by Melanie Forstall Lemoine, Ph.D.
For many college students, the years spent pursuing a degree can be a time of self-exploration and discovery. In order for students to get the most out of their educational career, it is important for instructors and professors to support students to the greatest extent possible. This can be done by exploring several factors that impact classroom diversity and ways to improve instruction, which include:
- Understanding Culturally Responsive Practices
- Understanding Unconscious Bias
- Understanding Reflective Practice
- Implementing Practices from the Framework for Improvement
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a report released in 2015 indicated a highly diverse cohort of college applicants. The college enrollment rate for Asian high school graduates was 83 percent, followed by 71 percent for White graduates, 69 percent for Hispanic students, and 55 percent college enrollment rate for African-American high school graduates.
Data from both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education show a strong correlation between academic achievement and race and ethnicity. Data indicate that factors such as socioeconomic status, parental level of education, and enrollment in remedial courses affect a student’s likelihood of successful completion.
While this achievement gap shows to be closing, disparities still exist. However, there are specific ways in which faculty and administrators can help improve the outcomes for all. It is important for higher education leaders to have a willingness to identify possible biases, engage in reflective practice, and implement equitable classroom practices.
What are Culturally Responsive Practices?
Even at the college and university levels, it still takes a variety of instructional practices to meet the needs of all students. Teachers must differentiate instruction, as learning differences, strengths, and weaknesses exist even with adult learners.
Culturally responsive teaching practices add to this level of differentiation and ensure that the needs of diverse learners are met. According to Ladson-Billings (1994), culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the critical importance of identifying and including a student’s cultural experiences and references in all aspects of teaching and learning.
A student’s culture impacts their learning. In fact, culture has an impact on the way a student receives information, perceives it, and communicates. Culture shapes a student’s beliefs and way of thinking which plays a role in their overall education. To ensure classrooms are equitable places, colleges and universities need to not only acknowledge this, but also engage in it.
The overwhelming majority of college faculty are rooted in a belief that students can be successful and complete school. However, whether as teachers or other professionals, unconscious bias does exist and it is important to understand what it is and how it may affect teaching practices.
Unconscious bias is an unintentional bias, negative feeling, or stereotype about a specific group of people. This is not an intentional negative belief, but rather unintentional because the bias forms in our subconscious. Most people may not even be aware that they have these biases.
Unconscious bias happens in some ways because of our natural tendency to categorize things, especially things that look or appear different from us. An unconscious bias develops over time and is based on our own interpersonal interactions, or often lack thereof, with other diverse groups of people.
Examples of Bias
One example of unconscious bias in the classroom is gender bias. Research tends to indicate a bias against females in the areas of math and science; somehow it is perceived that males are stronger in these areas than females. In some disciplines, females are called on more often, and the opposite is true in other areas of study.
Research has shown that as teachers and students interact, opinions and perceptions are formed, often based on student dress, appearance, or speech. As the subconscious draws on past experiences, teachers may begin to create an overall picture about specific students and set expectations accordingly.
It is important to stress that these biases are not necessarily intentional. Faculty are not making calculated decisions to call on females less than their male counterparts, in most cases. Similarly, instructors are not engaging with culturally diverse students any more or less than their peers in an intentionally negative way. Teachers are not deliberately limiting their students’ potential.
The best way to combat unconscious bias is to be reflective in practice and acknowledge that it exists. Awareness is key to understanding, which is an important first step. Faculty of all disciplines must confront their own potential biases and look to find ways in which they may impact their classrooms. By doing so, we create a more culturally inclusive environment; ensuring positive outcomes for all students.
Additionally, it is important to be intentional in teaching practices. By creating opportunities to be more inclusive, educators will create more culturally responsive classrooms. However, these changes won’t happen on their own.
Framework for Improvement
So how can we create more culturally responsive higher education classrooms?
The Louisiana State Personnel Development Grant (2011-2015) focused research and resources in the area of disproportionality and culturally responsive practices. The Equitable Classroom Practices Observation Checklist was designed as a two-pronged measure.
First, the assessment is designed to foster reflective practice of teachers, instructors, and higher education faculty to increase awareness of classroom practices. As a simple checklist, it fosters self-awareness to determine whether or not these practices are being utilized.
Second, the checklist offers a list of specific, actionable classroom instructional practices that can be easily implemented to improve cultural responsiveness of the higher education classroom.
The Equitable Classroom Practices Observation Checklist provides 10 ways to create more equitable, culturally responsive classrooms.
1. Accommodate Discussion
Who’s in the group? For many students, peer-to-peer interaction happens naturally. Some enjoy speaking in front of the class and expressing opinions or asking questions. However, for some students, this does not come easily.
