Creating courageous learning environments where students can develop knowledge and understanding of diverse perspectives, global awareness, or other cultures begins with understanding your students. Determining if they are new to the university, new to the course and whether they are taking the course to fulfill a major requirement or for some other reason is a good place to start. A deeper understanding of their motivations for taking the course as well as background and life experiences they bring to the classroom add to the learning environment. As an instructor, we should also consider our own social and cultural influences and personal ways of teaching and the way these personal elements influence course design.
The backward course design model is useful to design or redesign a course, whether it is a lecture, discussion, laboratory, field experience or the like (Wiggins, McTighe, 2005; Fink, 2003). The first step involves giving thought to, “What do I want my students to be able to think and do by the end of this course?” and, “How will my students be different as a result of this course?” The answers to these questions lead to the development of appropriate learning outcome goals. The next step is to determine how students will change as a result of the course. A key question to consider is, “What sources of evidence will students provide to demonstrate that they have accomplished the learning outcome goals?” The answer will lead to the types of assignments or assessment methods that you will use. For example, some of these may be formative (information provided to both teacher and student to monitor progress throughout the course e.g., quizzes, journals, office hour consults) and/or summative (information provided at the end of a course, e.g., final exam, unit tests, licensure exam). After the assessment methods are determined, the other question is, “What must students be able to think and do to complete the learning outcome goals?” This leads to structuring course content and learning activities that provide students with the practice required to demonstrate expected levels of progress and rigor.
When designing courses in which students are asked to engage deeply held values and beliefs, such as knowledge and understanding of diverse perspectives, it is important to anticipate and plan for affective learning outcomes, as well as cognitive ones. For example, students who come to social and behavioral science courses with deeply held religious values, such as a belief in creationism, may find other perspectives, such as evolution, emotionally challenging.
Bell, Goodman, and Ouellett (2016) offer an approach specific to designing social justice-related courses that often have such learning outcomes and can also evoke strong feelings in students and instructors. Adams, Bell and Griffin (1997) in their chapter, Pedagogical Frameworks for Social Justice Education, offer five principles of pedagogical practice that are a useful framework for any instructor attending to individual growth and development outcomes of teaching and learning. Their list of principles includes:
- Balance cognitive and emotional components of the learning process
- Acknowledge and support the personal, while illuminating the systemic
- Attend to social relations within the classroom
- Utilize personal reflection and group experiences as tools for student-centered learning
- Value (and reward) evidence of increased self-awareness, personal growth, and change as demonstrable outcomes of the learning process.” (pp.15-34).
Instructors can set the tone the first day of a course by creating low-risk individual and group activities such as name games. Rather than starting with a reading of the syllabus, consider beginning with an interactive exercise or game. The goals of such an exercise, beyond general civility, are to establish a sense of belonging in the classroom, begin to reduce anonymity, and to immediately get students actively engaged with each other. The latter is especially important in articulating the expectation that students will be actively engaged with each other and the material in this course.
Promoting Instructor and Student Self-Reflection
Students’ sense of belonging and willingness to engage in the learning process increase when there is healthy rapport with the instructor. Think about your educational experiences and what motivated you to learn. Work to create a classroom climate that models a marketplace of ideas. Articulate your teaching philosophy and share your successes and challenges. Make time to share things about your background as a learner, including your experiences with learning and understanding diverse perspectives and awareness of other cultures. Think about how your social and cultural identities and learning style influence the way you teach. Recognize and learn from your implicit biases and stereotypes. For example, in class discussions do you call on students of color to “represent” the experiences of their whole community; do you call on extroverts without making sure introverted students have time to consider and contribute comments; or do you grade students’ work without a pre-established rubric that helps minimize bias?
Students will be better able to consider and engage perspectives different from their own if they have the opportunity to clarify and articulate their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. For example, have students take a few minutes to complete a brief writing exercise. Any number of questions will get students started. One example is to ask students to, “think back over you own education experiences and recall the times when you were in a classroom where it felt to you like everyone could participate fully and honestly. Now, make a list of the attributes of that environment.” This can lead next into a large group discussion and brainstorming exercise that asks students to collectively come up with a list of their favorite behaviors / attributes. This process, often referred to as “ground rules,” helps to define the behavioral expectations for future individual and group processes. Promote discussion with questions like, “how will we signal each other when someone is talking too much?” “How will we keep checking to be certain that all participants feel that their perspectives and voices are welcome?” Or, “how will we let each other know if someone feels silenced?” Such an exercise can be an essential first step in articulating how you intend to honor personal stories while linking individual experiences to systemic dynamics.
