26 Evidence from the field – how effective are the workshops?

Research is mixed about the effectiveness of implicit bias education. Even if implicit biases can be changed on an intellectual level, do the changes actually lead to changes in behaviour? The evidence is simply not clear (FitzGerald et al, 2019). This research gives us pause for thought as we reflect on the potential long term impact of our project. In October 2021, our team member Nadia received ethical clearance to conduct a participant survey after the two workshops that we conducted.

Our total sample was 111 students in the undergraduate HLSC 2P21 class at Brock University. We conducted an anonymous survey on the platform Qualtrics. Students in the class had the option to opt in or opt out of participating and there were no consequences for non participation. Most workshop attendees reported this type of experiential program to have a stronger impact on them in comparison to lectures (78%), PowerPoints (76%), instructional movies (67%) and seminars (63%). A large percentage of attendees reported that the workshop provided a range of issues that enabled good discussion (93%) and indicated that the workshop provided them with “lots to think about” (89%). Many participants appreciated the interactivity of the session (86%) and the majority of participants stated that that they were given the opportunity to provide their opinions on the topic (89%). A full 95% of attendees expressed that they did not feel pressured to participate more than they wanted to (95%). Finally, 90% of the workshop attendees indicated that they would recommend this implicit bias program. Overall, the data suggests that a large percentage of attendees found this implicit bias workshop to be impactful and engaging. We were very encouraged by these initial findings.

Open ended questions on the survey allowed for more nuanced and personally reflexive responses from attendees about their experiences in the workshop. First, participants were asked to provide opinions on the style of the workshop. We had already learned through our quantitative findings that learners tended to enjoy the workshop, but now we had some illustrative data about why. One attendee stated:

The style of presentation is very effective as it provided us with realistic situations and allows for hands-on learning where students can speak about their thoughts and think critically about certain issues”.  

We also heard comments about how much the interactivity of the workshop was appreciated. As this attendee said,

“I feel being able to interact with my peers along with the comparisons made by the demonstration done by the presenters was extremely useful in helping me understand and put into perspective what we were learning”. 

In fact, when asked to describe the unique features of the workshop, many students reported that they particularly appreciated the level of engagement and interactivity. Participants also reflected on how the style of the workshop was effective in helping them to learn. One participant wrote that the workshop was “very effective and helped with understanding concepts”.

These preliminary data indicate that the workshop enabled good discussion on implicit bias and supported learning. Even though these initial findings are encouraging, they have many limitations. First, our study only measures the experiences of participants immediately after our workshop. While these experiences appeared to be positive, our small study tells us nothing about long term impacts of using participatory theatre to interrupt implicit biases at a deep enough level to change behaviour. We hope to continue with this work and conduct a longitudinal study of students who engage with their implicit biases through participatory theatre. While we believe that these workshops have important short term impacts, we are cautious about making any claims that they create long term change in behaviours until we have studied this further.

Experiential Learning Impact: some observations

In this next video, Brock’s Experiential Education Director Sandy Howe shares her observations about the effectiveness of this participatory theatre approach to “haunting” our biases.


Written Transcript of Video

This participatory theatre style of workshop is experiential learning at its best. With learners engaging with live simulation and real-life scenario-based content, not only does this satisfy the direct experience component of experiential learning, but it also includes significant opportunities for reflective practice throughout. The opportunity for learners, and even us facilitators, to have “aha” moments, to unpack impactful realizations about themselves and their relation to others, it also helps to develop skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and communication and also helps learners to clarify their values and understand more deeply how to contribute to or in community.

Just to reflect on what I see happening in this experience, I see most learners coming in uncomfortable. They’re sometimes silent, maybe anxious and are watching their peers closely to see how deeply people are willing to engage. What happens as we gently question, ask them to try the response they’re thinking about with their gut instincts, or to provide a more appropriate solution to a problem, is students also building confidence, trusting themselves and creating strong learning communities among themselves that other group work or team tasks rarely achieve.

Students comment that the experience is impactful, eye-opening, something they’ll never forget and often say that they’ve never had the chance to do anything quite like this. We also see and hear them continuing to talk about this weeks and even months, after the workshop. They’re still thinking about what they learned about themselves, they’ve continued to question their learning in similar ways in different venues and that they’ve cared to continue to be more self-aware as students and as they head into their dream professions.

My final reflection is “trust the model, and model the trust”. Learners are more easily engaged when they know the facilitators are enthusiastic and willing to be fully human in the process themselves, whatever directions that may take them in, and that pays off in so many ways in my opinion.

Best wishes, you can do this and know that this will stick with you and your learners, for a long time to come.


Haunting our Biases: Using Participatory Theatre to Interrupt Implicit Bias Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Hobbs; Michael Martin Metz; Nadia Ganesh; Sheila O'Keefe-McCarthy; Joe Norris; Sandy Howe; and Valerie Michaelson. All Rights Reserved.

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