinions on the topic discussed in class or the instructors opinions; its about course objectives. Therefore these communication and debating skills, being recommended by both the study proponents and detractors, can be developed in the classroom and across disciplines – because both students and instructors can speak freely having reconstructed the power dynamic around meeting clearly described learning standards. This is much more effective and productive a strategy, rather than students, and profs, believing grades are associated with something that pleases the professor.