Teaching Bias: The IAT Test

It’s a regular occurrence in my 10th grade English class that we spend some time talking about bias, prejudice and stereotypes. Phase one is graduating kids out of the blanket “these things are bad” attitude that can shut down potentially useful discussion about what’s actually going on.

After we have spent some time exploring our beliefs on what role these forces play in our society, it’s time to take the Harvard Implicit Attitude Tests.

If you wish, you can impress your students by showing this Buzzfeed video, and pausing it for some notes, and making a disclaimer for the out-of-context comments spliced together at the end of the clip (which unfortunately conflate bias, implicit attitudes, and racism).

After that viewing, kids are excited to take the test. In fact, about half of my students already have.  Then I tell them that I will take the test in front of them, projected on the screen  — and I want them to predict what they think my results will be.

This typically leads to nervous laughter, or dead silence, or a gasp, or sometimes even applause. Kids who want to make an educated guess try and ask some clarifying questions (“Who are your friends?” “What are you, again?”) and then they write down what they think.

I won’t reveal their predictions or my typical results, but I will say that this is the most nerve-racking thing I do in class all year, to the point where I make jokes during the first half of the test, and then say I’m going to shut up because I think it might skew the results.

Here’s what else I tell them: nobody has zero bias in this world.

After they see me do it, we’re off to the races: kids take one or two tests, journal about how their results turned out, and then brainstorm one or two “tough questions” that they want to bring to the whole class for a closing discussion.

Here are a few questions that got posed today:

  • How did you react if you got a result that was the opposite of what you expected?
  • How did it feel when the test was asking you to associate negative terms or ideas to a particular group of people?
  • Did you use any mental “tricks” to try and be less biased while taking the tests?

And then, the one we talked about the most:

  • For the test that asks you to specifically test your bias for or against Arab Muslims, do you think that your sympathy or pity for Muslims might have made you more biased towards them?

I am paraphrasing that last question, but that was the gist of how it was worded. That particular exam (“This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions”) was taken by several students… and several additional students confessed that they purposefully avoided that test, because they were too nervous about what their results might be.

“I have Muslim friends,” one girl pleaded. “I don’t want to find out that I’m biased against them.”

We scratched the surface of this issue with some reports about attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (making sure to pull from both Fox News and The Nation, naturally). Looking at multiple research studies, we tentatively concluded that knowing a group of people doesn’t necessarily increase your comfort level with them, but not having any direct contact with them seems to definitely decrease your tolerance and acceptance.

A small part of me wishes I could say we came to a big conclusion here, because it would make a nice kicker to this blog post. We didn’t. A bigger part of me wishes I could say, “my Muslim students felt better about their place in America after this conversation.” I have no idea whether that’s true (although I’ll follow up on that).

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working at SLA: A successful class is not about finding the answer, it’s about asking the questions together.


Note: At a school that’s ranked as one of the most diverse in the nation, that’s harder in some ways, but easier in others, because students cannot automatically assume that they are in the majority, or the group that they’re talking about is not in the room. If you work in a more homogeneous environment, I will be interested to hear how these activities play in your classroom.


5 thoughts on “Teaching Bias: The IAT Test

  1. Alex

    This sounds amazing. I’ve been looking for a way to expand my teaching on privilege and identity in my community college class, and I wonder if this would help things hit home for students. Were any of your students reactive in a negative way to their test results or have a fear/shame response to the activity? And what were some of the things you did leading up to this day in order to have the seemingly open and honest conversations you had? Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Pingback: Teaching Bias: Where Do You Stand? | Class Notes

  3. Pingback: Day 1 – Don’t take my word for it, discover implicit bias for yourself | Community Detox Challenge

  4. Pingback: Day 1 – Don’t take my word for it, discover implicit bias for yourself | STATE OF INCLUSION

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