At the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, we're always interested in innovative teaching practices. When we heard about Jennifer Crissman Ishler's "Diversity Circles" activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits. Jennifer Crissman Ishler is a senior instructor in human development and family studies.
In all of the courses taught by Jennifer Crissman Ishler, students experience an activity called "Diversity Circles." She's been using the activity for 14 years, in classes ranging from 20 to 150 students, and it's consistently mentioned positively in her SRTEs and other course feedback.
The rationale behind the activity is that it helps students deal more successfully with the diversity they will encounter in their classes, their residence halls, and their future careers. Crissman Ishler urges her students to listen and learn when exposed to diversity and to try to avoid making assumptions. While the activity seems like a natural for the counselor-education and human-development courses she teaches, she believes it can be useful in other courses as well, since students in any discipline will encounter diversity throughout their lives.
The activity goes something like this: Each student privately draws a circle, places his or her name inside, and then draws lines connecting to four smaller circles.
In each of the smaller circles, the students write down a trait that expresses who they are as a multicultural being--traits such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. Crissman Ishler then asks the students to think about one of the circles they felt happy to be part of, as well as one circle where they've experienced awkwardness such as being singled out in a negative way by others. They share their feelings in small groups and, if they wish, with the larger class. Students play "break the stereotype" by stating "I am a _____________, but not a _________________." In the first blank, the students state a multicultural identity they embrace, while in the second blank they state a stereotype that doesn't fit them in relation to that identity.
Often the sharing time includes nervous laughter. Crissman Ishler helps the students process the experience, asking them: "Why are we laughing? What's awkward about this?" During the processing of the experience, students think about how language like "That's so gay" or "That's so retarded" can wound others--often without the speaker even knowing it, since many elements of identity are invisible.
The in-class processing of the activity is crucial. At the beginning, Crissman Ishler tells the students: "I'm going to put you on the spot today. It's about you--your interpersonal reflection. I'm asking you to share, to take risks." The point is to have fun, and also to learn. But she also sets ground rules so that the students can feel safe in their sharing: While there will be a variety of opinions, they must be expressed politely--and students are reminded that the information their classmates share is to remain confidential.
"I continue to use it because I think it's got great value," Crissman Ishler says. "It's something simple they can all relate to. With the right processing, it can lead to an aha! moment. It's the one thing that always stays in my curriculum."
If you'd like more information about the activity and how it might be adapted to your own teaching, please contact Jennifer Crissman Ishler at email@example.com.
Mary Ellen Weimer had an interesting blog post in Faculty Focus last week. In her post, Challenging the Notion of Learning Styles, she shared some of the recent research that suggests that regardless of the match between mode of instruction and a student's learning style, performance is the same. Those of us in Educational Psychology have long discounted the notion of learning styles (e.g., including elaborated models of intelligence such as Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory) as having insufficient data to support its assertions.
So what does this mean for instructors? Should we test our students on the first day of class to learn what is their preferred learning style then proceed to twist and contort our every lesson so as to accommodate the visual, the kinesthetic, the auditory, and the every-other-style learner? Certainly not. Should instructors simply teach as they wish, since attending to students' reported learning styles apparently doesn't make a difference? Not recommended either. The fact is, it's not so simple.
Perhaps the answer is in moderation and mix. In Mary Ellen's summary of the research, she reminds us that, while students may not differ in their learning styles, the students are, nonetheless, different. It seems to me that it's on the basis of differences that do exist and that do matter that we should consider modifying our instruction. We should alter our instructional approaches when doing so would make a difference for students with different levels of prior knowledge, interest, or ability (the research, Reiner and Willingham_2010.pdf, says these matter).
Unless we base our pedagogical decisions on characteristics such as these, we risk making our lectures more visual but failing to attend to gaps in prior knowledge. We risk creating elaborate hands-on projects while failing to recognize important disparities in aptitude across the class. We risk altering our instruction in ways that are not comfortable to us and still not successfully motivating the learners in our classes.
This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence,
or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their
classrooms. The series, which first ran in the Fall 2011 semester, is being repeated this Spring. The first of the three workshops was held last week:
In the workshop, we identified the benefits and characteristics of a welcoming classroom space, and we discussed practical ways to harness the power of diversity in service of student learning.
In this blog post, I wanted to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the workshop, and also post some resources for further reading on the topic.
