The pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of student learning and wellbeing. The reality is, coursework may not be top of mind for individuals who grapple with housing or food insecurity. Familial or job commitments can also make it hard to attend live classes. Most concerning, however, could be the fact that some students—especially students of color, low-income students or those with intersectional identities—may not feel welcomed when course content and structure overlooks their unique circumstances.
Before you can focus on setting students up for academic success, consider how to adjust your teaching strategies and pedagogies to make them feel comfortable, regardless of circumstances.
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Be mindful of intersectionality
The term intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the interconnected nature of traits such as ethnicity, economic status, gender and sexuality, which create overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage.1 For example, a low-income student of color may experience different hardships navigating the public education system than an upper-class white student. To level the playing field for everyone, consider these resources and approaches in your classroom.
1. Recognize your implicit biases
Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes and decisions that influence your worldview. Every educator has them and you can recognize your own by taking a test offered by Project Implicit, an initiative from Harvard University. Awareness is the first step to avoid making students feel disconnected from your course—and to stop inequities from expanding. Being aware of your biases enables you to be a better support system for students and can help you address achievement gaps. Eradicating your biases isn’t an overnight process. But starting now can help you form a high-quality, equitable learning environment inclusive of different backgrounds.
2. Create tailored learning opportunities
Once you’re aware of your unconscious biases, consider how they influence your classroom structure. Is there a way to instill culturally responsive teaching in your curriculum? How about ensuring English language learners (ELL) or international students have the resources they need to excel? The Leading Equity Center offers three, free self-paced modules, which will help you create an individualized online environment. Think about giving students access to the resources they need to succeed in your learning community, such as additional writing support. Or consider providing others with extra time to complete assessments based on their individual circumstances.
3. Include a basic needs security statement in your syllabus
The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice is a nonprofit action research center that documents food and housing insecurity experienced by students in the U.S. The Center offers actionable tips on creating a basic needs security statement, which individual students can refer to when seeking help, such as finding safe places to sleep or, if applicable, accessing their campus’ food pantry. This statement may also encompass mental health services and financial support resources that your campus offers. Ultimately, the goal is ensuring a more holistic approach to supporting student well-being and success.
Jesse Stommel, Senior Lecturer and Digital Learning Fellow at the University of Mary Washington, offers a framework for incorporating a basic needs security statement in your syllabus. Position yourself as an active ally for students to turn to during any stage of the learning process.
Use assessments as a way to build connections with students
Once you’ve recognized your biases as an educator and have committed to investing in students’ personal wellbeing, consider how academia comes into play. At a time when learning and teaching don’t always occur at the same time, feedback loops allow for increased unity, transparency and trust—and help students realize that you’re a mentor to receive support from. Here are some best practices to increase student-professor connections, all while providing a personalized learning experience that accounts for every learning style.
1. Highlight what good performance looks like
Share rubrics listing what A–F grades encompass, then have students mark a sample paper based on your criteria. Students can compare responses, leading to a class-wide discussion on why they graded the assignment a certain way—and what’s expected of them when completing course work. These discussions replicate the peer-to-peer learning that was a big part of the on-campus experience.
Educator tip: Have a process in place for students who want to dispute their grades. Consider asking them to share the grade they would have given themselves and a rationale for why.
2. Provide timely, action-oriented feedback
Formative assessments allow for increased communication between you and your students. This communication must be reciprocated during grading to ensure students excel on future assignments. When grading assessments, provide timely and tailored feedback based on where students should direct their attention for an upcoming assignment.
Educator tip: Go one step beyond providing detailed written feedback. Share YouTube videos or mainstream media references to course concepts that they struggled with.
3. Be radically available
Attending office hours were often a decent measure of student engagement. Now, it’s okay to ditch them altogether—so says Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. Miller adopted an online scheduling system to meet students’ needs in a more immediate way. Not all students can commit to live, virtual office hours—but a scheduling system ensures students get the answers they need at a time that suits them.
Educator tip: Listen to what students need and want in your course. Informal surveys can help determine how and where students can reach you. Create a personalized yet equitable learning community by considering all students’ circumstances.
4. Ensure students have multiple opportunities to succeed
Simplify the assessment process by offering opportunities for students to resubmit an assignment they performed poorly on. Or reward students with a one-to-two percent bonus on an upcoming assessment if they attend a virtual study session offered by you or your teaching assistants (TAs). These equitable assessment solutions will help all students feel valued in your classroom environment.
Educator tip: Swap timed tests for testing windows. Home life can make it a challenge for students to focus, while some may have job, familial, caretaking or other responsibilities to tend to during the test time. Test windows respect students’ lives outside of your classroom.
- Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination