Suppressing Heuristics

The idea of human beings using heuristics isn’t a new concept. Our brain processes information either analytically or affectively (Refer to Epstein 19931). While the former is deliberate and slow, the latter is faster and relies on heuristics. The same heuristics that Shankar Vedantam refers to in the excerpt from the Hidden Brain. I actually want to get this off my chest early on. The excerpt from the Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam and was darker than my previous post about students with suicide plans. That was depressing. Geez!

Coming back to the topic at hand, heuristics help us respond faster in unfamiliar circumstances. Can’t decide on something? Let’s pick the middle most option available (Saini and Monga 20082 ). Human beings are prone to use heuristics in a variety of situations. Except when it is used on them. I am from India (read: I am brown) and am growing a beard (Abe Lincoln’s excuse: I have a weak chin). Many a times have I been told in restaurants that they serve halal meat. On the outside, I thank the host and the hostess, while I actually want to tell them to stop trying to use heuristics. This is when one realizes that heuristics are not all good.

An episode from my class further showed me that heuristics are not always correct. My early experiences with students from University sports teams have shown me that I need to spend more time with them on all aspects of the class. Talking about class, exams and keeping them on track with their final projects. And so in my last class I was pleasantly surprised when a student from the sports team turned out to be the best student in class. The student received the best grades in the midterms and finals and ended up having the best final project. That was when I decided to throw that heuristic out of the window. The thing about heuristics that people do not realize is that it is born out of experiences. It undergoes modifications throughout one’s life. In my case, I opted for the extreme case of totally over ruling my heuristic. And I intend for it to stay that way.


  1. Epstein, S. (1993). Implications of cognitive-experiential self-theory for personality and developmental psychology.
  2. Saini, R., & Monga, A. (2008). How I decide depends on what I spend: use of heuristics is greater for time than for money. Journal of Consumer Research34(6), 914-922.

P.S. For those of you wondering, I do know that Wladimir Klitschko has a doctorate and he could knock me and my heuristic, out, in the blink of an eye.




This is earth and I’m not alien

Diversity, especially ethnic diversity, always seems to be a new thing to me considering the majority of the population in China is Chinese. We were taught that China is made of 56 ethnic groups, and together we formed this harmonious society. But before coming to US, I only knew a few people from minority ethnic groups, and they looked exactly like Han people (the major race of Chinese) with similar lifestyle. In this sense,  the only “foreigner” I met in my first 18 years was a native English teacher. So most of the times, we Chinese people believe that we “are non-racist in the sense that most are not aware of our own multiethnic background and care little about it“.

Things changed rapidly the moment I arrived in US. I did not expect to become “nonresident alien” as if I came from outer space with the UFO. This title definitely confused me in the first few days and made me feel that US is not a great “melting pot” as advertised. I started to think about my ethnic background for the first time in my life. Fortunately, I was not treated differently as an “alien” during the first semester in VT. Surely the language and culture differences hit me. But after some adjustments in the following few months, I gradually get used to the new environment and made lots of new friends. As I walked through the campus, I could see faculty, staff, and students coming from different backgrounds and places and forming a robust and welcoming community.  By the end of the first year (2016), building an “inclusive VT” became one of the major goals in our university. The ultimate target of “inclusive VT” is to make sure that “inclusion and diversity is infused throughout Virginia Tech“.

A inclusive VT recognizes our diversified background and washes away any potential labels, “alien” for instance, to bring all members in this community as one. This is extremely important to higher education since we need a diversified and inclusive campus to “makes us smarter“, as Katherine Phillips believes. With different backgrounds, we saw things from various aspects and approach to questions in different ways. New and creative information can be brought into discussion, and potentially it is the key for solving the puzzle. Personally, I benefit a lot from this diversified campus and have multiple projects with all kinds of collaborators. The inclusive environment can help you find the strength as well as weakness of yourself and make best use of your merits. As a result, we can have a harmonious living environment with a enhanced working/research efficiency. I just hope this inclusiveness is not limited in VT or higher education but all over the US. As the most powerful country in the world, US should be famous for its inclusiveness instead of the tragedies, for example the one happened in Charlottesville. I do not want to talk about any politics involved, but treating people with different backgrounds as “aliens” is only isolating yourself.

Diversity Awareness

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and attending public schools meant that I was surrounded by a relatively diverse group of peers from a young age. I never realized that this was different from how all children grow up, it just was. This is the case for most children I think, they grow up thinking that their own experiences are shared by all people. This is why educating children about other experiences and teaching them how to be aware of their own perspective is so vital. It is also so important that we all become aware of how our brains work and how to become aware of the “hidden brain” as writer Shankar Vedantam coined it. I thought this quote really summed it up well,

So the problem is not that the plane has a pilot and an autopilot function. The problem is that sometimes without the pilot even being aware of it, it’s the autopilot function that’s flying the plane.

Shankar Vedantam

By learning about how the subconscious sections of our brain function, we can better understand what causes us to react in certain ways and evaluate if we are “piloting the plane” or if we are allowing our automatic reactions to drive our decisions.