1. Know Your Students: Inclusive Excellence is all about harnessing the differences people bring to the table in a productive way to better student learning. Getting to know your students not only alerts you to the various qualities, life experiences, struggles, and proclivities that your students possess, but also strengthens the student-teacher relationship, which is proven to improve student engagement and learning.
Spend some time getting to know the students (especially their names!). Consider having students complete a pre-course questionnaire or a brief autobiographical essay for their first homework assignment - this can give you valuable intel about why students are in your class and what they hope to gain from their experience. Ask students about their background with the material, how they learn best, or their biggest hope/greatest worry for the class.
Collect feedback from your students. Student feedback is helpful at all stages of the teaching and learning process, but especially when there's time to make adjustments as the course goes on. The Penn State Teacher II (pages 113-122) has an excellent breakdown of various informal and formal ways to collect student feedback, including Minute Papers, the Background Knowledge Probe, and mid-semester feedback.
2. Know Your Resources: Inclusive Excellence promotes "the purposeful development and use of organizational resources to enhance student learning". At Penn State, you are not alone in your efforts to help support students and make them feel welcome, but many instructors aren't aware of the many resources, centers, and services available. Get to know each of these resources, join their mailing lists, facebook pages, or monitor their blogs, so that you can advertise upcoming events and refer students. Here's a list of Penn State resources related to diversity, along with a short description of what they offer and a link to their website.
3. Know Yourself: One of the biggest barriers many of us face in making our classrooms more inclusive is that we "know not what we do" - we worry that we may be inadvertently offending a student, committing a microaggression like the ones we discussed in the workshop, or perhaps ignoring an important aspect of accesibility. Indeed, research shows that even our own gender or racial identity may make us appear to be more or less accessible to students, or even affect our student evaluations. How can we get a handle on how these unknown factors could be affecting student learning?
Let students know that you acknowledge that your background or identity
may limit you in certain ways from understanding their experience in
your class, and to please bring oversights to your attention if
necessary (this works best in combination with a system for collecting
Pay attention to course content. Diversify sources of authority to the degree possible.
Consider having a Schreyer Institute Consultant observe one of your classes, and give you confidential feedback as to ways you might make your classroom more inclusive.
Be practical. Incremental changes are okay.
4. Continue the Conversation: Continue attending workshops like this one! Educate yourself about issues relevant to the groups that populate your
classes. Attend talks sponsored by the organizations/centers mentioned
above. By nature the best teaching is inclusive teaching - making these types of incremental changes will improve your teaching for all students.
On that note, there is Campus-Wide Straight Talk Program coming up on February 29, 2012 at 6pm in the HUB Auditorium. You're welcome to attend and feel free advertise the program to your students!
Straight Talks are panels of speakers comprised of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally students from a wide range of beliefs and background who educate the university community on sexual orientation, gender identity, oppression, and diversity at Penn State University.
If you have thoughts or ideas about this material, or know of other useful resources, please post them in the comments section!
Kathy Jackson and I have been thinking a lot in the last 6
months about what it means to teach Millennial students. (See Kathy's recent SITE blog post for some
great resources.) In a recent workshop with faculty from across the Penn State system, we were engaged in a conversation about establishing a healthy learning environment, given Millennial students' attributes and preferences. One of the attending faculty members raised his hand and very casually said, "I figure out what doesn't bother me, then I give it away."
Come again, I thought.
He said, "I figure out what doesn't bother me, then I give it away." What he meant (and we were all eager for him to elaborate) is that he thinks about all the things that students prefer in class...Cell phones, texting, computer access, food, whatever. You name it. Some of those things bother him, and some of them don't. He insists on the things that really matter to him. For example, there may be NO phone calls during class. But he also figures out what he doesn't really care about; that is what doesn't really interfere with his teaching or drive him personally crazy. Then he gives it away. He literally tells students that it's fine. For example, texting. By openly allowing students to engage in some of the behaviors they'd like to be able to engage in (and ones that don't interfere with learning in a particular class), students feel empowered and are more likely to abide by the mandates that do matter. It's a great concept!
This fall and spring, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence,
or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their
classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops(1), the third of
which was held on November 7th:
In this research-based workshop, we discussed the characteristics and benefits of an inclusive classroom, identified common barriers to inclusivity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes, and discussed some new strategies for tackling these barriers constructively in STEM classes.
