What I do for diversity and inclusion in the classroom

A series of incidents of hate and bias on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus has prompted campus officials and my dean in the College of Engineering to send out a letter to faculty stating that the College of Engineering will embark on a multi-year process to provide implicit bias training for students, faculty, and staff. I applaud these efforts. I also recognize that most of the incidents are happening outside of the classroom where I cannot see them. Still, it’s imperative that administrators and professors lead on the issue of diversity and inclusion. Showing our students that we are committed to diversity and inclusion will play an important role in helping students feel welcome and safe on campus.

This is what I try to do for all students, with the intent that it may make more of a difference to marginalized students such as underrepresented minority (URMs), women students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or students with disabilities. I recognize that I am not perfect. I am always trying to learn and improve. Feedback is very welcome.

Note about myself: I am a women in engineering who has a lot of experience in diversity and inclusion efforts for women in engineering. When I was a student, I felt like a fraud, I felt marginalized at times, and I felt like I did not always have a voice. But I am not a diversity expert; I’m just a diversity fangirl. I try to do small things with great love and to continually improve what I do. My goal as a professor is to help all my students feel “welcome at the table” so to speak.

What I do in the classroom:

  1. I strive to treat all students the same. This means treating each student like an individual and responding to their individual needs. This will be a lifelong challenge because I am human and surely hold on to some stereotypes. I make it a goal to give all students the same opportunities as opposed to trying to “correct” for biases I may have (which can make things worse — see stereotype threat).
  2. I give a sense that my course is challenging but doable, with an emphasis on doable. I never only tell students how hard engineering is, because students who are marginalized in any way sometimes get the message that if they find something hard, it means they are inherently bad at it and will not be successful. Instead, I focus on the “doable” part. Recognizing that student abilities are malleable is a positive message that directly combats notions that a student is not welcome or is flawed.
  3. I do not use gender or names in any generic classroom examples (no “he” or “she” in classroom examples when referring to an engineer who is solving a problem about simulation).
  4. I am careful when “randomly” assigning student groups. I try to ensure that there isn’t only one woman student in a group, for example. I usually let students choose their own group so they are most comfortable.
  5. I strive to give all students a voice. I ask students what they think when talking with students doing group work in class. That way, I can “give” everyone a voice, which is particularly important for students from marginalized groups who do not feel like they have a voice.
  6. I touch base with students during active learning segments in class, even if they do not ask for help. Students who do not feel “welcome to the table” often do not ask for help because they feel like a fraud. Helping students clear small hurdles in class can build their confidence. Again, I like to focus on how engineering is “doable” and how skills can be learned.
  7. I talk about imposter syndrome in the classroom (this is not for everyone).
  8. I talk about stereotype threat in the classroom (this is really not for everyone).
  9. I give a class of students a positive affirmation before an exam. I remind my students about how much they have learned and how I believe they have come a long way. If they ask if the test is hard (and they always do), I say it’s tough but fair and doable. I keep the messages positive to counteract stereotype threat. In fact, this is one of the most effective ways for teachers to improve the test scores of marginalized students:
    • “One of the most powerful things teachers can do to offset the stereotype threat and bolster student performance is to prompt students to reflect on their talents, beliefs and values. These kinds of “affirmations” remind students of what’s important to them and can build a line of defense against stereotype threat.” [Reference]

What I do outside of the classroom aimed at improving student access to opportunities and achievement. Usually these things take place during office hours and advising:

  1. I ask students about their plans for the summer and encourage them to consider internships, co-ops, research experiences for undergraduates (REUs).
  2. I invite students to department events (colloquiums, receptions, reunions, etc.)
  3. I talk to students about graduate school. This is a big one. Graduate school is not on everyone’s radar, and telling a student they should think about graduate school because they have something to offer is sometimes a life-changing conversation for a marginalized student.
  4. I serve as a reference for students (if they ask me) and be even-handed in how I refer to students in the letters (see this word cloud of words used in letters for men and in letters for women).
  5. I tell a student that I believe in their abilities and know they will be successful as a future industrial engineer when they stop in for office hours, when the going gets tough, at the department graduation party, etc. Positive affirmations.
  6. I congratulate an underrepresented minority (URM) or women student for an achievement (internship, new job, award, etc.) and ensure that awards get publicized in the department and college.
  7. I nominate the student for a campus or department award and write a letter of recommendation for the student if one is needed.
  8. I publicize department opportunities in the classroom (for department scholarships, etc.) and personally recommend that students apply for a department scholarship award.
  9. I try to rid myself of stereotypes and biases I have by reading about biases when I can.

What I do with my colleagues:

  1. Add items to related to diversity and inclusion to the meeting agendas.
  2. Bring up issues of diversity and inclusion when discusses new classes, especially those for freshmen where inclusion should be a goal.
  3. Encourage inviting speakers from underrepresented groups to give department colloquiums.
  4. Ask colloquium speakers, especially those from underrepresented groups, to speak to graduate students when they visit.
  5. Encourage colleagues to ask candidates from underrepresented groups to apply for faculty positions (and do so myself).

I want to reiterate that I am not an expert. These tips are things that work for me, and I know I am leaving some top tips out. This list from Vanderbilt contains some additional recommendations and suggestions for learning more. What do you do in and out of the classroom? Help me improve.

Articles on bias:

XKCD comic called “How it works” because this is absolutely not how it should work.

Edits on 4/27 to include my tweets about this post:


Update on 7/15/16. I discovered this paper from PLoS called “Peer-Led Team Learning Helps Minority Students Succeed

Peer-Led Team Learning and active learning has been shown to reduce grade disparities between underrepresented minority students and students from more white and privileged backgrounds. Lecturing has the highest level of disparity. Other research out there done by education experts suggest that if you care about diversity, you should replace lecturing with active learning. I have some work to do, but it’s great to know how to target my teaching efforts.

Update on 3/29/18

Francis Edward Su wrote an article entitled “Mathematical Microaggressions” about creating a growth mindset in class to help a diverse set of students reach their potential.

Markus Brauer at UW-Madison has a handout with some suggestions for teaching in a diverse classroom. Here are some of his suggestions based on published evidence in the literature.

  1. Insist on the “utility value” of the material you are teaching in class. Explain clearly how the students will be able to use the knowledge they learn in your class later in life. Some studies suggest that this is beneficial for all students, but particularly for students from historically underrepresented populations.
  2. Ask all students to express what they value and why these values are important for them.
  3. Specify in your syllabus what tasks students will have to fulfill in your class and post your website ahead of time. This way, students can see if certain disabilities prevent them from having a positive learning experience in the class.
  4. Communicate that most students feel in the first semesters that they do not “belong” but that most of them tend to overcome these difficulties and end up feeling quite connected in later semesters.
  5. Build some flexibility in your assignment schedule. For example, allows students to have in 1 assignment up to 48 hours late with no penalty. This is essential for students with certain types of disabilities, such as mental illness.
  6. Be aware that you don’t have to call on the first student who raises their hand. Take the time to call on students who rarely talk in class to encourage everyone to give verbal and non-verbal feedback.
  7. When presenting empirical results, show pictures of the scientists who conducted the research. Do so especially when the researcher is a woman or a URM.
  8. Consider doing “low impact testing,” where students can take the quiz multiple times until they get all the answers right. These types of activities should account for <10% of the final grade. This type of activity tends to help pull up students with the lowest grades.
  9. Do not grade according to a curve. Instead, use an a priori grading scheme.
  10. When talking about groups, emphasize the groups’ heterogeneity and discuss the large within-group differences. Making salient that a stigmatized group is heterogeneous creates more positive feelings toward this group.

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