Over the years, I have worked as a part of many teams. From my own experiences, I have observed that teams that are comprised of diverse individuals seem to work better. This is also supported by in the article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter from Katherine W. Phillips.

Finally I wanted to address being uncomfortable. In some situations, exposing ourselves to diverse experiences can feel uncomfortable. I think that this is completely normal and actually a good thing. The feeling of being uncomfortable is a sign that we are extending beyond our current levels of knowledge and understanding.

Do you speak English?

I am international student from Nepal and I have been living in the US for about 5 years now. Over the course of these 5 years, I have had several experiences of being stereotyped based on how I look. Recently, as I was working in my office, an IT support person showed up as a response to the help desk ticket that someone from my office had put in. I was the only person in the office when he came and the first thing he asked me was, “Hi, do you speak English?”

I was very shocked. Although I have been a many time victim of racial stereotyping, this one greatly frustrated me. How could someone make an assumption that I couldn’t speak English just by looking at my skin color? Firstly, he well knew that he was at a Graduate Student Office and any graduate student at VT should be able to speak English having met the English proficiency requirements for admission at VT. What furiated me even more was that, when I answered a “YES” to his question, he gave me a surprised look and said “Oh!”

Many other times many people have asked me where I was originally from, how I was able to speak English well despite being a foreigner and how I didn’t have much of an “accent.” Some people don’t even think that its important to ask and make a direct comment such as “You are from India, aren’t you?” I think that some people find great joy in making assumptions and creating stereotypes, or as Shankar Vedantam would say that our “Hidden Brains” would like to do so.

I agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that people create stereotypes from a single story and it may not always be their fault. I think children from very young age should be taught and told stories about different places, people, and their cultures and that all humans are equal despite some differences, so that they don’t create stereotypes with a single story. Specially, parents and teachers have a great role in this.

I keep thinking of what I could do, as a future faculty, to promote diversity and make the learning environment for students more inclusive. I might not be able to bring in a whole lot of changes but I think even trying to practice what is already on the papers will help foster a welcoming and affirming environment. Here are a few things that I would try to do to promote diversity and inclusion as a faculty:

  • Make sure that I understand the needs and expectations of my students in the classroom.
  • Maintain a respectful and safe environment and speak up or take actions against any misconducts. I would be careful about what I speak and would try to reflect diversity and inclusion in my words and actions.
  • Create an environment where students feel free to share any issues (either in person or anonymously).
  • Bring up conversations and share ideas related to diversity and inclusion with other colleagues in the department.
  •  Serve in committees that work in diversity related issues and try to promote their events.

I would like to hear from you as well. What would you do to create and inclusive learning environment in your classrooms?


PS: I saw this on the news recently (many of you might have already seen this) and thought it was interesting:


To fit in or not to fit in… That is the question.

Living in Southwestern Virginia, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am not from here. Be it a barista misspelling my name or someone having trouble understanding me on the phone. While I haven’t experienced blatant racism in Blacksburg or anywhere else in the US, I have constantly pondered whether I should make more of an effort trying to fit in. Maybe put more effort to acquire the American accent? Maybe a generic anglicised name would help?

I think it depends on how much time and energy you want to devote to either stand out or fit in. For example, is it really worth the effort to get a barista to spell your name right on a cup, while you are late for class and the line is out the door? I guess some would say yes, but in my case, I use my Starbucks name, my super secret alter ego – AJ. I don’t know where the “J” in AJ came from, I picked it once and stuck to it. At that instant, it is not about heritage or diversity, it is about convenience. So much so, that even my very white partner has started to use it instead of her own name. It is just easier and saves the grief of seeing your name misspelled.

Then come the formal settings. I am extremely conscious when meeting new people, especially at conferences, as most of the first interaction is spent repeating my name. How can I meet the big people in my field at a conference and make a good first impression when they can’t even say my name right? I don’t know how to tackle this.

I hope my own experiences with inclusion and diversity helps me create environments in my class that are welcoming to everyone. I want to create an environment where students are not forced to fit in and feel included either way. They have the choice of being Anurag or AJ and the atmosphere of mutual respect encourages them to participate wholeheartedly. I like to think of my classroom as a crate of eggs, where eggs of all color fit in and are free to interact in a welcoming environment shielded from, mindful of, and learning from the world outside.

Inclusive Pedagogy for International Students

Since the number of international students in the US is growing these days, inclusive pedagogy for them is becoming more important. When we say “international student,” it can indicate students from various countries, thus, a pedagogy for international students can be created in many different ways according to the countries that the students come from. Here, I would like to specifically talk about some students from East Asian countries based on the experiences of mine and my friends.

Studying in the US as a Korean, the most challenging part for me has been participating in class discussions. This is because of my culture in which students are generally silent, also my English speaking skill that is not enough to dive in the fast pace of the discussions. Although I tried to speak something each class, I mostly ended up being a silent student. Sharing my experiences with other friends from Korea, China, or Japan, I found that they all had the similar difficulties to mine while they wanted to be more involved in their classes.