This blog post is the first in a series of follow-ups to the workshop intended to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the session, and also make resources available for further reading on the topic. When possible, in the discussion of specific scholarly works I have linked to both public summaries and journal articles so that those with and without fulltext journal access can read about this research.
Note: at the time of this first post, the references sections in the prezi for Barriers #2 and #3 are still being compiled, and will be completed when I post the blog entries for these barriers (forthcoming). This embedded prezi will automatically update.
As you can see in the prezi, the bulk of the workshop was organized around three barriers to making excellence inclusive in STEM classrooms. The first barrier we identified was Stereotypes.
Wherefore art thou stereotype? At its most basic level, of course, a stereotype is merely an oversimplified conception of a group of people. Stereotypes develop out of longstanding cultural assumptions and tend to self-replicate and become rooted in popular belief. In the workshop, we brainstormed a number of stereotypes specific to STEM including which types of people "naturally" possess STEM-specific abilities and skills, which types do not, and who STEM practitioners are and are not. The stereotypes we came up with involved categories of gender, race, learning style and ability. Images like the "mad scientist" were invoked - male, white, out of touch with the world, cares only about work, has no social skills, and can't get a date to save his life:
While at times humorous, this activity highlighted the proliferation of problematic images involving STEM - stereotypes that involve both the perception of STEM fields by those outside the disciplines, as well perceptions of who "belongs" in a STEM field. Research shows that these perceptions form early - for instance this 2011 study (journal article here) found that children started linking math with gender as early as the second grade:
The kids, 247 children (126 girls and 121 boys) in grades one through
five in Seattle-area schools, sat in front of a large-screen laptop
computer and used an adapted keyboard to sort words into categories.
As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American
cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender
while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys
identified themselves with math more than girls did.
In our workshop, one participant asked "How are children picking up these stereotypes so early?" Many scholars who study the social construction of gender and race argue that these cues are embedded in the fabric of our lives from a very young age (for a well-researched and accessible introduction to some of this work, check out the excellent Sociological Images blog. Specifically, here's a primer on the Sociology of Gender). For instance, children's toys often incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) visual cues about what jobs are performed by men and which are performed by women:
Or which intellectual skills girls are okay to possess or not possess:
Teen Talk Barbie (swiftly reprogrammed in 1992) says "Math class is tough!"
Another recent study (journal article here) comparing Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts handbooks found that children who participate in scouting programs are being exposed to subtle messages about STEM - for instance, while both scouting groups offer scientific pursuits for boys and girls, boys' badges tend to use more career-oriented language than girls' badges. While boy scouts are pursuing the "Geologist", "Astronomer", or "Mechanic" badges, girls work toward earning their "Rocks Rock", "Sky Search" and "Car Care" badges.
Additionally, the author found that while scientifically-oriented activities make up only 2 percent of all girls' activities, they make up nearly three times as many - 6 percent - of all boys' activities. A chi-square test revealed a statistically significant relationship between sex and type of activity (art vs. science), leading the author to assert:
The disproportionate and gendered distribution of art and science projects aligns with the large body of research that finds girls being systematically derailed from scientific and mathematical pursuits and professions due to cultural believes and stereotypes about their relative ineptitude in these areas (Denny 2011: 36-37).
How do stereotypes impact STEM classes? The example above regarding gender and STEM highlights how stereotypes operate in suggesting and reinforcing the idea that intellectual achievement in STEM fields is limited to certain types of people and that, by extension, people outside these groups do not belong in STEM. This assumption has been proven to have a variety of impacts related to career satisfaction(2), career choice, and even student learning.
For instance, multiple studies have shown that regardless of actual ability, women tend to have lower confidence in their mathematical and technological skills than their male counterparts, which can lead to fewer women choosing a STEM career, and fewer women staying in a STEM career (journal article here), once obtained. Certain teaching practices specific to the culture of STEM classes (like high failure rates on exams, or low average course grades relative to non-STEM classes) could easily exacerbate the already-lower confidence women in these classes experience, relative to their male peers.
