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Strategies to address diversity help faculty teach every student

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - March 24, 2008

There’s more to diversity than meets the eye, but some teaching strategies can help faculty create an educational environment that fosters learning for every student, says Catherine Ross, associate director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Her remarks were part of a presentation on “Teaching Every Student” made during a teaching institute earlier this year.

She has given similar presentations to other groups of faculty, library staff, and an undergraduate FYE class.

For many people, the term diversity brings to mind gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, Ross said.

But other factors may come into play in a classroom, including religious or political beliefs, socioeconomic status, family background, preparation for higher education, disability, and learning style.

Information about students that can be perceived with the senses is not always either accurate or complete, she said: “There’s quite a bit that’s invisible to a professor teaching a class that may affect the way students learn.”

For example, if a student is caring for an elderly parent or for young children, or has to work to pay for college, that can have a major impact on his or her class performance. “Sometimes students seem terribly unmotivated,” she said, “but they may be struggling with something other than motivation.”

Ross said faculty have a responsibility to create a learning environment where everyone feels valued: “It’s up to us to set the tone.” A personal statement from the instructor that articulates the goal of an inclusive educational environment and the expectation of respect for different points of view can be helpful.

It also helps to learn and use students’ names, she added.

Don’t make assumptions about what students already know from high school, she said. Ask them if they have questions.

This can be done by having them hand in questions on index cards, which helps those who are shy or those – particularly some international students – whose culture discourages students from questioning a teacher.

Create opportunities for all students to participate, said Ross. Don’t just call on the first student to raise his or her hand, but wait until, say, seven or eight hands are up. Another strategy to encourage more equal participation is to have students talk to a partner first, because this gives them more confidence to share their ideas with a larger group.

She said diversity in the classroom enriches the educational environment for all students. “If we are surrounded by people just like us, we learn less,” she said.

Ross, who has a Ph.D. in Russian and foreign language teaching, and a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, has lived in countries including Japan, Russia, Ukraine, and Spain. She described those experiences as her “portal to diversity.”

Catherine Ross, associate director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning
Catherine Ross, associate director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, speaks about diversity and strategies to “teach every student.”
Photo by Daniel Buttrey

Ross said educators need to be aware of their own culture, and how that might impact their teaching.

“When we talk about diversity and bias, we shouldn’t be afraid,” she said.

“Everyone can make a mistake, but that shouldn’t stop you from talking about it.”

Racist or sexist attitudes are not necessarily conscious, and stem in part from the human tendency to categorize things in terms of ‘like’ and ‘not-like,’ she added. What’s important is to be open to learning.

Ross said a body of research demonstrates the negative impact of stereotypes. When black students know they’re being compared with white students, they do worse, she said.

And one study of math performance showed that Asian women performed better when they identified themselves as Asian than when they self-identified as women.

She said the role of an educator is not only to monitor his or her own behavior in the classroom, but also sometimes to step in with student-to-student interactions.

If one student says something discriminatory against another and the instructor doesn’t address it, that makes the target of the comment feel marginal, she said.

It is also helpful to model inclusive language, she said, using ‘she’ as well as ‘he,’ for instance, and ‘congressperson’ rather than ‘congressman.’ When giving examples, use names that are not gender-specific, such as Pat and Chris, and add some international names as well.

“It does have an impact,” she said. “Language carries meaning.”

Avoid comments that assume all students are heterosexual, she added, or questions – such as where students are going for spring break – that assume a certain socioeconomic status: Some students can’t afford to go anywhere.

A good place to start, she said, is for the instructor to reflect on questions such as those offered on the Derek Bok Center for Teaching website at Harvard University: Do I call on all students equally? Am I afraid students of color might not be fully competitive with others? If an issue involving race comes up, do I assume a student of color will know the most about it? Am I impatient with students who are non-native English speakers?

“By making explicit our own assumptions,” Ross added, “we can enrich both our teaching and our relationships with our students.”

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