Promoting Diversity in the Classroom
Enhancing the Learning Experience of Non-traditional Students
An increasingly hot and relevant topic in today’s teaching pedagogy is how to promote diversity within the college classroom. Having grown up in China and traveled extensively in the U.S. and overseas, and been trained in different academic disciplines, I understand how it feels for a student to find himself/herself outside of the dominant culture and norms. This feeling of “not being understood” and “not included” in the classroom based on their identities may discourage some students from seeking collaboration with others and participating actively.
One of my goals as an instructor is to make sure that students have a voice in their own learning, and at the same time are exposed to a variety of other ideas/explanations and are able to critically analyze them. Over time I have discovered some good methods/tips to create a learning environment where ethnic minorities, LGBTQ students and others with diverse backgrounds feel safe to contribute openly in class.
Encourage the students to participate in class.
Often times it is not laziness that prevents students from classroom participation. They may feel “shut out” because they are new to the country/city, or they do not have advanced English skills; they may be very cautious people who prefer to talk only with enough confidence of not making mistakes; they may be naturally shy, or have traumatic experiences in the past of being ridiculed; they may come from a culture that discourages talking loudly in public as a student.
It is not good practice if you just send a student an email “threatening” them to either talk more or else get a zero for their participation grade. I have found that a better approach is to give students a range of choices of topics in assignments in both writing and oral forms, allowing them to identify and explore their own interests through both writing and presentation. Also, the office hours are good for one on one communication, so if they are not comfortable with classroom participation, they can talk to me face to face and tell me what are their concerns and difficulties.
Set aside my own pre-assumption of what is “easy” and “difficult” in the course material.
For students with non-traditional backgrounds, what is “easy” and “difficult” may be quite different from what we perceive. My experience of working with international students and students of underrepresented groups has taught me to appreciate the challenges that such students can face when they are simultaneously learning the course material and learning English or adjusting to new social norms. So when you cannot grasp why the student did horribly in an assignment, ask them what they were thinking when giving the answers, and then talk about ways to improve.
Call the students by their preferred names/gender.
Have you heard of the Japanese saying “the shortest spell in the world is a man’s name”? Names define who we are and how others perceive us, so the name is like a “spell” cast upon our identity and our sense of being. A lot of my friends and students adopt names that are different from the names on the school’s registrar. Thus, it has occurred naturally to me to always make an effort to learn the names that the students like to be called (which is often different from the name on the registrar) in the first week of class, and address them in such a manner. Particularly if you know that a student is transgender, it is best to ask privately how she/he wants to be called. Calling the students in a way that they like is a personal way of showing support for their learning.
If I think about some more strategies to promote diversity in the classroom, I will update this post. Please comment or email me if you would like to share more tips to promote diversity in teaching, it will be much appreciated!