Author: Vikki Hill, Project Officer, University of the Arts London

Vikki Hill (UAL Project Officer for Changing Mindsets) in conversation with Dr Gurnam Singh (Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University and Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at UAL) about barriers and strategies in moving towards a culture of ‘unconscious non-bias’ in Higher Education.


In our recent conversation, I spoke with Dr Gurnam Singh about the approaches that universities need to take to address implicit bias and stereotype threat within the institution. I was curious to hear more about the findings from his research, particularly those that offered strategies to overcome barriers that negatively affect student attainment. He reaffirmed the aims of the Changing Mindsets intervention in his assertion that “universities need to nurture a new world view… I think that we are looking for a paradigm shift where the idea of innate, bounded and fixed intellectual ability becomes totally redundant.”

At UAL, the staff and student workshops are focusing upon two areas of research – mindset and bias. The first has drawn on Dweck’s Implicit Theories of Intelligence challenging entity theories of intelligence and developing incremental theories of intelligence (a growth mindset). Dr Gurnam Singh explains that only relatively recently has this kind of work been happening within an HE context, that progressive educators, particularly in secondary schools, have long been confronting “stereotypical views, commonsense views that intelligence, particularly, was fixed. A characteristic, almost, in the DNA (….) a destiny.” He adds that the correlation of educational attainment and the idea of ‘innate intelligence’ is “so embedded in society and in higher education culture, strategies confronting this commonsense view have got to be multi-layered.”

That universities have begun to work on implicit bias is positive, but Dr Gurnam Singh’s vision is to go much further. He explains;

“At the moment we’ve moved, from what I would call unconscious bias to conscious bias. OK, so it’s progress but bias is still there. I think what we need to do is, we need to move towards what I would call conscious non-bias and then ultimately to unconscious non-bias.”

Recent studies into the effects of implicit bias within educational contexts continue to demonstrate that, like the majority of individuals, teachers often hold positive implicit biases toward white students and negative biases toward non-White students (Glock & Karbach, 2015; Hartlep, 2015; Van den Bergh, Denessen, Hornstra, Voeten, & Holland, 2010). These can be in direct opposition to explicitly held attitudes and beliefs. It is here that the UAL Changing Mindsets Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias Staff Development sessions are located, with the focus on presenting critical research and offering a structured space for reflection, discussion and de-biasing strategies.

I have been particularly interested in designing a learning environment to enable a constructive alignment approach to the sessions (Biggs, 2003). My own teaching experience is firmly grounded in inclusive practice and active learning strategies create a dynamic space where students, as Biggs writes, find “it difficult to escape without learning what he or she is intended to learn.” I included a game of Snakes and Ladders in the session, inspired by the workshop Challenging wicked problems and folk pedagogies to address the BME attainment gap in higher education presented by Dr Liz Austen and Stella Jones-Devitt from Sheffield Hallam University at the Equality Challenge Unit Conference 2017, and by Disparities in Student Attainment with input from Dr Gurnam Singh. The introduction to the session was interactive and located within Mountford-Zimdars et al’s HEFCE 2015  report, Causes of differences in student outcomes, which finds that, “Damaging psychological effects can arise from stereotyping, particularly the negative effects on students’ self-confidence if HE staff or peers project bias…” Staff attending the session worked in four groups. One group explored planned curricula through investigating the Shades of Noir online databases and resources on Women in Design provided by Siân Cook, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design BA Hons at LCC; another group looked at day to day interactions by playing; and another had an open-ended space for psycho-social and cultural experiences being addressed through discussion.

The Snakes and Ladders game offered an opportunity to explore the key findings proposed by Mountford-Zimdars et al as players were asked to write down the hurdles/inhibitors (snakes) and facilitators/enablers (ladders) to students’ progress on post-it notes as they played the game in 2 teams. Snakes relate to biases and stereotypes the students encounter or related issues that hold them back in gaining a good degree (inhibitors). Ladders represent aspect of university life that facilitated students in gaining good degrees (enablers). The squares relate to the following: 1-40 relate to the first year, 41 – 70 relate to the second year and 70- 100 relate to the third year. At key points, participants were asked to record feedback as text, audio, video or photo, using the online tool Padlet, to inform a closing group discussion in which we reflected on the complexity of the problems raised and generated alternative ways of working.

The workshop facilitated a move from implicit bias to conscious bias and gave the staff a space to apply the research to their own practice and experiences. Devine states that the journey to un-biasing is not easy as it involves the construction of new mental associations. She writes, “Inhibiting stereotype-congruent or prejudice-like responses and intentionally replacing them with non-prejudiced response can be likened to the breaking of a bad habit” and that “intention, attention and time” (Devine, 1989) are needed to build new behaviours and responses to eradicate automatic judgements. Dr Gurnam Singh ended our discussion by stating that “we need to talk about reflective practice (…) I think we need to situate our reflections within new paradigms, and I think that’s really important (…) so they are attitudinal changes.” As the Changing Mindsets workshops continue to run at UAL and staff are encouraged to feedback on the sessions, the aim is to create bespoke sessions to the specific context of each college and teaching group and to facilitate a learning environment that is inclusive, reflective and motivational in addressing bias and its effects for both our students and staff.

To read how UAL addresses inclusive attainment:–learning/inclusive-attainment-/addressing-inclusive-attainment/

To view/download papers by Dr Gurnam Singh:

To read more on Implicit Bias:

To listen to Claude Steele on stereotype threat:


Biggs, J.B. Aligning teaching for constructing learning

Biggs, J.B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press/Society for Research into Higher Education. (Second edition)

Cousin, G et al (October 2012) DISA Lead Institution: University of Wolverhampton

Devine, P. (1989) Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components

Glock, S., & Karbach, J. (2015). Preservice Teachers’ Implicit Attitudes Toward Racial Minority Students: Evidence from Three Implicit Measures. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 45, 55-61.

Hartlep, N. D. (2015). Unwilling or Unable? Measuring Anti-Asian Implicit Biases of Pre-Service Teachers in Order to Impact Teacher Effectiveness. GAUISUS, 3, 1-10.
Mountford-Zimdars et al (2015). HEFCE report, Causes of differences in student outcomes

Van den Bergh, L., Denessen, E., Hornstra, L., Voeten, M., & Holland, R. W. (2010). The Implicit Prejudice Attitudes of Teachers: Relations to Teacher Expectations and the Ethnic Achievement Gap. American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 497-527.

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

‘From Implicit Bias to Unconscious Non-Bias’ – Vikki Hill with Dr Gurnam Singh
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