Instructors often ask what they can do to ensure the success of diverse learners and if there are particular aspects of their teaching that will help these learners. In fact, there are many ways to support our diverse students. First and foremost is good teaching. Well-designed, student-centered courses that involve students in realistic, disciplinary work should be the basis of our students’ experiences during their university years. This means that the pedagogical choices that instructors make have a powerful impact on the experiences of our students.
It is also productive to consider the relationship that our diverse learners have to the university. Students of color, first-generation students, underrepresented students, and other student groups are part of this umbrella of diversity; these are students who historically have not always been well-served by institutions of higher education. While each of these groups and the individual students within these groups have their own unique experiences, histories, strengths, and challenges, we know that many diverse learners face two critical challenges: a sense of not belonging (at university or in a specific discipline) and a fear of failure (either at the university or in a course). To combat these two challenges, each instructor should create a course that is both inviting and well-designed. As we noted above, good teaching does indeed make a big difference in student success. But are there other actions instructors can take to combat these two challenges? Yes, there are! In this brief guide, we suggest three concrete actions you can take to help diverse students feel that they belong and three concrete actions you can take to help diverse students feel that they can and will succeed.
Practices that help diverse students develop a sense of belonging
Our undergraduate students are adolescents who are in a developmental stage in which they are forging a social identity. It can be psychologically and emotionally uncomfortable for students to find themselves in an environment where there seems to be little to no opportunity to continue to explore that emerging social identity. If they can’t see themselves reflected in any way in a university course, it is hard for students to invest psychological and emotional energy in the learning the course requires. And, in reality, higher education in the United States has a long history of excluding many of the groups of students we refer to as “diverse learners.” What can you do to help students begin to see themselves as a part of your course and your discipline? Below are three evidence-based suggestions for low-effort, moderate-effort, and greater-effort actions you can take to create a sense of belongingness for your diverse students.
Low instructor effort: Have students affirm their values and connect them to your course. Ask students on the first day of class to write down three things they value (people, activities, or principles) and to articulate how the course will help them sustain and develop those values. Have them return to this practice at least one additional time in the course. Collect and respond to the ideas that students generate so that they know their connections to the course are real and valuable. Research suggests that this can make a big impact on students’ sense that the course is related to who they are and that they belong in the course (Jordt et al., 2017).
Moderate instructor effort: Note and celebrate the diverse experts and communities that have shaped your discipline. Each week or two (stick to a schedule to create a meaningful practice), take time at the beginning of class to share with students a key figure in the discipline who is a member of a diverse group or share with students specific ways that diverse communities or traditions have shaped your discipline. For example, a computer science instructor might share information with her students about Alan Turing, the gay mathematician who is considered the father of modern computer science. Another week, that instructor might share information about Ada Lovelace, the female scientist who worked on one of the first conceptualizations of the computer in the Victorian era. Another week, the instructor might describe the African origins of computational science (Eglash, 1999). You don’t have to be an expert on these connections; you do need to demonstrate to diverse students that diversity is a central part of the discipline and that you celebrate and respect this diversity. There are many web resources to help you with this. For example, if you teach in a STEM field discipline, you can find information on queer scientists, scientists of color, scientists with disabilities, and so on by doing some thoughtful web searching. Alternately, many scholarly, professional organizations have a diversity special interest group whose members will be happy to help you inform yourself about the diversity within your discipline that is often hidden from students (and scholars!).
Greater instructor effort: Design meaningful assignments and activities that are purposeful for students. When the work we assign students is work that they can meaningfully apply to their own lives and their own communities, they can see themselves and their hopes and aspirations in that work (Handstedt, 2018). The connection between their sense of who they are (or want to become!) and the work of the university course becomes stronger through these kinds of assignments and activities. In a communication course, a meaningful assignment might involve students using key principles to create a short speech about a change they want to see in their own lives or in their community. In a biology course, a meaningful assignment might involve students researching a genetic disorder that has affected someone they know. In a literature course, you might have students choose and analyze the work of writers whose work reflects some aspect of their identity. These assignments should be part of a larger course design and not simply tacked onto a course as a token effort.
Practices that help diverse students develop the belief that their abilities can grow in your course
Our students have grown into adolescence in a culture that worships the constructs of genius and innate ability. While students hear from family and teachers that hard work pays off or that tenacity is more important than being gifted in a particular way, they come to our classes with deeply engrained beliefs to the contrary. Our students are often convinced that only certain special individuals are “STEM people,” “history types,” or “born writers.” When students believe that success in our disciplines is due to special, innate gifts, their theories of fixed abilities severely limit their learning. When they find our courses challenging, they assume that they simply don’t have what it takes to succeed and stop trying. And what’s worse, our diverse students often carry with them the burden of stereotypes about lack of innate ability. When students see ability as an entity determined by genetics rather than experiences, the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about their abilities can be overwhelming and paralyzing (Steele, 2010). What can you do to help students see that learning in your discipline is a matter of sustained effort and work, and not a matter of innate ability? Below are three evidence-based suggestions for low-effort, moderate-effort, and greater-effort actions you can take to create a growth mindset for your diverse students (Canning et al., 2019; Dweck, 2006; Steele, 2010).