To create a classroom that supports conversations and interaction, consider seating arrangements that foster small group discussions. To ensure that talking actually happens, it may be necessary to group students in ways that include those who enjoy discussion. A table of quiet, non-talkers may not do the trick.
2. Diversify Instruction
What’s new? Lectures. Presentation slides. Videos. High tech and low tech. All of these approaches work, unless the same one is used all the time. Just as instructors have a teaching preference, students have a learning preference. Engage more students by incorporating a variety of teaching methodology. Get creative and try something new.
3. Use a Random Response Strategy
Which one is it? There’s always one. Visit any higher education classroom and it’s easy to spot the one student who always responds to questions or prompts. However, a semester cannot be successfully built on the one student who always has an answer. Engage more students by using random response strategies such as numbered tables, even/odd numbered students, or in some cases, picking names out of a cup.
4. Structure Heterogenous Groups
What’s the difference? Understanding and appreciation of our differences comes from interacting with people who have different experiences than we do. Just as educators need to confront their own unintentional biases, the same goes for students. When creating groups or pairs, be intentional in selecting students who have some level of differences. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the same grouping patterns.
5. Use Probing or Clarifying Techniques
Is there more to the story? Asking students questions can be a good way to gauge understanding or to get the conversations started. However, for a host of reasons, not everyone may get the answers exactly right on the first try. There may be an inclination to pass on to the next student, trying to find the right answer. However, what about the student whose first language is not English? What about the student who may not have the same background or context to place the answer?
Instead of passing over a partially correct answer, consider asking a follow-up or clarifying question. This will not only create a more supportive classroom environment, it will provide a more accurate understanding of a student’s knowledge.
6. Use Formative Assessments
Are they getting it? It can be easy and economical to teach for seven weeks and then administer a mid-term exam; followed by seven more weeks of teaching and then the final. Consider implementing ongoing formative assessments to check for understanding. Using exit tickets, intermittent quizzes, or a summary of post-it notes can help identify gaps in knowledge for certain students. Creating a system that monitors student progress may also eliminate poor performance on summative assessments.
7. Pre-Assess All Students
What do they know? Before diving into new content, it’s always a good idea to check for previous understanding. Not every student arrives to our classroom in the same way and with the same level of knowledge. By checking for previous knowledge, teachers can create lessons that are more inclusive and meet the needs of diverse classrooms.
8. Connect Content
Whose life? Research has shown that students learn and retain more when they can make connections between the content and their own experiences. Making intentional connections to students’ experiences will increase the likelihood for retention. The key factor here is their life, not yours. The best way to do this is by getting to know your students and understanding how to link them to the curriculum personally.
9. Use Wait Time
What’s the rush? Research has shown that even in higher education, teachers are not giving students enough time to formulate an answer. As noted earlier, for a variety of reasons some students may need extra time to gather and express their thoughts. Generally, the ideal waiting period is at least three seconds. For more complex application questions, consider keeping quiet for twice as long.
10. Be Explicit in Expectations
What exactly do you want? To create a culturally responsive classroom, be explicit in your expectations. If there is ever a gray area, or lack of structure in terms of what you expect, some students can easily fall through the cracks. Using rubrics or specific exemplars will help establish clear criteria for performance.
The ultimate goal in education is to reach all students, and well, educate them. By understanding potential biases and making meaningful, reflective changes in classroom practice, higher education leaders can increase the likelihood that all students are reached. Instructors bring themselves into the classroom — experiences, preferences, and practices — so it’s no surprise that students do the same. Understanding ourselves and our students can lead to more effective practices and improve outcomes for everyone.
About the author
Melanie Forstall Lemoine has a doctorate in education and is a member of the Special Education faculty at Southeastern Louisiana University. Shas worked in the field of education for over 20 years as a teacher, grant writer, program director, and higher education instructor. She is a freelance writer specializing in education, and education related content. Additionally, she has co-authored book chapters specializing in providing services for students with disabilities. She can be reached at her Facebook page: Melanie Forstall – Stories of Life, love, and Mothering
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Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The Dreamkeepers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing Co.
Louisiana State Personnel Development Grant. (2011) Equitable Classroom Practices Observation Checklist. Retrieved from: http://laspdg.org/files/Equitable%20Classroom%20Practices%20Observation%20Checklist.pdf
National Educational Association. Confronting Implicit Bias Through Exemplary Educator Preparation. Retrieved from: https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/23840%20Confronting%20Implicit%20Bias%20Thru%20Exemp%20Teacher%20Prep-v2.pdf
Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. U.S. Department of Education (2016) Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Key Data Highlights Focusing on Race and Ethnicity and Promising Practices. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/advancing-diversity-inclusion.pdf