Ds Scholarship

Small changes can make college teaching more inclusive (opinion)

The pandemic and tumult over social justice have been challenging how educators approach teaching. Safety protocols and debates over the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education have left many instructors feeling burned out. In such a state, it is helpful for us as educators to focus on small changes to our teaching that can yield big results for student success. As James Lang writes in Small Teachingwe should consider taking “an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices.”

Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder point out that “there are no shortcuts” if higher education is going to meet its role in confronting social issues of poverty, and racism. Thus, we should ground any activities we pursue along those lines in an ongoing educational process. But while there are no shortcuts, we can adopt some intentional small changes in four key areas to make our teaching more inclusive.

Small Changes for Ongoing Self-Reflection

To initiate a process of change, we must begin with what we know best: ourselves. Small changes begin with our engaging in the self-work that we need to develop empathy and understanding of others’ experiences. As educators, we should reflect on and examine our experiences for biases and assumptions. Several resources and tools are available to facilitate the process of self-examination, such as The Racial Healing Handbook by Anneliese A. Singh, Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad, and the Project Implicit tool by Harvard University and the University of Virginia.

Using such tools helps us to uncover implicit biases that we harbor at a subconscious level. That process of self-examination should be consistent and built over time with intentionality. Our responsibility as educators requires us to continually seek knowledge that helps us understand DEI issues. Only then will we be able to develop educational practices that create inclusive learning environments. Former University of Richmond president Ronald Crutcher has emphasized the need to “be intentional about leveraging diversity as an educational benefit if we are to succeed in graduating empathetic listeners capable of navigating and bridging divides.”

Small Changes to Adopt Inclusive Pedagogical Practices

Faculty members have many opportunities to adopt small changes to their pedagogical practices to make them more inclusive. First, as instructors, we can use a quick survey to learn about students’ interests and goals for the future. We can incorporate such surveys throughout the semester to check in with students about their concerns about the course, their college experience and their life beyond college. We can then use the results to connect students to needed resources.

Second, we can review our syllabi for inclusive language. Course policies should be stated in positive terms that support student success. As Kirsten Helmer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has noted, reframing support opportunities such as office hours into descriptions that can be more easily understood helps students who may not know the terminology commonly used in higher education. Using terms like “student support hours” or “meeting time for students” can help explain that the time is dedicated to meeting with students to discuss their concerns or questions

Third, we need to uncover the hidden curriculum, which consists of the unspoken, unwritten, unofficial or implicit academic, social and cultural messages found in higher education, so that expectations are visible to promote educational transparency and equal opportunities for all.

Finally, students need to be engaged in active learning. Active learning encourages students to use higher-order thinking skills as they actively construct their own knowledge and understanding of concepts and procedures. Active learning can range from a pause in the lecture for students to note the muddiest point to a community-based group project. Studies have demonstrated that active learning approaches are more effective not only in helping students learn but also in creating more inclusive classrooms.

Small Changes to Create Inclusive Curricula

Instructors can start with small changes to create an inclusive curriculum, as well. We can begin by selecting, where possible, course content or concept examples that reflect our students’ experiences. We can validate student identities by modifying course material to create authentic, relevant learning experiences. Students’ participation in the course and ultimate retention in college depends on both how reflective and relevant the curriculum is to their lives.

As Lang suggests, we can apply the “small teaching” concept to portions of a course. For example, we can identify a specific class session to try applying universal design for learning approaches, such as using a multimodal presentation of course content that makes it more accessible for all students. We can also focus on decolonizing a specific course concept by bringing in new voices and perspectives. In fact, an especially effective way to begin the process of making the curriculum inclusive is by inviting students into the process of creating the curriculum. Doing so can impact the curricular outcomes “with the ultimate objective of developing learners who will be autonomous, critical, and assertive citizens,” as we write in our book, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Strategies for Teaching.

Small Changes to Conduct Inclusive Assessment

Implementing small changes to assessment processes can yield significant improvements to student success. If possible, we should offer our students a choice of how they illustrate their understanding of the course and what they’ve learned. Giving students that agency encourages them to invest more in the processes of demonstrating their learning.

Another small change faculty can make is to provide multiple opportunities for students to receive feedback and conduct guided self-assessment of their learning. For example, to reduce their load, faculty members can create peer feedback sessions that help students better understand assignment requirements.

Transparent assignment design, developed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes and other scholars, relates the assignment not only to the course but also to real-world outcomes, creating greater student engagement in the assignment. Transparent assignment design uses a simple heuristic of purpose, task and criteria for writing-assignment directions. In a biology assignment to create an infographic, for instance, students can be given a rationale for how the infographic will advance their learning, given steps to create one and finally given the criteria for how the infographic will be evaluated. In a study they conducted, Winkelmes and others found that students who received transparent assignments made gains in three areas linked to student success: 1) increased academic confidence, 2) a greater sense of belonging and 3) awareness of their mastery of the skills that Employers value most when hiring. In another study, students at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas were retained at higher rates than students who did not receive transparent assignments.

In addition, quick assessments like the classroom assessment techniques described by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross provide students and faculty with insights into student comprehension of course material, which gives students time to correct their misunderstandings before a high-stakes assessment. Inviting students to submit an initial draft of their ideas for an assignment and engaging in peer-review activities provides helpful scaffolding before a major assignment.

Small Changes for Ongoing Growth

The work of addressing diversity and promoting equity and inclusion in higher education is an ongoing task that can be made more manageable if instructors develop an intentional plan for their growth in this area. We can begin by setting goals for ourselves in each of the four areas we’ve described and seek institutional support where possible. We should also work with our students to create more inclusive classrooms by engaging them in the self-reflective work needed to understand their own positionality.

Based on that understanding, we can co-create inclusive pedagogies, curricula and assessment processes that value each member of the learning community. As educators, we should also develop a means to evaluate whether we are meeting our goals of inclusivity or missing our mark so we can course correct if needed. In our book, Deyu Hu and Michele Deramo provide a rubric that can be used for this self-assessment.

Finally, administrators should recognize and support faculty members’ efforts to improve equity and inclusion in their courses. Efforts related to DEI work frequently involve BIPOC faculty, adding an extra service load to their already busy schedules that leaves less time for them to conduct and publish their research. Unfortunately, such work often is not acknowledged or rewarded, leading to further inequities when it comes to tenure and promotion.

With encouragement and adequate administrative support, faculty members will more likely be able to engage in advancing equity in their courses and classrooms. They can begin to make intentional small changes to consistently build inclusive learning environments that respect differences. And that will ultimately be no small matter. As Crutcher has observed, such small changes over time have the potential to prepare students who are better equipped “to strengthen pluralistic democracy and build an America that makes one out of many.”

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