Skip to main content

Teaching intelligence: embedding equity into the curriculum

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 4 Feb 2021

Skiers on a podium

Source: Getty (edited)

The push to make higher education more inclusive is nothing new, but these days it is not enough to simply shoehorn a wider range of students into university. Across the sector, there is increased focus on how to ensure all students can succeed once they get there too.

For example, England’s higher education regulator has asked providers to tackle the “degree attainment gap”, the significant difference in the proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a “good degree” (a first or a 2:1) when compared with white students. This is a problem replicated in the US and Australia, for example, where minority students are less likely to get top marks than their white, middle-class peers.

The latest edition of the Open University’s (OU) annual Innovating Pedagogy report, which tracks trends in teaching, identified equity-based pedagogy – which asks how every student can succeed, regardless of characteristics such as background, ethnicity, disability or gender – as a worldwide priority for higher education.

“Developing educational opportunities that are inclusive of all students requires thinking about the learning journey from multiple perspectives…Therefore, there has been a growing trend towards pedagogical innovations that aim to create equity, where each student can achieve comparable positive outcomes regardless of their background,” according to the report.

Tim Coughlan, a senior lecturer at the OU’s Institute of Education Technology, who worked on the report, told Times Higher Education that “it’s not enough to say there is an attainment gap, without changing the culture of learning”.

It is about recognising that teaching is not one-size-fits-all; there must be a sense of personalisation, he explained. To do this you need to listen to students and adapt teaching during the course, rather than asking students for feedback at the end, which won’t help your current cohort. Allowing students to draw on their own contexts is very helpful for their learning, he said.

Dr Coughlan admitted that teachers may see this as an additional burden, and that it wasn’t necessarily an easy task, “but it’s an important tool” and an important problem that “needs to be addressed”.

Andrew Estrada Phuong, a chancellor’s fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, is one author of a study that found using surveys about course material, formative tests and anonymous feedback forms on a weekly basis to guide teaching resulted in higher attainment across disability, gender and immigration status in final assessments when compared with a control group.

The research demonstrates that it is “important to build relationships with students, understand what they bring to the classroom and determine how to best support them”, he told THE.

This form of adaptive pedagogy aims to “bring learners closer to the curriculum and provides opportunities for them to engage in a learning community”, he said.

Information on students’ learning and engagement can be collected via low-stakes quizzes, clicker responses, assignments, surveys and student feedback forms, he said.

Pauline Hanesworth, head of learning and teaching at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), emphasised listening without assumption. “If we assume we know what our students need, we might be less receptive to hearing what they are saying and doing, and we might tend to over-essentialise groups, forgetting our students are individuals not identities,” she explained.

“The best thing we can do is create a climate where students feel safe communicating with us: encouraging interaction, valuing different ways of thinking, being and doing, and respecting student voices.”

Assessment also needs broader attention, she said. “Often, even in institutions or subjects where a lot of work has been undertaken to embed equality and diversity in the curriculum, assessment remains traditional: the diversification, self-reflection, accessibility and so on has not translated into assessment practices,” she said. Changing our assessment practices can yield huge benefits, she added.

This was echoed by Mr Phuong, who said that there was often a lack of alignment between instruction and assessment, which can affect achievement and introduce opportunity gaps. An “important early step would be to review major assessment questions where students tend to struggle”. Then, the instructors can identify the weeks in the syllabus where the assessment questions are taught and model key problem-solving skills, offer deliberate practice opportunities and give feedback.

Dr Coughlan agreed. Some students have much more experience in high-stakes, formative assessment, so making sure everyone gets to practise beforehand is important for equity, he said.

Mark Gaved, who also worked on the report and is a lecturer at the OU, added that the shift to online learning made tackling equity in the curriculum even more important.

The increased reliance on technology is having “uneven effects” on different groups of students, he said. “It’s not just whether or not they have access to a laptop, but do they have access to a quiet space to work in? Do they have a stable internet connection? How experienced are they in the technology you’re using?”

To address this, making sure there is always a recording available to access later, or giving students the opportunity to do an exam over 24 hours, is helpful. Providing transcripts is also useful to those who aren’t taught in their first language, he added, as is checking in with students, who may find it hard to reach out with problems or could be feeling isolated.

“You must think: if I don’t intervene, I am reinforcing inequity,” he said.