While attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is becoming more common across campus, we still hear the occasional reaction that addressing issues of race, privilege, and social justice tend to belong in some disciplines—typically the social sciences—and not so much in others. In some ways that reaction makes sense, since some disciplines are overtly focused on these issues as areas of academic study. But if we focus on the concept of equitable and inclusive teaching, all of us who walk into the classroom have a role to play in DEI, and a responsibility for ensuring we are supporting the success of all IU students who enter our classrooms.
While I cannot do justice to DEI in teaching in one blog post, I want to pitch four reasons why I think all departments should focus on inclusive and equitable teaching, and to provide a few thoughts for each.
Intentionally focusing on inclusive teaching can reveal and remove unintentional barriers to student success, and it can set a pathway for success for all students.
Many of our instructional practices and policies can easily be biased towards students who fit our preconceptions of what a “good student” looks like, despite the fact that many of our students likely vary from this generic ideal. Thinking closely about our real student audiences—and particularly the variations within it—can reveal places where our classes may not be as equitable as we’d hope.
- What are the policies and language we use in our syllabi up front that tell students right away if they belong in our classes, setting up insiders and outsiders from the start? Do certain policies inadvertently present barriers that impact some students more than others?
- What teaching approaches might we be using that unintentionally privilege students who come from certain educational, cultural, or family backgrounds… and unfairly burden those who don’t? Do those teaching approaches leave less privileged students in the margins?
- Of our incoming class, 46% of students report having a parent who has a master’s degree or higher, while 18% report their parents had no higher education degree (2022 BCSSE data). How might those varied backgrounds impact how well students navigate college and our individual classes, and how can we ensure that first-generation students aren’t at a disadvantage because of how we teach and present our policies?
Creating a sense of belonging can make an early difference in student engagement and success.
Research on stereotype threat and belonging—including important contributions by Mary Murphy in IUB’s Department of Brain and Psychological Sciences—shows that when students come from stigmatized groups in a discipline or course, they are more likely to disengage and perform at lower rates, even when other factors are considered. Small interventions aimed at belonging have evidence of significantly reducing both stereotype threat and achievement gaps.
- What can we do in our classes and majors to send a message that all students can succeed here… and what do we do to actively support them?
- How do we provide examples of all types of students succeeding in our fields and classes—e.g., messages from former students about their struggles and successes, a wide range of identities in the scholars and researchers we hold up as successful?
Our students don’t leave their identities and their traumas at the door, nor should they.
Even if we teach large classes that make it hard to personally know our students, it is important to recognize that their lives outside of class greatly impact how present and engaged they can be during class. Their cultural backgrounds will continue to influence how they engage in class—think of an international student who learned not to ask challenging questions of their instructors. And worries and trauma can interfere with learning—think of how a racial or antisemitic incident can occupy a student’s thoughts or impact how they interact with classmates. How we respond—both personally and through our policies and course designs—can make the difference of them succeeding or leaving (our class, the major, the university).
- Do we make clear the “hidden curriculum” of our classes—the often-unstated expectations of how students engage in our classes? This can be anything from coaching students on how to use office hours, to structuring ways for students to ask questions in class, to clear guidelines for what to do if they miss a class.
- Do students see their identities reflected in the researchers we highlight? Are the examples and cases we use culturally meaningful to them?
- Do our policies account for the realities of life—building in a few no-excuse-needed absences, allowing a few missed or late assignments without penalty, or offering ways to make up assignments if a physical or mental health challenge keeps them down for a while?
- Do we remind them that struggle is normal, and that you are there to help them succeed—both through your policies and teaching approaches, and in the campus resources to send them to?
Active learning works and inclusivity go hand-in-hand… if done well.
We have years of evidence that active learning leads to improved student outcomes, as well as evidence that increased structure and active learning can lead to more equitable outcomes. But we are learning that active learning can actually exclude some students if not structured well.
- Do we structure active learning tasks to give all students a chance to pause, think, and engage? This can matter to students who students whose voices typically are not heard, who may not be the first-and-fast talkers in class, or for whom English isn’t their native language.
- Do we structure group activities to provide an equitable role for all members? Do we structure quick in-class activities so that all students are included? Letting students self-select groups can privilege those starting with social networks and immediately disadvantage others.
- Do the cases or scenarios we use for active learning reflect a variety of cultures, so more students see their relevance, which can increase engagement?
These are just a few reasons why I think inclusive teaching should be at a top priority for all instructors and their departments. And the questions I ask are just the tip of the iceberg in developing inclusive, equitable classrooms.
If you want to learn more about inclusive and equitable teaching, check out our online resources on inclusive teaching, or contact us. We can do workshops for your department on a range of DEI topics, including creating inclusive syllabi and policies, creating inclusive team activities, structuring active learning to be inclusive, leading class discussions on “hot” topics, integrating DEI into your curriculum, and more.