Another way that stereotypes can negatively impact STEM classes is through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs in situations where a stereotype about a group's intellectual abilities is relevant (for instance while completing a challenging exam, or being called on to speak in front of the whole class). During these moments, studies show that a stereotype-threatened individual experiences additional anxiety, stress, and fear that can significantly lower their performance relative to non-stereotype-threatened individuals. Since its identification in the early 90s, stereotype threat has been observed in hundreds of studies: When a person is reminded of their status as a member of a negatively-stereotyped
group, they score lower on tests relative to a control group of people
in that group who are not "cued" to consider the stereotype. Women score lower on tests of math (journal article here) and science; African-Americans score lower on tests of intelligence; men score lower on tests of social sensitivity, the elderly score lower on tests of memory; and interestingly, Asian-American women score higher on math tests when their ethnic identity is cued, but lower when their gender identity is cued.
This research shows that when challenged to operate at the edge of his or her ability, a stereotype-threatened individual's fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype in fact fulfills the negative stereotype, because his or her cognitive processes are diverted to coping with their anxiety. The effect has been observed even in cases where the threatened individual does not believe the stereotype, and the effect may have an especially strong impact on women and people of color who experience solo or "token" status as the only member of their social category present in an otherwise homogenous group - a common scenario in some STEM classes.
What can we do? As the examples and research above demonstrate, the impact of stereotypes on learning and achievement in STEM fields is wide-ranging, but thankfully, there are also practical ways that instructors in college courses can address some of these issues and lower the impact of stereotypes in their classrooms.
1. Address stereotype threat through direct intervention Research shows that while teaching students directly about stereotype threat can have mixed results depending on the approach (sometimes helping stereotype-threatened individuals and sometimes further stressing/distracting them), there are two types of classroom interventions that have proven to significantly reduce the impact of stereotype threat on student performance, especially in STEM contexts.
The first type of intervention involves short writing assignments given to students at various times throughout the semester. These assignments are designed to affirm students' values or sense of self, identity, and/or to address their conscious or unconscious anxieties related to the course material or exam.
In 2010 the journal Science published results from a randomized, double-blind study (journal article here) of 399 STEM majors in a college physics course at University of Colorado at Boulder. As part of the course, researchers implemented two short reflective writing assignments in which one group of students was asked to write about their most important values. As compared to a control group given a different writing assignment, these "values affirmation exercises" substantially reduced the gender gap on exams, and elevated women's modal grades from the C to B range. Effects were especially pronounced for women who tended to endorse a gender stereotype: "according to my own personal beliefs, I expect men to generally do better in physics than women".
The first exercise was assigned during a recitation session one week into the semester, the second took place as part of an online homework assignment a week before the first midterm exam. For each assignment, students were given a list of values (such as "relationships with friends and family" or "learning and gaining knowledge"), and in response to structured prompts, asked to write about for 10-15 minutes on the values most important to them.
The intervention was based on a similar 2006 study that used values affirmation to successfully reduce the racial achievement gap in the performance of middle school students. The positive effects of that intervention were witnessed even two years later. According to the authors, even though students are not writing specifically about course-related topics, these values affirmation exercises work because they serve to subtly buffer stereotype-threatened individuals against the additional anxiety that accompanies their situation.
As Cohen explains, a values-affirmation exercise might prompt thoughts
such as these: " 'In spite of all the adversity in my environment, here
is what I care about. Here's what gives me my internal compass. Here is
what I stand for.' And that can be alleviating in a stressful
situation." (Science Daily)
The second type of intervention proven to mitigate stereotype threat focuses on students' implicit beliefs about intelligence - whether intelligence is fixed at birth - a talent or gift that is unchangeable - or whether intelligence can be developed and expanded. Research shows (journal article here) that a belief in the latter view - or a "growth mindset" predicted an upward trajectory in mathematics grades over two years of junior high school, while students who believed in a "fixed mindset", experienced a downward trend.
In another study, researchers implemented an instructional intervention designed to harness the power of these mindsets on stereotype-threatened African American students. They found that when students in the experimental condition were encouraged to see intelligence - the object of the stereotype - as malleable rather than fixed, they reported "greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and they obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups".
