So You Want to Teach Students about Discrimination at Work? An Active In-class Teaching Exercise Using the Audit Methodology

by Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Julie A. Kmec

Undergraduate students have difficulty grasping the concept of discriminatory treatment at work in part because many have not yet had substantial labor market experience but also because so much discrimination at work is subtle or hidden from view.

One way to teach a difficult concept like workplace discrimination is through the use of active learning opportunities—teaching strategies that engage students through the practice of doing sociology.  Active learning opportunities are the gold standard in teaching because they tend to yield positive learning outcomes, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Providing these sorts of opportunities is easier said than done, particularly when we teach large, lecture-based or introductory classes.  How can we embed active learning opportunities in these less-than-ideal class formats to help us teach difficult concepts like workplace discrimination?

We tackled this question by creating an in-class, active learning exercise where students participated in a resume audit study to detect race discrimination in the hiring process.  We tested our activity in a 75 minute, lecture-based, 100-person Introduction to Sociology course that we recently co-taught.  The goals of this exercise were to familiarize students with: 1) the covert nature of modern prejudice and discrimination, making sure students recognized that stereotyping is something we all do, 2) the audit methodology as a way of testing for covert biases, and 3) some of the nuts and bolts of collecting and analyzing social science data (e.g., how to enter data into a spreadsheet, what a quantitative data set looks like).  To do this, we used Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan’s study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?  A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.”

At the beginning of class we both divided students into 25 groups of four and assigned each group a number, making sure that at least one team member had a laptop (students were asked ahead of time to bring a laptop to the class session).  We handed out the study materials: a job posting for a fictitious software developer position, one of two resumes belonging to either Greg (marked resume 1 in the header) or Jamal (marked resume 2 in the header), and a short questionnaire that asked about the applicant’s characteristics (e.g., skill level, etc.) and general hireability (e.g., whether they should be hired for the job, recommended starting salary, etc.).  Before class, we sorted the study materials into groups of four so that each group received resumes that either belonged to Greg or Jamal.  We asked students to review the job posting, imagine they were responsible for hiring for the job, evaluate the applicant’s resume in front of them, and complete the questionnaire about the applicant.

After students evaluated the study materials, we asked each team to enter their survey responses into a shared Google Drive spreadsheet that we circulated via email prior to class.  Students entered survey responses and the resume number denoted on the header (1=Greg, 2=Jamal).  We used this opportunity to explain the typical layout of a quantitative data set (i.e., see below: variables are in columns, units of analysis are in rows).


We gave each member of the four-person team a task.  One collected and organized group surveys, one entered the responses into the shared spreadsheet (in their group number’s designated rows), one read responses to the person entering the data, and one double-checked the entries for accuracy.  We projected the spreadsheet on screen so that students could watch classmates enter data in real time.

At this point, one of us began a 25-minute lecture on the difference between overt and covert discrimination, stereotyping, and the audit methodology, including its history at Housing and Urban Development and the benefits of using this method to detect subtle forms of bias.  While one person lectured, the other calculated the average ratings for each of the ten variables from the questionnaire for Greg and then Jamal and then created a series of bar graphs to illustrate the findings.

At the close of the lecture, we both explained to the students that they had unknowingly just participated in an audit study.  We described the scope and purpose of the original Bertrand and Mullainathan study and then proceeded to show the class the results of their own evaluations of Greg and Jamal.

In our class experience, students rated Greg and Jamal’s characteristics and overall hireability similarly.  We discussed what this meant (perhaps sociology students treat people from different race backgrounds similarly). Students were shocked to see their salary recommendations; students deemed Greg worthy of approximately $6,000 more dollars a year than Jamal (despite rating them as equally skilled and hirable).  The students’ collective gasp upon seeing this figure was audible before they became very quiet.  We then discussed Bertrand and Mullainathan’s findings and possible explanations for the differences in our findings.

Overall, the assignment was gratifying; students approached us after class to say how much they enjoyed the day and that they were now considering pursuing sociology as a major or minor!

We think the activity was successful because every student contributed to the creation of class content and so each student felt like they had a stake in the class—not just the ones who are gutsy enough to speak out in a 100-person lecture hall.  What is more, the class exercise demonstrated a typically hidden social process—the way race affects the review of job applicants.  It also illustrated how their collective actions resulted in differential treatment of a white and non-white applicant, but without “blaming” any single student for engaging in differential treatment.  Showing students the results of their evaluation was a powerful way to demonstrate how easy it is to make decisions—even when you do not intend to—that result in race differences in reward.

While our exercise focused on race, you can use other articles to teach about workplace discrimination on the basis of parental status, sexual orientation (among men), or race and criminal background.

6 thoughts on “So You Want to Teach Students about Discrimination at Work? An Active In-class Teaching Exercise Using the Audit Methodology

  1. Elizabeth A. Hoffmann

    This is great! I love that all the students participated in the learning process — and contributed to these very instructive findings. Well done! Thanks for sharing this!

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