Afterwards, I felt bad when I saw myself or other international students who are silent during the class discussion times, and questioned to myself how I could change the atmosphere more inclusive for those students if I taught the class. I thought about a quota system to reserve a certain portion of time for the students who speak less during the class. However, the quota system might be able to interrupt the flow of the discussion, also the system would work only if the students wanted to speak, but couldn’t find an opportunity to do that. Otherwise, the forced speaking time would not be pleasing.

I also thought about keeping a slow pace for the class as it worked well in one of my classes for learning software. But, students’ discussion time would be different from a computing class since the instructor is not the only one who is talking, and it would be hard to ask the speaking students “could you speak slowly?” every moment. Moreover, some people might argue that it is the international students’ own responsibilities to practice speaking and listening English in average speed because college classes are not ESL classes.

In conclusion, I am still looking for effective ways to create an inclusive pedagogy for international students like me. At the same time, I would like to note that this posting should not be a single story about East Asian students because this is purely based on my experiences and some conversations with my friends. There would be some other students from East Asian countries who are good at discussions and well participating in their classes without those concerns.  

Promoting Diversity as a World-changing Strategy

Diversity in higher education is a strategy that has been used for several institutions to promote peace and social justice, and one great example is the worldwide “Bridge. Connect. Act” (BCA) program who have now extended to basically all the United States. BCA is a program that facilitates abroad experiences within college students all around the world. It has study abroad programs with countries in almost all continents, and it works in a way in which a student from the US goes to study abroad in a different country while a student from that country goes to study abroad in the US.

What is most interesting about this program is that its vision goes beyond promoting diversity, but is is about changing the world with these types of experiences. It is a program that recognize that exposure to diversity enriches the educational experience, but it also aims that from those experiences, students get to understand other’s people’s beliefs, perspectives and even different lifestyles. And it is this understanding, according to BCA, that will help students to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, to encourage critical thinking, and to become better citizens in an increasingly complex overall.

“BCA Study Abroad facilitates opportunities for growth in intercultural understanding and global awareness through educational programs that foster scholarship, community engagement and guided reflective learning.” (

BCA is a great illustration of how incorporating and promoting diversity in higher education can lead to build professionals with high values of mutual respect, tolerance and teamwork capacity. Which will contribute, ultimately, to build a better world.


Teaching Empathy for Inclusive Education

Inclusive pedagogy aims for more diverse students to interact with more positive outcomes. I think this could be achieved by teaching students how to empathize. Empathizing not only helps you to welcome other’s ideas (which can turn into a great outcome), but also allows engineers (civil engineers in my particular case) to develop more human centered, sustainable, infrastructure.

Education should start with perspective taking, from the point-of-view of users (students). Teaching empathy as a core teaching value can be mirrored to other engineering designs that use empathy. For instance, when taking office, the mayor /of Curitiba, Brazil recognized that the majority of the 2 million citizens did not own, or have access, to an automobile. Because the majority of potential users did not have access to an automobile, the decision was made to transfer money allocated for a highway system to repurpose existing road lanes from automobiles to above-ground ‘subway’ systems of buses and elevated waiting areas. About 75 percent of the population, now use this system every day. Curitiba’s system was cost-effective both in terms of the initial investment (less expensive than adding highway lanes or an underground subway system) and in the long-term, as residents enjoy the lowest per capita transportation costs and best air quality in the country. Fuel consumption in the city has been slashed by roughly one third (Lindau et al. 2010).

As the Curitiba example illustrates, starting with the intended users of the system offers solutions tailor made to suit their needs; in this particular case, the users are the students from diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, age, gender, etc. Defined here as user-centered design, this is vital to building more sustainable higher education.

The ability to empathize with all students, from different backgrounds, is also a necessary skill for developing and delivering sustainable educative solutions because recognition alone is likely not enough (Brown and Wyatt 2010; Liedtka 2011). Empathy is a central concept of user-centered design (Frascara 2003) and the first step within the five stage design thinking process (Brown 2009; Burnett 2016).

“Empathy is the first step to peace in a war zone” – unkown

Taking teaching into the next level

Personally, I think that by creating, sharing and applying knowledge to a student forum are fundamental to teach. But, one of the element secrets to take teaching into the next level is understand and take advantage of diversity in all senses.

Katherine W. Philips states “This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place”.

Diversity of learners emphasizes the ideal that teachers can facilitate the learning process in diverse types of learners. To recognize and respect individuals is fundamental, as the President of Virginia Tech “Tim Sands” mentioned in a special statement on October 2017, which also is a strong principle of the institution.

Moreover, for teachers and professors, diversity needs to be taken as a key strategy, because it allows making better decisions as group due to the different backgrounds and multiple lived perceptions. The inclusion of different backgrounds bring as consequence new information, different perspectives which enrich the information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces creativity and innovation.

Finally, as professors we need to facilitate clear messages, Shankar Vedantam emphasized that “The conscious messages that we give as being the most powerful education that we can give”.

About the author,

Sofia Rincon Gallardo Patino, have an obsession with coffee and almond milk.

1 2 3