There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching—and that couldn’t be more true for today’s student population. Being mindful of what students need for a successful learning experience should be top of mind for instructors.

Higher ed’s traditional cookie-cutter instructional design approach was never enough to maximize educational equity—and that’s even more pertinent among today’s student population. With students actively juggling professional, personal, social and academic concerns, instructors need to be mindful of how they can weave educational equity into their classroom to provide a safe and inclusive space where everyone can thrive.

How educational equity is undermined in academia today

Higher ed learning experiences have the potential to magnify achievement gaps between various groups of students. This discrepancy refers to the difference in academic outcomes between students of varying living situations and access to resources. For example, some students may juggle their academic responsibilities with employment and caretaking roles, making it a challenge to attend class at a set time. Providing students with a set testing time or specific dates and times for assignments to be turned in may cause scheduling conflicts—especially in hybrid or online learning environments.

Individual students may also face cultural and financial barriers in the higher education system. Some students of color may not feel welcomed or comfortable engaging with readings or case studies that primarily focus on lived experiences with which they cannot identify. Some low-income students may find it a challenge to buy required courseware for all of their classes, on top of tuition and other fees that come with a college degree. Other households may only have one computer, making it difficult for multiple students to all be online to complete assignments or course readings. While institution-wide practices and instructional design haven’t always been tailored to meet the needs of a diverse student body, there is potential to provide today’s learners with a high-quality learning experience that prioritizes educational equity. The process starts with adopting an equity-minded attitude.

5 ways to become a more equity-minded instructor

It’s important to understand the difference between equity vs. equality. Equality means providing resources and support to deliver similar experiences for all students. In contrast, equity in education focuses on fairness and providing access to the support systems, tools and resources required for individual student success.

Understanding what educational equity is can help leaders reject higher education’s traditionally exclusionary practices. Instead, they aim to make all spaces inclusive of low-income students and students from marginalized communities, who are often overlooked in the education system. Ultimately, equity in education starts with you. Adopting an equity-minded attitude requires investing time, effort and political capital into discussing issues—even those that may be uncomfortable—while mobilizing institution-wide efforts when possible. Here are five ways to implement educational equity in your course, all while minimizing achievement gaps.

1. Leverage Universal Design for Learning to maximize educational opportunity

Proactively tailoring course delivery strategies to meet the needs of individual students is one way to reduce achievement gaps. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that informs course design and learning experiences, ensuring students’ accessibility needs are met. UDL is often put into practice by employing technology to boost student outcomes. Understanding UDL means recognizing that learners differ in the ways that they represent, express and engage with information. As such, UDL can help school leaders consider a wide array of high-quality assessment options and communication channels that best support their students. Consider adding a ‘plus one’ to everything you create in your blended, online or in-person course, such as having at least two ways to interact with or access course content. Here are some simple solutions to infuse UDL in your virtual classroom.

Assign one or two notetakers, ensuring equal access to lecture discussions
Record live materials and ensure these materials are accessible after the fact
Include closed captions with videos
Allow students to dial-in to lecture and download transcripts after a lecture is posted
Use a blend of synchronous and asynchronous means to provide students with flexibility

2. Provide quality education through culturally responsive teaching

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a pedagogical approach that places educational equity at the center, by stressing the importance of connecting students’ cultures and social circumstances with the course curriculum. Adopting CRT also helps students build appreciation and empathy toward diverse perspectives, which is especially important in our current political and social landscape. This pedagogy goes hand-in-hand with UDL, where both aim to shrink the achievement gap by making the public education system more inviting and inclusive for everyone. CRT is often the first step in imparting a sense of safety and belonging in your classroom. Students of marginalized communities or low-income students may also be more likely to engage with the material if they see their backgrounds adequately and accurately represented in course content. Here are some easy tactics to put CRL into place.

Diversify your course readings with scholars of color
Encourage students to become active allies by sharing their preferred pronouns and encouraging gender neutral interactions outside of your classroom
Invite diverse guest speakers
Ask students what issues they want to learn more about

3. Offer educational equity via formative assessments and discussions

Formative assessments are low-stakes evaluations that are frequently administered throughout the semester. Regular polls, surveys and stop-start-continue exercises give students the autonomy to shape their education based on their social circumstances or needs. Faculty can leverage these insights to deliver the remainder of the course based on what students want to learn or have had trouble understanding to date. Institution leaders can seek out educational opportunities for students to frequently voice formal and informal course feedback through discussion threads or virtual office hours.

Creating equity in education also means being mindful of students’ privacy. For instance, some disadvantaged students may not feel comfortable asking for help in front of the entire class via discussion forums. Anonymizing feedback helps students feel comfortable enough to voice their concerns and needs without fearing social or academic repercussions. Top Hat facilitates educational equity through the ability to anonymize students’ responses in discussions of any size.

4. Use open-source solutions to reduce achievement gaps

In a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce by Georgetown University, of the 14 million working students in the United States, about six million—or 43 percent—are low-income students. This demographic disproportionately encompasses students who identify as Black (18 percent), Latinx (25 percent) and first-generation college students (47 percent). Intersectionality—race and socioeconomic status in this case—shouldn’t determine educational opportunity nor graduation rates. Providing low-income and marginalized students with free resources can help reduce the achievement gap between them and their affluent peers, while reducing financial burdens when transitioning from high school to higher ed. Open educational resources (OER) provide a free alternative to the inflated print textbook market. You may also wish to alert students to textbook rental programs, where they can rent a book for a semester at a time—for a sliver of the cost of buying a brand-new book.

Leveling the playing field for all students is the first step to helping students succeed in their college degrees. The Top Hat Catalog provides thousands of high-quality learning materials including textbooks and question packs—all of which are free or low-cost alternatives to traditional print books. Embedded comprehension questions enhance educational opportunities by indicating whether students understand course content.

5. Give flexibility in summative assessments

Students have a multitude of responsibilities to tend to: academic, professional, social, familial, employment and more. Assignments that have a non-negotiable deadline undermine equity in education by requiring students to shape their schedules around that of their courses. Consider ways that you can provide flexibility in your summative assessments—those that account for a significant portion of a student’s final grade. For semester-long projects—especially theses or a capstone project—you may want to let students set their own due dates (as long as they are within reason) or provide a flexible timeline. Not only will this let them form a schedule that suits their needs, it also helps increase accountability.

For online or blended classes, you may want to abandon set testing times in favor of ‘testing windows.’ For example, not all students have a distraction-free home environment or regular access to technology, which presents an undesirable challenge when writing a test at a set time. Testing windows provide students with autonomy and trust on the part of professors, empowering students to take control of their learning.

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