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Implicit Bias module now required of all first-year students

U.Va. partnered with Housing and Residence Life to administer the module

<p>The Class of 2021 at Fall Convocation.</p>

The Class of 2021 at Fall Convocation.

For the first time in its history, the University offered a SIS module on implicit bias to first-year students. After piloting the module on Dillard residents, the University moved forward to require all first-years to take it.

Implicit bias is a term that refers to attitudes or prejudices individuals possess which unconsciously impact their actions, decisions and understanding. It affects how individuals view others based on race, ethnicity, gender and other factors. 

The University began teaching all incoming first-year students about implicit bias in August 2012. However, the University changed priorities the next year and focused instead on sexual assault prevention — launching the annual first-year Green Dot training in John Paul Jones Arena. 

Dean of Students Allen Groves said the Office of the Dean of Students did not return to the idea of implicit bias until two years ago when discussions began about developing an online module addressing the topic.

“We have decided, ‘Look, how do we build a more inclusive community? How do we make U.Va. a place where everyone feels welcome and people are treated equitably?’” Groves said. “We thought about that and we realized that there wasn’t a one fix, but the beauty of implicit bias is that it opens your mind to being willing to have other conversations and to be open to understanding that there is subconscious bias in most of us.”

University President Teresa Sullivan’s Committee on Inclusiveness approved the idea of an implicit bias module. The Office of the Dean of Students took the lead in its development, partnering with Project Implicit — a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition.

The module was completed over the summer and was originally intended for first-year students to complete at home in June. Students would then talk with Groves about the implications of module and how to address implicit biases during orientation in July.

Faculty in the psychology department expressed concerns about students taking the module at home without being on Grounds or having the availability of an RA to discuss it with. The administration then reached out to Housing and Residence Life to discuss releasing the module when students arrived on Grounds for the semester.

Fourth-year College students and Housing and Residence Life Co-Chairs Tyler Ambrose and Josh Jaspers both said they considered the partnership a good fit. 

“That seemed to be the natural opportunity that opened up,” Ambrose said. “To have resident staff really help facilitate meaningful dialogue and have the students ready to engage in the topic early on in their U.Va. career.”

A test round of the module was released to first-years in the Dillard residence hall one of the first weeks of the fall semester. The students then had a follow up discussion with their Resident Advisors.

A few weeks elapsed, so the University and Project Implicit could determine if the module had any negative consequences on students — such as whether it made students upset or distraught or if they felt the results they received were a score.

“It’s not a score at all, it’s designed to open your mind to the concept, not to score on how little or more biased you are,” Groves said. “The results of [the pilot] … were that those negative consequences did not materialize.”

On Sept. 22, all first-year students were informed they should complete module. They would have two weeks to complete it before meeting with their RAs on Oct. 8 for discussion.

First-year College student Tom Conger attended the meeting with his RA along with the rest of his hall, but said he was not particularly impressed with its results.

“It went reasonably well,” Conger said. “Nothing really revelatory about it.”

First-year Engineering student Aimee Barnes was unable to attend the general meeting with her hall but had a one-on-one conversation with her RA. She said they mostly talked about how the module applies to life at the University and how taking it made her feel. 

The module started with a pretest asking participants about their previous knowledge of implicit bias, followed by instructional videos and tutorials on implicit bias. At the end, students had the option to click a link to take the actual implicit bias test.

The implicit bias test consisted of a word-picture pairing activity. Pictures of faces of white people and black people were briefly flashed on the screen. Students were told to press either a key on the left side of the keyboard every time they saw one of the types of faces or a key on the ride side of the keyboard for the other. 

Words were also flashed across the screen — positive descriptive words and negative descriptive words. The first round, students were told to pair the positive descriptive words with the one type of the faces by pressing the associated key on the keyboard each time they saw either the face or the word. They paired the negative words with the other face type.

The test measured the reaction time it took students to press the appropriate key after seeing a face or a word. The students then took the test again but the pairings were switched — the positive words were matched with the opposite face and key and same for the negative word. The reaction time of the second round was measured.

The difference between the reaction time indicated where the student’s implicit bias are situated. For example, if they were faster at linking negative words with black faces, the test suggests they are implicitly biased against black people.

First-year College student Tierney Egan said she did not like the format of the implicit bias test but still found it helpful.

“I think it’s always important for people to realize what they’re thinking subconsciously,” Egan said. 

First-year Engineering student Mesgana Dinare said he did not learn anything about himself he did not already know but thinks students should take the module so they are conscious of their unconscious biases.

Conger held a different view about the best way to address implicit biases among students. He suggested taking a more interpersonal approach.

“I think that talking with people about their experiences and talking about what implicit bias looks like and how we can counteract it would be more effective than just learning about the implicit bias test,” Conger said.

Jaspers said he thinks the module is a good idea and has potential for the future.

“I think it’s an important conversation to have, especially early on in the year,” Jaspers said. “I think it’s a really good practice step that the University is trying to take to make sure that University students are aware of their biases.”

Groves said the module — with some possible changes — will be used again next year for first-year students. It may also be made available to upperclassmen who want to take it, though the situation is not as ideal without guaranteed access to an RA.  

“It’s hard to walk up to somebody else and say ‘Hey, let’s talk about race, let’s talk about bias,’” Groves said. “But this allows you to say ‘Hey, you took the module, what’d you think of that?’ and then you have a much easier conversation to confront those difficult issues.”


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