Low instructor effort: Be explicit about ability as something that grows or develops. Frequently remind students (convincingly) that no one is a born writer, mathematician, chemist, historian, etc. This becomes much more real for students when you give examples of experts in your field who overcame obstacles or who are from historically marginalized groups. You can also share that you also found aspects of the work you are now having your students do challenging, sharing how you might have struggled as an undergraduate with this work. Another way to be explicit about learning as an effortful process is to frequently remind students that assessments and assignments are a measure of their preparation not their innate abilities. For example, before students take a test, say “This is a test that assesses your preparation and test-taking skills, not your intelligence or your worth as a person.” Similarly, when you return assessments and assignments, remind them of the true meaning of their grade by emphasizing the role of preparation in success. For example, as you pass back papers, you might say, “If you didn’t get the grade you were aiming for, you probably didn’t prepare well. Come to my office hours and we will develop some strategies to help. I know you can succeed on this.”
Moderate instructor effort: Communicate implicitly that mistakes are central to student learning. If we want students to see learning as the process of trying, struggling, growing, and developing, we need to make sure there are opportunities for students to make mistakes in class and in the course without fear of failure or ridicule. Create these opportunities for your students and when students struggle or fail, normalize it, celebrate it, and use it to help students learn. If many students couldn’t solve a particular logic problem, for example, you might say, “Okay, so this is a confusing area and your mistakes are helping me see where we might want to tinker a bit. Let’s dig into your thinking here and have you explain some of your ideas. This is definitely challenging, but I think after discussing it a bit and practicing again, you will all get the hang of it . . . .” Providing frequent opportunities for feedback that allows students to reconfigure their learning and assess again is critical to communicating to students that learning in your discipline is about developing mental muscles, not about innate gifts.
When you provide feedback to students on their mistakes, make sure your feedback is actionable and targets for them the next steps they should take to develop their learning. Require written reflections to help students see the connection between their performance and their preparation and practice. For example, if students took an exam, an instructor might return those exams and then ask students to write down how much time they studied for the exam, write down the strategies they used to study, and have them choose some alternate strategies and commit to using those for the next exam.
Greater instructor effort: Design a summative assessment plan for growth. A summative assessment plan describes a series of larger assessments in your class that help sum up student learning at key points in your course. This assessment plan is not just student work; these assessments can communicate to students what you believe about ability! If you only give one or two exams, you communicate that learning is a one (or two) shot deal and that only the strong will survive. In fact, this practice is called gatekeeping and it originated in the practice of trying to keep out “less able” students and ensure that only the brightest (read most prepared or advantaged) made it through to upper-level courses. Instead of gatekeeping practices, use an assessment plan that is designed to help grow students’ abilities by giving them frequent, low-stakes assessments. This allows you to give students formative feedback to help improve their performance and skills. This kind of assessment plan proves to students that your course is designed to use assessment as a learning tool, not as a “one and done” summary of their ability.
In addition to this practice, be sure to create grades using set criteria rather than grading on a curve. This proves to students that your course is designed to measure each student in relationship to the same, high standards and that you aren’t comparing students to one another. When you grade on a curve, students understand that they are competing with each other and they see their ability in relation to that of others rather than in relation to their personal effort. Finally, share your grading criteria with students by providing them with your rubrics, checklists, etc. And when you use these grading guides, do so in ways that communicates clearly to students what they should focus their next efforts on. This proves to students that your course is designed to help them grow their abilities.
- Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau4734
- Dweck, C. S., (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
- Eglash, R. (1999). African fractals: Modern computing and indigenous design. Rutgers University Press.
- Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus Publishing.
- Jordt, H., Eddy, S. L., Brazil, R., Lau, I., Mann, C., Brownell, S. E., King, K., & Freeman, S. (2017). Values affirmation intervention reduces achievement gap between underrepresented minority and white students in introductory biology classes. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-12-0351
- Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. W. W. Norton & Company.
CATLOE can help!
As you consider using these and other practices to support diverse learners, you may have questions or need some guidance. Please feel free to reach out to CATLOE (https://www.itlal.org/consultations/) for a one-on-one consultation with an instructional consultant.