In Chapter 2 of the AAUW report Why So Few?, authors point out that these findings are especially important in a STEM context because "encountering obstacles and challenging problems is in the nature of scientific work." Because of the many stereotypes specific to the skills and abilities necessary for STEM achievement, if someone with a fixed mindset encounters a challenging task or experiences a setback in a STEM class, they may be more likely to believe the stereotype that someone must be born brilliant to succeed. On the flipside, if students are told that intellectual skills can be attained through passion, hard work, and tenacity, they are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty:
Good, Rattan, and Dewck (in press) followed several hundred women at an elite university through a semester of a calculus class. Women who reported that their classrooms communicated a fixed mindset and that negative stereotypes were widespread showed an eroding sense that they belonged in math during the semester, and they were less likely to express a desire to take math in the future. Women who said that their classrooms promoted a growth mindset were less susceptible to the negative effects of stereotypes, and they were more likely to intend to continue to take math in the future. (AAUW Why So Few?)
Thus, the authors suggest that STEM instructors can play a key role in buffering students from the negative impact of stereotypes by "highlighting the struggle" - emphasizing that difficulties, mistakes, and setbacks are a key part of scientific learning, rather than evidence that a student 'just doesn't have what it takes'. Also, it's important for instructors to emphasize that contrary to the stereotype of the stoic, out-of-touch academic, passion, enthusiasm, and personal investment are key to success in science too.
I mean, seriously, where would this guy be without passion?
Ahem. Lastly, just in case your too-good-to-be-true alarms are going off (like
mine did when I first read about this research), the article
"Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic" published earlier this year, goes into more detail about why and how these interventions work, and how they can be scaled appropriately for course application.
Note added 12/2: The authors of the "Magic" article above caution against incorporating structured intervention without properly considering the theoretical basis for these techniques and tailoring them to the specific course context. They argue that not doing so could result in an ineffective or improper application of the psychological principles at play. Thus, it's best to proceed with caution. As with any new pedagogical tool, application is best accompanied by a plan for assessing the impact on student learning. If you are a Penn State teacher and you would like help in designing and assessing such an assignment, Schreyer Institute consultants can help.
2. Support accurate self-assessment The next way that instructors can mitigate the effects of stereotypes in STEM classes is by using pedagogical tools that enable students to more accurately assess their progress. Developing learning objectives for lectures and course assignments and then sharing them with your students can help them to understand the purpose of these activities and allocate energy and time accordingly. Designing grading rubrics for lab assignments, projects and reports and then sharing them in advance with your students can not only optimize your (and your TAs') grading efficiency and heighten objectivity in the grading process, but provide valuable feedback to students as to what they missed and why. This enables students to avoid falling back on stereotypes to explain their shortcomings on assignments and allows them to make adjustments in moving forward.
Also, be sure to communicate both positive and negative feedback in your grading practice - to sustain success, students need to know what they're doing right, as well as what they're doing wrong. Especially if they are new to a STEM field, students likely possess certain preconceptions about what is required for success in those courses (i.e. a suite of innate talents and abilities gifted at birth, as opposed to the grasp and successful implementation of key scientific concepts and processes through hard work and perseverance). Communication through constructive and positive feedback helps students appropriately calibrate their confidence level and enables them to focus on what works.
Lastly, as perhaps the most salient form of feedback (and certainly the most attended to by students!), tests and exams should be optimized so that they effectively assess student learning of key concepts, promote critical thinking, and don't cause unnecessary levels of anxiety and stress.
The Schreyer Institute offers workshops and courses throughout the semester on each of these tools, including how to design and implement learning objectives (Course in College Teaching, New Instructor Orientation), Grading for Learning, and Designing Effective Multiple-choice Tests. STEM instructors are welcome at all of these events, and in case you were worried, facilitators always make sure that the principles cover STEM-specific contexts.
3. Diversify sources of achievement and authority First off, unfortunately, the lack of difference in intellectual ability by people of different social groups in
STEM subjects does not yet go without saying. Many students may not be aware that fixed biological differences are not in fact proven to explain variations in achievement by underrepresented groups in STEM fields. While I will not provide an in-depth review of this literature here (because, frankly, there is far too much of it), it is important that you share with students what current research shows with respect to the skills necessary for success in your field. For example, a review of 242 articles assessing the math skills of 1,286,350 people published last year (journal article here) showed that the mathematical skills of boys and girls, as well as men and women, are substantially equal, when controlling for differences in preparation and the role of
stereotype threat. Another recent report shows
that even longstanding gender gaps in the scores achieved
by men and women on spatial reasoning (a skill deemed necessary for success in many STEM disciplines) can be narrowed if women take a simple class. As practitioners and role models in your field, make sure you're aware of this information so that you can correct students' misconceptions as they arise.
