Most Forms of Faculty and Staff Training Don’t Work Well

Most campuses require the annual training of faculty and designated staff in areas that include conflicts of interest, cybersecurity, discrimination in hiring, evaluation and promotion, and Title IX. Unfortunately, the evidence about the effectiveness of these initiatives is pretty equivocal.

Unconscious bias training often fails to reduce bias. Diversity-related training frequently produces blowback. Much cybersecurity training proves ineffective.

As for training to guard against sexual misconduct, relationship violence, stalking and retaliation, it tends to be largely a matter of compliance and a safeguard against liability claims—while the incidences of abuse, harassment, gender bias and other wrongs persists.

Such programs, however well intended, may raise awareness, but their impact on behavior is very mixed.

The reasons are fairly obvious. There’s a tendency on the part of faculty and staff to treat such training as a box-checking exercise. The training itself isn’t especially engaging. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t well tailored to employees’ varied roles.

Worst of all, much training relies on pedagogical approaches that rarely work well: asynchronous computer-based programmed learning followed by a brief quiz encourages faculty to race through the training. A transmission model, where a facilitator lectures with few interruptions and very limited interaction, bores participants to tears. Facilitated role-playing exercises wind up antagonizing participants. Pedagogies that don’t work with undergraduates are even less likely to succeed with adults.

If our current approaches don’t work well, what might? I will offer an answer—but the solution will require campuses to treat faculty as active partners in the training process rather than as compliant recipients.

I, perhaps like you, just took part in my campus’s required annual Title IX training. The workshop, which spoke to faculty and administrators’ responsibilities as mandatory reporters, had a clear takeaway: follow the rules or you’re subject to automatic dismissal.

The workshop’s approach was highly legalistic, spelling out in precise terms when we must report something we hear or overhear and when we don’t have to. An overly legalistic approach that relies on scare tactics isn’t likely to alter attitudes or behavior. Even worse, such an approach may well have the unwitting effect of suggesting how to discourage disclosures. Merely inform students before they say anything that you’re required to repeat whatever you hear to a campus hearing officer. That’s correct, but if poorly phrased, will almost certainly discourage a student from saying anything.

Our Title IX training occurs synchronously over Zoom, unlike other required training, which consists of watching a video asynchronously and answering a few questions correctly. Clearly, the threat of massive financial penalties combined with student activism has made preventing Title IX violations is a high institutional priority.

But couldn’t we do a much better, more effective job? After all, our faculty and yours include many leading experts on topics related to gender bias, sexual harassment and assault, and other related topics. Shouldn’t we leverage their expertise?

A recent must-read article by two social psychologists, Betsy Levy Paluck of Princeton and Ana Gantman of Brooklyn College, points to a scenario-based, solver-community training model that strikes me as likely to be more effective and certainly much more engaging. Their essay, “The details of the situation shape whether a sexual assault occurs,” speaks to one far too common Title IX violation: date rape.

The authors describe a common sequence of events—a couple leaves an off-campus party and heads toward one student’s dormitory. The essay then examines the situational, psychological and other variables that can aggravate or diminish the likelihood that a sexual assault will take place.

The authors’ goal is not simply to analyze this particular situation, but to formulate policy recommendations. After all, “when we know which situations make assault more likely, we can work to change them.”

Their approach draws upon behavioral science to examines the ways that context and mental processes and situational variables contribute to sexual assault and how social norms, social scripts, goals, moral reasoning and perceptions might be altered to mitigate such an outcome.

Levy Paluck and Gantman do a masterful job of disentangling the relevant variables: Not just access to alcohol or fraternity membership or student personality types or attitudes about gender and sexuality or (possibly) miscommunication, misperception and misreading, but other key social and psychological factors. They begin with the couple’s identities and social position, “which can significantly affect how they feel about themselves and the other person and how they read the situation.” The authors then look at prescriptive social norms—“peers’ ideas about how to act”—which, research shows, powerfully influence student behavior.

Next, the two psychologists turn to “situational power”—a setting’s role in influencing people’s thoughts, actions and emotions. As the authors observe, “Situational power makes people more focused on their immediate desires and more likely to pursue them.”

Especially striking is Levy Paluck and Gantman’s discussion of the social scripts that help shape behavior. Two scripts stand out in their analysis: a “safety script”—in which students might leave a party early, without being too drunk, and ask someone to accompany them home—and a “politeness script,” in which students are supposed to be grateful to whoever accompanies them.

As Levy Paluck and Gantman show, a darkened dormitory hallway, doors shut, can heighten the possibility of nonconsensual sexual acts, while dormitories with a common social space can reduce the pressure a student might feel to engage in sex. So, too, can making campus social norms more explicit and conducting surveys of student expectations and attitudes and publicizing the results.

The approach that the authors recommend—“focus on a particular setting; and generate relevant situational and individual factors”—can and should be applied to analyzing other urgent campus problems, for example, those involving bias, discrimination, favoritism and retaliation.

You’d think that at an academic institution, a research-based approach similar to what Levy Paluck and Gantman describe would be common practice. Such an approach might involve six steps:

  1. Identify and to the extent possible quantify the specific challenge the campus confronts.
  2. Treat the issue as a collective action challenge.
  3. Approach the issue through a behavioral science lens.
  4. Ask faculty and staff to work through various scenarios modeled on real-life, nuanced situations.
  5. Give campus experts an opportunity to weigh in and cite relevant and applicable research.
  6. Collectively devise a plan of action.

It seems obvious to me that a training model that tackles concrete challenges and that is evidence-based and collaborative is far more likely to produce buy-in and result in measurable improvement than the current approach.

If workplace training is to be effective and meaningful, then we must apply the same methods and tools of analysis that we use in our social and behavioral science classes.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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