Exercises like these have limitations and can become counterproductive if overemphasized (Bell, Goodman & Ouellett, 2016). The key goals include giving the instructor an opportunity to signal that future discussions may become challenging emotionally (as well as intellectually), that responsible group membership is a collective responsibility, and that personal change and transformation over the course is expected. You can signal students that the nature of transformative learning is such that they likely will not (nor necessarily should they) think the same way or say the same things at the end of the course that they may have thought or said at the beginning. Later in the semester, the convention of group norms provides a structure for the instructor and every participant to ask each other to come back to and confirm their agreement to create and sustain a learning climate that allows for the participation and success of all.
In order to better understand others, it’s important to know oneself. It can be very helpful to ask students to describe their current awareness of and understanding of their own experiences, identities, and shared group norms before asking them to consider perspectives different from their own. For example, using brief writing exercises an instructor may ask students to reflect on their unique understanding of experiences common across social groups such as, “How do you identify racially? Why? Do you know of any stereotypes that other people hold about your racial group?” These exercises are generally low stakes ones. Caucus groups are another strategy for engaging students in introductory level discussions on social identities. In this exercise, students form small groups with other participants who share an aspect of their social identity such as gender (e.g., men, women, transgender, queer, etc.). As a small group, participants answer two questions, “what would you like to understand better about the experiences of the other groups members?” and “what would you like others to understand better about the experiences of your group members?” These caucus groups provide students with opportunities to articulate their ideas and values, and get to know a bit about each other’s perspectives. Sometimes, these early experiences may be the first time students have been asked to articulate their beliefs and values in a systematic way, to explain how and why they have come to hold the views they do, and to listen carefully to perspectives that may be different from their own.
Such low-risk activities provide students with early opportunities for self-reflection and act to build group cohesion. These early activities provide you and your students with a foundation upon which to build towards higher risk and/or more emotionally challenging topics where disagreements, different understandings, and varying worldviews are bound to emerge. Students who arrive at these more difficult discussions with a better sense of each other will likely have greater capacity for engaging each other in sustained dialogues across differences. Adams and Love (2005) offer a detailed set of exercises that instructors and students can utilize to promote further self-reflection on how social identities shape our approach to gaining knowledge and understanding of diverse perspectives, global awareness, or other cultures.
The literature on promoting discussion in the classroom shows that no single teaching strategy consistently engages all learners. What motivates one student may not motivate another (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). Similarly, the use of multiple teaching methods, including the use of discussion, matters, because it is especially effective for deepening perspective taking and communication skills around diversity and inclusion (Brown, 2004; Ouellett, 2005). Developing knowledge and understanding of diverse perspectives, global awareness, or other cultures may not be something that comes naturally, particularly when discussing topics that intersect with core values and belief systems. Promoting discussion is a valuable way of unearthing the diversity of experiences that lies beneath the surface of classroom topics, particularly those that reflect the cultural, economic, health, and social disparities that plague our society and world. And, “discussion is a particularly wonderful way to explore supposedly settled questions and to develop a fuller appreciation for the multiplicity of human experience and knowledge” (Brookfield and Preskill, 2012). Furthermore, the ability to think critically, engage in perspective taking on a team, and communicate effectively are attributes prospective employers seek in new college graduates (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2016).
We have not directly addressed how to facilitate difficult or emotional dialogues in the classroom. However, for this we highly recommend, “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” by Lee Warren at the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University. Warren addresses the importance of promoting individual and group opportunities for self-reflection and dialogue for students and instructors.
