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Student bias affects performance in the classroom

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f one were to ask any teacher what her favorite color, food or hobby was, she’d probably reply with ease and confidence. Ask the same teacher about her favorite students, and the question might turn into some trouble. This is because bias toward certain students, either explicit or implicit, is a behavior some instructors actively try to avoid expressing, perhaps with good reason.

In a 2013 study by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education, moderators analyzed how 2,000 teachers graded 11-year-old students’ work during one year. The research found that two out of every three moderators believed personal feelings affected the students’ grades. This type of unfair assessment undermines grades’ true value of reflecting academic merit.

Wendy Reinke, a professor for the Educational, School & Counseling Psychology department at the University of Missouri-Columbia, thinks the absence of equity could distort far more than just a child’s report card.

[quote]“Personalized attention from your teachers [helps] to build positive relationships with adults and positive associations to schooling. Students who feel connected and have relationships with their teachers are more likely to be engaged in school,” Reinke said. “Students who are less engaged are more likely to do poorly in school and may drop out of school early.”[/quote]

Within RBHS, a majority of students consider there to be preferential treatment. In a 2016 poll by bearingnews.org, 80.53 percent of participants believed their teachers did pick favorites. Additionally, 58.95 percent thought such behavior negatively impacts the learning environment. Senior Ruth Wu sees some uneven distribution of interaction but attributes the phenomenon to both personality and situational factors.

“I would certainly say that teachers naturally gravitate towards certain students, which could be considered favoritism, but it is just a natural result of knowing them beforehand or having compatible personalities,” Wu said. “Sometimes I can feel isolated when teachers primarily talk to a group of students, but part of the problem is that the classrooms have a lot of people, and teachers aren’t usually in the center of the room. The closer students sit near teachers, the more attention they will consequently receive.”

One notable ceremony, the Bruin Pride awards, centers around each teacher choosing one student to recognize. In doing so, educators point out exactly who they best believe fits whatever criteria they define for the reward. Upon reflection, Spanish teacher Krisleen Arthur does believe this is a form of favoritism.

“I will say, though, that it’s difficult to choose for this. I personally tend to gravitate towards someone who has struggled and overcome that struggle or obstacle,” Arthur said. “Of course, that indicates it’s something I value… grit and determination. It’s not usually a personality characteristic, per se. It is a form of favoritism, though.”

Similarly to other educational obstacles such as bullying, wealth disparity and limited funding, favoritism exists far beyond the classroom. Plenty of research has explored its effect on siblings, and a 2010 Cornell study linked mothers’ favoritism to adult depression.

“Favoritism outside the classroom is part of the natural world. Think of it this way: promotions aren’t always given to the hardest-working individual. People can move up in the workplace just because they are favored by the executives,” Wu said. “Ironically, I think when teachers favor me, they grade my work more harshly . . . They have higher expectations for me.”

It’s true that by high school, most students will have developed definite personality traits and habits. In fact, personality may be a better indicator of success than intelligence in high school, according to a review in the journal Learning and Individual Differences. These particular patterns could mean a boom or bust in pupil relationships. Arthur attributes having connections to particular students to human nature.

“We are people. We are in this business (education) because we believe in young people, enjoy young people, believe in sharing our knowledge and expertise. We cannot help feeling particularly positively about kids who do well, are positive and respectful learners and are successful in our classes,” Arthur said. “It’s going to happen. It is that unbalanced expression of privilege that I’m not ok with.”

Still, Reinke doesn’t endorse any bias, even if it’s rooted in naturally-occurring human dynamics. From her perspective, teachers need to be consciously providing an environment where everyone feels welcome and appreciated.  

“Equity is very important. Teachers need to monitor that they are treating all students with respect and have high expectations for all,” Reinke said. “Sometimes teachers are not aware that they are giving more positive attention to certain students.”

Do you think your teachers show favoritism to your classmates? Let us know in the comments below.

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