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As we continue to navigate life with Covid, it’s clear that the pandemic has revealed existing systemic inequities in HE. In light of this, let’s consider what it means conceptually to teach in more equitable and inclusive ways. In doing so, we can support the success of historically underserved and marginalised students.
When we’re more inclusive in our teaching, we recognise that our students − in all class modalities and sizes − want to be seen. They want to be heard. Students want to feel they belong in our class, that they’re a member of the group. Students want to feel they have a voice. They want to feel valued.
In my frequent conversations with students, they say they feel invisible in online or large classes. A few weeks ago I talked on the phone with Stephanie, one of my online students (she gave me permission to use her real name when sharing her story). Stephanie had fallen far behind because of severe anxiety. She was worried about being able to catch up and finish the class.
During our call we made a plan that would enable Stephanie to complete her work instead of failing the class. We agreed that she could have one extra week to complete all assignments. After the class ended, (she legitimately earned an A), Stephanie emailed to thank me. “You’re the first professor who ever looked at me,” she wrote. “The first professor who saw me as a person, who listened to my voice, who heard how discouraged I was.”
My interaction with Stephanie reminded me just how precarious a student’s success is, especially during this extremely difficult time. One of the most inclusive and equitable things we can do is remember that our students are people just like we are. They’re navigating serious challenges, just like we are. Seeing our students as people first motivates us to be flexible.
Giving Stephanie an extra week cost me nothing more than the 10-minute phone call. It added no extra work to my plate. But it allowed her to engage with course materials and demonstrate her new knowledge. It allowed her to succeed.
Other students say they feel like they’re just a number, not a person. They feel frustrated when professors don’t bother to learn their names or make any effort to pronounce them correctly. A few months ago my Latina student Flor told me she gets upset when her professors address her as Flora. “That’s not my name,” she said. “It’s not that hard. Why can’t they get it right?”
Seeing students as a number, or as a grading task on our to-do list, not as a real person with a story and a name that’s meaningful: these are ways in which we marginalise students or communicate exclusion even if we don’t realise it.
Instead, we can make an intentional effort to show our students that they matter, that they’re a part of the group, and that we’re confident they can do the work to be successful in our class. In addition to being flexible where possible and learning and using students’ names, there are many other ways to include online, in-person and/or hybrid students, in ways that foster equitable learning outcomes in all types of classes.
First, we can ask ourselves an important question: can students see themselves in our classes? Do black and brown students see people of colour on our slides or in our textbooks? Do all the word problems feature people with Anglicised names? Do we represent varying life circumstances, such as working two jobs while going to school and raising a child? What about the scholars we include in our curriculum? Have we made an effort to elevate voices that have been excluded in the past?
It’s also helpful to think about the relevance of materials and activities. Help students connect with you as a person as well as with course concepts. Research shows that when students can connect what they’re learning to their everyday life, or their interests and hobbies, or to their personal, academic or career goals, they will engage more deeply and learn better as a result. Tell students how this week’s information will benefit them in the workplace, for example. Better yet, ask students to articulate for themselves how what they’re learning connects with their interests and pursuits. They’ll be more successful as a result.
Finally, provide choice and variety where possible. Let’s say you have students attending class in person and online simultaneously. What are possible options for students in both environments to interact with concepts and with each other? We know that some students don’t want to turn on their cameras and that requiring them to do so can be an inequitable practice. So consider other ways for these students to engage. Ask them to post in the chat box (and designate someone in the room to help monitor activity there). Or do polling activities – say, a Zoom poll for online students and a show of hands in the room, and then discuss the results with everyone. Or permit students to write a one-paragraph post for a discussion forum, or they could upload a 60-second video or audio recording instead. Choice allows people to develop and demonstrate their learning in ways that enable them to be most successful. It’s well worth thinking about where and how to add options.
As we collectively reckon with the structural inequities baked into higher education, let’s individually embrace more equitable teaching practices. You have a tremendous opportunity to help your students be more successful when you do.
Flower Darby is a scholar of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.