Importance of Providing Frameworks
Engaging students in opportunities to articulate their current beliefs, values and worldview is an essential first step in transformative learning. Students will benefit from heuristics that help them identify which of their experiences may be unique and which are shared by group members. (Adams and Zuniga, 2016) offer a range of such conceptual models and frameworks and concrete exercises to help students explore social constructs and systemic structures of power and authority. For example, exercises like the Spheres of Influence, Cycle of Socialization, the Privilege Walk, and Multicultural Life Experience Inventory provide students with opportunities to reflect on their individual and group experiences related to the construction and intersectional nature of social identities. For example, students and instructors benefit from completing, reflecting on, and discussing together the Multicultural Life Experience Inventory. The inventory asks participants to score on a 3- point scale their perceptions of diversity in key aspects of their life experiences in family, school, community, religious, and social group settings. The inventory includes three or four key developmental junctures: elementary school, high school, undergraduate experience, and current experience. Once the worksheet is completed, points are totaled and then a discussion follows reflecting on where the instructor and students’ life experiences may or may not have prepared them to live in a multicultural world. Selected readings, in-class exercises, and group projects also help students understand different perspectives and worldviews. Additionally, exercises like these help students explore the socio and ethno-centric nature of our values and worldviews and to develop the insights and resiliency necessary to listen, value, and consider seriously perspectives different from their own. In addition, Reddick, Jacobsen, Linse, and Yong (2005) offer a framework for inclusive teaching in the STEM disciplines that address student demographics, and the dimensions of multicultural education and inclusive teaching.
There is a great deal of evidence for strategies that instructors can adopt to ameliorate the impacts of stereotype threat and implicit bias in higher education classrooms. As we strive to create and sustain classrooms in which students are actively engaged in dialogues around their values and beliefs, conflicts in world-views and misunderstandings can be anticipated between instructors and students and students and peers. For creating and sustaining a multicultural classroom in which diverse perspectives are welcome, it is important for instructors to reflect on and develop their readiness to address how issues like stereotype threat, and implicit bias can play out in classrooms. Stereotype threat is when a person who belongs to any social group about which there are stereotypes becomes overly worried about fulfilling the stereotypes of their social group (Steel and Aronson, 1995). In higher education classrooms, this can lead to a range of cognitive and emotional responses of the affected student including being acutely self-aware, shutting down in class discussions, or withdrawing from the course. Implicit bias refers to the ordinary processes, or learned associations, in which we perceive, understand and judge other people based on our previous knowledge and values. Everyone is vulnerable to the “errors in judgment” of implicit biases and, by their nature; they are enacted automatically and so quickly that we are unaware of it happening and therefore unable to control it (Dasgupta and Stout, 2014). Implicit biases can act to exacerbate the effects of stereotype threat. Recent research indicates that there are concrete actions instructors can take to mitigate the activation of stereotype threat and the role of implicit bias in the classroom. Engaging in self-reflective activities such as journaling, self-evaluative writing exercises, videotaping, and dialogue with colleagues are examples of ways to continue enhancing instructional skills in a diverse classroom.
Actionable Steps for Instructors to Take
Begin with an audit of your current or anticipated course design by asking questions like:
- Do your learning outcome goals explicitly address goals of developing knowledge and understanding of diverse perspectives, global awareness, or other cultures?
- Do your formative and summative assessment and evaluation methods address and reward evidence of personal growth and development, as well as knowledge gains (e.g., utilizing rubrics that address values, individual performance and group participation)?
- Do you offer students a range of individual and group-based learning activities that acknowledge and support individual reflection and growth and illuminate the systemic?
- Does your course begin activities that encourage students to explore their beliefs and values by answering questions like, "What do you think about ____?” “How did you come to hold this perspective?”
- Does your course build towards activities and questions that pose higher risks, such as, “what other perspectives might their be on this issue?” and “why might individuals have come to hold such different perspectives on the same issue?”
To address stereotype threat and implicit biases, consider the following strategies:
- Reflect on how your social identities, experiences, values, and disciplinary training shape your approach to teaching, learning and engaging students on both conscious and unconscious levels.
- Get to know the names of your students and cultivate a perception among students that you are accessible and committed to their success.
- Act intentionally to anticipate and ameliorate the possibilities of stereotype threat as an impediment for student success.
- Send clear messages that intelligence is not immutable. Rather, it is nurtured with focus, application, and seeking out and utilizing appropriate and accurate feedback (Dweck, 2006).
- Normalize the experience that many students have as they transition into college of feeling isolated and anxious about success.
- Use classroom practices that can counteract implicit biases such as “blind” grading practices.
- Use rubrics to make your expectations clear and transparent for all students and to provide a model for your perception of excellence.
- DO explain your use of high standards in evaluating work and your belief your that student(s) can meet them.
- Identify and cultivate a trusted teaching partner(s) so that you can regularly reflect together on what is going well and what could be changed or improved in your teaching. Ideally, such a partner will bring a different perspective to these conversations based on their own social identities, experiences, values, and disciplinary training.