The past few years have highlighted an indisputable need to address equity more intentionally in our courses. And yet, pandemic-related changes have pulled educators in many new directions and left us tired and wary of taking on new or unfamiliar practices.
Fortunately, there are teaching strategies that support inclusive practices without involving a big time investment.
Often these strategies involve a shift in our priorities and our approaches, rather than creating new activities or adopting new technologies. Looking at our ICT online courses, each of which have an underlying focus on equity, we can pull a few takeaways that involve little time to implement.
Add a few metacognitive moments
Students arrive at our colleges with unequal preparation for college-level work. Many have not been given a strong background in study skills or have very little practice in how to improve their metacognitive thinking processes (Gabriel, 2018; McGuire, 2015).
Metacognition is described as the ability to think about our own thinking with the intent to plan, monitor and assess our thinking processes for better learning. Although we can be metacognitive about many things, we hope students will develop the “habits of a learner” that will help them succeed in college.
Students can learn the metacognitive strategies that can reduce academic gaps. This is an ongoing process, but small steps throughout many courses can assist students in assessing and monitoring their academic thinking processes. For example:
- Add a question to your exam or assignment asking students to look for patterns in their learning. What types of questions did they get got wrong? What were the strengths of their paper?
- Give students a few minutes in class to discuss their study strategies with each other.
- After providing detailed feedback to students, ask them to paraphrase your feedback back to you in their own words.
- Use a few Classroom Assessment Techniques or Assignment/Exam Wrappers to help students monitor and self-assess their learning.
Demystify the syllabus and support services
We often assume that college students know the lingo or “hidden curriculum” of higher education. This can be most apparent in our syllabus.
Yet, many students do not know our acronyms, norms, or even recognize our offers for support. Some students have been known to think that that “office hours” are times when faculty are working quietly in their office and should not be disturbed.
We can easily add a few explanatory comments to make sure students understand the important supports available to them. We should make sure they are clearly open to everyone, not just those who have the personality or privilege to ask for it. And, by proactively focusing on academic supports, we are normalizing the idea that we all can benefit from getting support in our learning process.
If you’ve already handed out your syllabus, consider taking a bit of class time to review the most important academic supports. Revisiting this a few weeks into class, when students are a bit less overwhelmed by the newness of everything, might allow for more open questions.
Push towards growth mindsets
Much has been written about the ability of a growth mindset to have a positive impact on learning. When students feel they can succeed at something with time and effort, they can be more willing to put in that time and effort.
In addition, faculty mindsets about learning can impact student effort. In a longitudinal study of over 150 STEM courses, students reported less “motivation to do their best work” in classes taught by faculty who endorsed more fixed mindset beliefs (Canning, Muenks, Green, & Murphy, 2019).
Pushing towards a growth mindset, both for students AND for faculty, can be furthered with adjustments in how we interact with students and present our content and activities.
- Overtly TELL students that you believe they can achieve the course outcomes.
- Give feedback with a tone that shows you want to hold students to high standards, and that your feedback is designed to help students achieve these high standards.
- Share your own stories of overcoming academic challenges to show that academic success takes effort and work, and also involves failure and challenge.
Add transparency to your assignments
A major component of Universal Design for Learning as well as best practice for first-generation students is to provide clear and transparent explanations of course assignments.
This involves not only defining the criteria for success (often through a rubric which has become fairly standard practice) but also making sure to explain the purpose of the assignment and how it helps students achieve the overall course goals.
Using a Transparent Assignment Template can be useful, but even adding in just a bit more of the “what, why, and how” of your assignments can be a valuable first step. If time is short, hold an open discussion with your students to see what questions they raise about the assignment and use this for future assignments.
Help students connect assignments to their lives
Students have a better chance of being successful in an academic setting when they have a sense of belonging and feel that the course material has value or meaning for them personally (Farrington et al., 2012; Strayhorn, 2012).
Help create a sense of belonging and meaning by helping students discover and connect the value of your content to their own lives. In Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, “Caring” is a learning dimension category in the creation of significant learning as we want students to value, appreciate, and care about our content and the activities we ask them to do.
If this is our goal, we need to create identifiable opportunities to help students develop these value and meaning connections. Sometimes this can be achieved by developing new assignments, but sometimes we can simply put an emphasis on the connections to students lives.
- Have students state in their own words the connections between the readings, activities, assignments, and how they support overall course goals.
- Invite students to bring in current examples, articles, videos, or resources that relate to course topics or assignments.
- Ask students to create their own personal learning outcome (in their own words) for major course activities. What do they most hope to gain from the final project? How can a mastery of certain skills help in their future lives/careers?
- Allow students to suggest alternative assignments. If they can create something that still meets the learning goals, why not open the door to their personal motivation?
Working towards equity in education is an ongoing struggle that will take time and effort from all aspects of the institution. This list of ideas is by no way meant to downplay the difficult work that needs to be done. But while we are working towards those larger goals, there are approaches we can adopt immediately in our courses.
Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science advances, 5(2), eaau4734. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734
Farrington et al. (June 2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners. The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Gabriel, K. F. (2018). Creating the path to success in the classroom: Teaching to close the graduation gap for minority, first-generation, and academically unprepared students. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Kelly, K., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2020). Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-based Digital Learning Environments. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Yeager, D.S. and Walton, G.M. 2011. Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Education Research. 81(2): 267-301.