To the degree possible, try to diversify the sources of authority and practice in your classes - be they the authors of course readings, images used in lecture presentations, or experts themselves (i.e. professors, Teaching Assistants, and guest speakers). A good deal of research exists examining the images portrayed in textbooks and other course materials, and their impacts on diverse learners. A recent study, for instance, found that introducing counter-stereotypic images in course material can improve female students' science comprehension in a secondary school context, while another study (journal article here) found that contact with in-group experts (advanced peers, professionals, and professors) can, in a sense, "inoculate" diverse learners against the negative affects of STEM stereotypes.
So review the required readings in your courses and balance as possible and appropriate. Consider inviting diverse STEM practitioners to talk about their research (as it relates to course material), notify students when successful and diverse STEM experts visit the university, and share your personal experiences with students - particularly if your own markers of diversity are not externally visible. Do you suffer from test anxiety? Do you have hobbies and passions outside your chosen academic field? Have you overcome socio-economic hardship? Letting students know that their role models do not necessarily fit the standard mold of STEM achievement can help to undermine limiting stereotypes and give students a more accurate sense of their own potential to be successful in these fields.
Noted animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin visits Penn State
A Word of Warning: I've purposefully placed this tip last on the list because unfortunately, the "just add [underrepresented group] and stir" approach to diversifying course materials is not a magic elixir for addressing the impacts of stereotypes in STEM classes. As some have no-doubt experienced, a ham-handed application of this tip can be ineffective, or worse, lead to awkward and counter-productive "diversity moments" that succeed only in singling out diverse learners and distracting the class from course material. Thus, this tip works best as a thoughtful complement to tips 1 and 2, and in cooperation with the goals and objectives of your lessons and course more broadly.
Beyond the Barriers As always, incremental steps are steps in the right direction. If you are unsure how best to approach making these kinds of changes, you can always contact us at the Schreyer Institute for an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or a custom workshop. Our services for Penn State teachers are always free and confidential.
(2) Indeed a recent survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found "sense of fit"
to be the single most important climate factor predicting job
satisfaction in STEM faculty positions, with women significantly less likely to report satisfaction in this category.
In light of the tragic events continuing to unfold at Penn State, we at the
Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence recognize that there are many
faculty and graduate student instructors who, while experiencing their own
shock, anger, and sadness, are also looking to help their students process these
events in a thoughtful and productive way.
Teachable moments can be found in this terrible situation, and thus can provide
much needed support and healing through the learning process. Destiny Aman, with input from a number of other
teaching institute consultants, developed the following tips for teachers interested
in incorporating difficult dialogue discussions into their courses.
with a guided reflective writing exercise - give students a chance to
write about what they're feeling and experiencing, but also incorporate
questions to stimulate critical thinking.
give all students a chance to participate, and reduce the chance that a
few individuals will dominate discussion, incorporate think-pair-share activities, dyads, or
other discussion techniques that allow students to talk and process their ideas
in smaller groups prior to speaking in the larger class setting.
degree possible, connect the situation to course material and learning goals (keep in mind that while this might not
directly relate to your course content, such discussions do overlap with learning
goals such as critical thinking, reflection, and peer-learning).
your own experience and role in the dialogue. Do not respond angrily or
shut down students whose positions you disagree with - this will result in
defensiveness and have a negative effect on student learning.
Even in classes where course content does not overlap, the learning environment
will continue to be affected as news breaks on a daily (or even hourly) basis.
Many students are struggling emotionally and psychologically, and may find it
difficult to focus on course material. All students should be made aware of
resource centers on campus where they can find a supportive, safe, and
productive space to process their experience. These include:
As always, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence stands with all who teach at Penn State, and especially now as you work through this difficult
time. If you have questions, concerns, or would like more suggestions related
to teaching at Penn State, we are happy to schedule
an individual consultation.
This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops, the second of which was held last week:
In the workshop, we imagined the ideal class discussion (the one we each dream about), and we tackled some common issues, or "scary scenarios" that arise in facilitating inclusive discussion.
In this blog post, I wanted to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the workshop, and also post some resources for further reading on the topic.
