How the "halo effect" can hurt your ability to help students

In 2014, John Malouff, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New England in Australia, published a study highlighting the dangers of cognitive bias—and how it gets in the way of supporting students.

To conduct the study, Malouff and his colleagues gave 159 faculty members the task of grading one student on an oral presentation followed by a written assignment. The written assignments were all identical, but the oral presentations varied in quality.

The results suggested that first impressions affected grading. The faculty members who viewed the poor version of the oral presentation prior to grading the written assignment awarded it a much lower grade than the faculty members who had viewed the strong oral presentation.

The phenomenon is referred to as the "halo effect," and psychologists say it occurs because humans "are a narrating species" that tend to fabricate stories about people based on first impressions—and then interpret most things they do and say through that lens.

In the case of educators and students, this phenomenon can result in detrimental biases, as instructors have the tendency to subconsciously categorize students based on their early performance—and then interpret and grade their later work in the context of that initial judgment.

Turns out students can be biased, too... about their instructors' biases

Writing for Chronicle Vitae, David Gooblar, a lecturer in the rhetoric department at the University of Iowa, shares how he recently fell prey to the halo effect.

When a student performed quite poorly on a first assignment, and then proceeded to turn in a much stronger assignment later in the semester, Gooblar recalls his suspicion that the student had plagiarized.

"I must have Googled every sentence in that second essay, looking for evidence that he had lifted it from someone else," Gooblar recalls.

But Goobler later discovered that the students' poor performance on the first essay had been due to a personal issue the student was grappling with at the time. Gooblar admits he had made incorrect assumptions about the students' work and academic integrity.

Gooblar warns that these types of assumptions can hinder instructors' ability to help students, since incorrect judgements can keep an instructor from pinpointing:

  • Which students need to be challenged more;
  • Which students need extra help or attention; and
  • Which students need a better understanding of basic concepts.

To combat the halo effect, Gooblar says educators should:

  • Maintain a "healthy level of doubt" about impressions and assumptions;
  • Remind themselves that understanding students is a continual process;
  • Educate themselves about what the halo effect is and how it works;
  • Develop new opportunities to get to know students; and
  • Look for new ways to get feedback from students.

(Gooblar, Chronicle Vitae, 4/19).

We need to talk about implicit bias

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