Study will look at stress from bias tests in student teachers

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An upcoming study, led in part by a College of Education doctoral graduate, will look at how education students respond to stress from taking racial bias tests, as part of an effort to help better prepare new teachers.

Tracking physiological and biological stress responses can help researchers design better ways for teaching new educators about race and racism, as well as help educators better understand their own implicit biases.

Matthew Graham, a faculty member in the College of Education’s Oregon Education Science Laboratory, and Katherine Chang, a University of Arizona statistician and assistant professor, begin data collection for their study in spring 2022. The study, titled “Examining the Relation between Pre-service Teachers’ Implicit Racial Biases and Cortisol Response,” was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in July.

Studies have found that heightened stress levels can inhibit the ability to learn. In this study, Graham and Chang will determine whether their 150 subjects — in this case, pre-service teachers, or students training to be teachers — experience heightened stress levels while engaging with the concept of racism and responding to feedback about their biases.

Graham, who holds a doctorate in critical and sociocultural studies in education from the College of Education, came to the UO after working as a music teacher in Indiana. He said he wants to help students understand and critically think about their implicit biases at a faster pace than they have historically, which can help build a more equitable classroom environment.

“We’re trying to better support pre-service teachers so that when they are in classrooms, they can better support their students,” Graham said.

The overarching question of the study is: Do physiological and biological stress responses represent a barrier to students’ understanding of racial biases?

Graham and Chang will take saliva samples from subjects to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in the adrenal gland during the body’s “fight or flight” stress response.  At the same time, they’ll evaluate the subject’s physiological stress response by measuring their sweat during the study.

The design of the study is informed by Graham’s background and interests.

Graham previously worked as a research assistant on a study that explored the relationship between stress responses and the ability to learn and think critically.  Graham’s team examined markers of physiological stress experienced by engineering students while taking exams, a methodology replicated in Graham’s current study.

“There’s a lot yet to be understood about how some of these physiological and biological markers of stress function,” Graham said, “particularly in learning situations.”

Other studies have explored the relationship between stress and feedback from implicit bias tests. Researchers at University of California Merced evaluated students’ reaction to their test results and their willingness to engage with new information to redress their beliefs. The study reported negative reactions to their results and high levels of self-reported stress.

However, Graham said that self-reported stress is often a subjective measure. That makes it challenging to conclude that stress is the cause for inhibited learning.

“When we talk about stress, we’re really talking about a constellation of related processes,” Graham said. “Stress isn’t one single thing.”

Graham and Chang’s study is different from others because they are using biological and physiological markers of stress, both objective measurements, to understand how stress can affect students’ ability to uncover implicit biases.

Earlier this year, the Baney Fund at the College of Education helped Graham complete a parallel study on a smaller scale. He collected pilot data on the stress biomarkers exhibited by about a dozen students. According to Graham, the data made winning a grant from the Spencer Foundation possible.

“That the College of Education provides access to seed funds for people in my position so that we can do research and apply for grants, I feel very fortunate,” Graham said.

He hopes the study will help identify barriers to learning about racism. The next step: Researchers might be able to use the data to develop interventions that support students as they begin relearning what they know about race.

“One important part of addressing racism in the United States is going to be in education,” Graham said. “And one step toward doing that is helping pre-service teachers, as they become teachers, understand their own biases.”

— By Madeline Ryan, College of Education