TECHNIQUES FOR FACILITATING INCLUSIVE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION
1. Cultivate a Sense of Community: It's hard to stick your neck out in front of a group of people you don't know - or worse, people you suspect might not care about you or what you have to say. In a class discussion, both teachers and students can have these feelings - sometimes simultaneously (crickets, anyone?). In the fantastic Brief Guide to Facilitating Discussion, Katherine Gottschalk gives some great tips for creating rapport in a class. In our workshop, I recommended the following:
Spend some time getting to know the students (especially their names!), and letting them get to know one another. Getting to Know You activities and Ice Breakers are cliché for a reason -
they are often a quick and effective way to begin building trust and a sense of teamwork
between people who don't know each other.
Consider having students complete a pre-course questionnaire or a
brief autobiographical essay for their first homework assignment - this
can give you valuable intel about why students are in your class and
what they hope to gain from their experience (which you can then use to
design activities that may be more engaging and relevant to students). Ask students about their background with the material, how they learn best, or their biggest hope/greatest worry for the class.
Consider having students generate themes and topics for discussion
- this increases the chance that material will be relevant to the
students, and gives them a stake in the discussion being successful.
Build in multiple ways for students to participate (besides
speaking extemporaneously in front of the entire class). Not everyone is
comfortable speaking in front of a large group. Short individual
writing activities (like Minute Papers or the Critical Incident Questionnaire),
Think-Pair-Share activities, or small group discussions can be
used alone or in combination with a larger group discussion. Doing so gives students a chance to
chew on the material and formulate their thoughts before being asked to speak to a larger audience.
2. Build a Safe Space for Students to Practice New Skills: Think about your expectations for the students and for yourself, and build a suitable space to practice the skills they need to succeed.
Don't assume students know (or agree upon) what a good discussion looks like. Consider having the class talk about what makes a good discussion, and then develop ground rules together to encourage participation. Revisit or reevaluate the rules if needed as the semester goes on.
Allow students to rehearse skills needed for high-stakes discussions earlier in the semester, with lower-stakes topics.
For example, a discussion about the banning of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like 4Loco would likely lead to a spirited (ahem) class discussion, and would provide an opportunity for students to practice constructing an argument, using "I-statements", showing respect for others' views, storytelling, and avoiding personal attacks. A discussion like this would be best-placed before one on immigration policy or abortion.
Don't underestimate the power of warm-up and ritual. Give students an easy question or simple activity at the beginning of the class to get the juices flowing. Repeat certain activities regularly (for example: a warm-up activity, a Think-Pair-Share activity, a large group discussion, a summary of the main points, and a minute paper at the end of every class). Over time, these rituals will enable the class to spend less time on process and jump into the content more quickly.
3.Plan for Conflict: Conflict is inevitable in the classroom, but it's not always a bad thing. Depending on its nature, conflict can add energy to a class, increase student engagement, and promote critical thinking.
Think about how you typically respond to conflict, and plan some strategies that work for you. If you know you tend to avoid conflict, then focus on coming up with ideas for how to revisit a situation later, if needed (a Critical Incident Questionnaire or a post-class anonymous ANGEL survey could be used here). If you tend to freeze up, practice having students write their thoughts or answer a Minute-Paper question while you gather yourself and decide how to move forward. If you tend to get defensive or respond very intensely in conflict, be sure to have some good questions in your pocket ("I'm not sure what you mean by that, could you explain?") to soften your response.
In Working With Strong Emotions in the Classroom, Heidi Burgess from the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium offers great tips for de-escalating and resolving planned and un-planned emotional situations, like reframing an attacking student's comment into a less personal statement, and asking the student to explain the reasoning behind their comment.
As we discussed in the workshop, it's important to distinguish between a comment made while legitimately discussing and working through course material, and offensive remarks or jokes made to distract from the discussion or purposely alienate others. The intent of the commenter in each situation is different, and strategies for handling them typically differ as well. In Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Lee Warren presents several examples of finding the "teachable moment" in otherwise difficult situations.
If a remark is made that is unrelated to course material, or is purely meant to disrupt, attack, or alienate, it becomes an issue of classroom incivility. The UC Santa Cruz Center for Teaching & Learning has a number of recommendations for handling student incivility. Here at SITE, we periodically have workshops on classroom management, or if you have a specific situation you're dealing with, you can always talk to one of our consultants.
