The pandemic years have been rough on college students everywhere, with record levels of academic stress and losses in student learning. While occurring throughout higher education, these problems haven’t affected all groups the same way. Students from privileged backgrounds have fared better than the under-resourced, with disparities in network access, income, and external responsibilities exacerbating inequities. As I saw these dynamics play out in the large undergraduate general education courses I teach, I began wondering if instructional methods might be partly to blame and if changes might improve matters going forward. Working with UC Irvine’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) helped me to rethink my own teaching by searching out ways that I unconsciously had been putting up roadblocks
Usually when educators speak of “inclusion” they are thinking of course content and ways to incorporate diverse perspectives or voices previously excluded. While this approach remains a central tenant of inclusive teaching, a deeper look at the issue can reveal biases or barriers built into the teaching of even the most progressive educators. Practices of exclusion can be the result of habits or structures that have become so routinized in instruction that they seem natural or neutral approaches. Costly books, rigid deadlines, and high-stakes exams are among practices that privilege students with money, time flexibility, and testing skills, for example.
Faculty attitudes also can get in the way of inclusion. This often is manifest in principles of “rigor” intended to elevate worthy over unworthy students. Such attitudes create a scarcity mentality toward success rather than one that makes high achievement possible for all students. Decades of educational research has shown the deleterious effects of such practices in conflating grades with knowledge acquisition. The grade pressure that frequently drives “rigor” has been shown to affect some students more than others, while creating an atmosphere of anxiety and an emphasis on types of learning easily that can be easily tested. Not only does this create learning inequities, but it also tends to discourage collaboration, questioning, and diverse opinion.
With a few simple changes, faculty can help level the playing field with more fair and accessible classroom strategies. Inclusive teaching recognizes potential excellence in all students, while removing barriers to success and embracing diversity in its many forms, especially among groups traditionally underserved or excluded from higher education. Rather than using grades as an externally driven motivator, inclusive teaching employs student-centered methods that encourage student autonomy and learning as its own reward. To accomplish these ends, DTEI introduced me to tools for removing barriers to success. Course design was simplified and pared down to essentials. Collaborative discussions took the place of most exams. Students received study skill support. And everyone got extra time to get work done. Many in the revised courses reported they felt better about learning, that they had more control over the process, and appreciated exploring material rather than worrying about grades.
Finally, students learned more as a result of these changes. Not only was this apparent in exams, but it also showed in the heightened quality of student discussion groups, the enthusiasm with which students shared perspectives with each other, and the sophistication of the questions they would pose. All of this helped me to realize the value of treating students as active participants in learning. Do so validates the interest and investment students bring to the learning encounter and recognizes what brought them to a course in the first place.