The inspiration for this workshop came from materials and presentations generated by the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, this 2-year initiative focuses on promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. The Start Talking handbook was developed out of the initiative by faculty from University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.
The handbook (available for FREE in pdf format here) includes specific chapters on developing ground rules, facilitating debate, teaching about race, class and culture, reconciling science and religion, and others.
If you have thoughts or ideas about this material, or know of other useful resources, please post them in the comments section!
This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms as a function of good teaching. The series is comprised of three workshops, the first of which was held last week:
The other two workshops will be taking place over the next few weeks, with the whole series to be repeated in the Spring semester:
As a follow up to the first workshop, and to spread the information more widely, I've posted the workshop Prezi here and included information below on some of the resources available at Penn State in support of student and faculty diversity. If you know of other campus resources that can be used in support of teaching, please feel free to post them in the comments section!
PENN STATE RESOURCES There are several offices/organizations on campus that provide diversity-related support for students and faculty. It's always a good idea to familiarize yourself with these resources so that you can refer students (or yourself) for support.
Affirmative Action Office - offers diversity education programs, provides links to policies, statements and definitions related to diversity, and responds to complaints of or concerns about prohibited harassment or discrimination on the basis of age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or veteran status.
Center for Women Students - provides information to students about gender-related violence, personal health, body image, and classroom climate. The Director, Peggy Lorah, provides free workshops for faculty, staff and graduate students on improving classroom climate for women in higher education. If a student is having relationship problems or has experienced abuse or violence, refer them to talk with Dr. Lorah.
LGBTA Resource Center - provides a safe space for LGBTQ students to hang out; maintains a library of literature related to gender, gender expression, sexuality and relationships; runs the Straight Talks program (panels of speakers comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally students from a wide range of beliefs and background who educate the university community on sexual orientation, gender identity, oppression and diversity); coordinates events and support groups related to LGBTQ issues.
Center for Ethics & Religious Affairs - CERA offers an inclusive environment to "explore a multitude of faith traditions in a compassionate, open-minded setting [and] aims to promote an environment that stretches beyond tolerance to a genuine appreciation of and respect for religious and spiritual diversity." CERA also puts on workshops related to faith and spirituality.
Penn State Office of Global Programs - provides a hangout space and community-oriented programming and activities for international students. Maintains a clearinghouse of practical information and can put students in contact with tutors or spoken-language-improvement programs (like conversation buddies).
Office of Disability Services - Coordinates academic accessibility for disabled students, tests students for learning disabilities and works with faculty to provide accommodations for such students (they provide a quiet place for students to take exams, extended-time, etc). Provides a handbook for faculty.
Office of Veterans Programs - Helps veteran students negotiate the campus system, provides resources for such students to apply for benefits/financial aid, provides support personnel to answer questions.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) - Provides counseling services, support groups, and outreach for students, faculty, and staff experiencing crisis or mental-health-related concerns. Provides information to faculty and staff about worrisome student behaviors, and how to intervene when you are concerned about a student. CAPS will consult with you about a specific student issue, and CAPS staff also provides workshops to the greater campus community.
Penn State Learning - provides free tutoring (math, writing, language), guided study groups, and work spaces for students. You can contact them to have a tutor visit your class (say, if you have an upcoming essay assignment) and discuss the services they offer.
FURTHER READING Below is a list that I have been working through of texts related to the topic of Inclusive Excellence, in case you're interested in exploring specific avenues related to the topic. This is by no means an exhaustive list! I've included links wherever possible.
Rockquemore, K.A. and T. Laszloffy. 2008. The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure - Without Losing Your Soul. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Sue, D.W, A.I. Lin, G.C. Torino, C.M. Capodilupo, and D.P. Rivera. 2009. Racial Microagressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15(2): 183-190
Sue, D.W., G.C. Torino, C.M. Capodilupo, D.P. Rivera and A.I. Lin. 2009. How White Faculty Perceive and React to Difficult Dialogues on Race: Implications for Education and Training. The Counseling Psychologist July 30, 2009.
Cress, C.M., and J. Hart. 2009. Playing Soccer on the Football Field: The Persistence of Gender Inequities for Women Faculty. Equity & Excellence in Education 42(4), 473-488