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Teaching for Inclusion and Diversity

We invite you to use these resources to help identify and implement inclusive teaching practices that support the learning of diverse students. CTLO is availabe to discuss these and other ideas and help implement them in your unique context--give us a call (x. 8427) or email ctlo@caltech.edu to find out more.

The resources below are organized in the following categories:


Understanding Diverse Student Perspectives:

  • Aguilar, L., G. Walton, C. Wieman (2014) provide a helpful overview of diverse students' perspectives on university classrooms and teaching in their article, Psychological insights for improved physics teachingPhysics Today, 67(5), 43 (2014); doi: 10.1063/PT.3.2383.

Before Teaching:

  • Examine your own assumptions:
    • Make a list of the teaching styles and course structures that you found helpful to your learning in STEM courses. For each one, question how aspects of your background (early exposure, familiarity with university settings, support at home, access to additional resources, life structure allowing full use of resources) might have made that work well for you. Consider how a different experience with any of those factors might change things for your students.
    • Examine your own "implicit associations" or stereotypical beliefs about ability and socio-cultural characteristics. Having implicit associations is normal; most people have some associations of which they are unaware, and becoming conscious of them can be helpful.
    • Ask trusted colleagues for their perspectives. If nearby colleagues can’t answer questions about assumptions and potential bias frankly, you may be able to find remote colleagues within your discipline at disciplinary conferences—especially if there are educational sessions or sessions devoted to diversity within your field.
    • Read about various kinds of privilege and reflect on how they may be operating for you. E.g., here’s a recent post on white privilege, with linked resources, including those related to gender privilege.
    • Become more knowledgeable about socioeconomic effects in colleges and universities; again, reflect on your own background and what may be most familiar or invisible to you. E.g., here is a compendium of recent research on socioeconomic status in higher education
  • Establish inclusive class structures:
    • Set “Ground Rules” for interaction in STEM courses, such as:
      • Commit to answering all student questions, either during class or after, and follow through.
      • Provide multiple ways for students to ask questions and interact; make those options clear to everyone at the beginning of the class.
      • Acknowledge there are different ways to express uncertainty, and all are acceptable in the class context. E.g., it’s ok to be sure and right, sure and wrong, unsure and right, or unsure and wrong.
    • Build inclusive course structures that:
      • Don’t assume everyone’s life beyond class is the same. For example, unexpected time commitments (extra lab sessions, etc.) may impact some groups of students more than others.
      • Make it normal and routine to make use of academic and other services on campus for this class: e.g., peer tutors, group study opportunities, accessibility/disability services.
    • Let students know how you (the professor or TA) can help:
      • Give students concrete examples of when and why students should talk with the professor and/or TA (e.g., at office hours). This can help lower the barrier for those who have prior conceptions about what college students should or shouldn’t do, or what it means to be “successful”; some may believe they have to do it on their own without any help.
    • Build feedback into class structures, so you have ways to check on student understanding as well as identify barriers to learning early on, e.g.:
      • Anonymous mid-quarter surveys.
      • Minute papers
    • Plan to use inclusive materials and interaction strategies:
      • Make materials accessible electronically so that students who need to use assistive technologies can do so without extra requests. Using a variety of visual/text-based/aural approaches can help all learners be flexible and learn more deeply.
      • Plan for multiple kinds of input and response—verbal and non-verbal—in class.

During Classes

  • Acknowledge students as individuals with varying perspectives:
    • Learn students' and TAs' names, preferred pronunciation or nicknames, and what pronouns they use, at the beginning of the term. Having students fill out a short information card asking for their preferences in an open-ended way can be a great way to find out.
    • Model alternative perspectives and approaches to solving problems. Making room for many forms of difference, including critical thinking and problem solving, can foster a more explicitly inclusive climate.
    • Test communication and messages through an "all students" lens: E.g., when trying to reach student(s) you think may be at risk, mentally pre-test your communications by asking "how might ___ interpret this invitation for extra help (or other communication)?" Insert several different students you know well with diverse backgrounds.
    • Adjust communications to the whole class to make sure all would feel included, and not singled out, based on their identity.
    • Avoid language that may trigger stereotype threat--added stress that tends to reduce performance when people feel at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their social, cultural, or other facet of identity. E.g., performance differences between groups based on gender or other identity, subtle cues about "natural abilities" or "intelligence" that may be stereotypically associated with some groups more than others.
  • Focus on learning and mastery, rather than prior privilege:
    • Consider course policies that reward students' current learning, rather than access to exclusive prior educational settings or a family history of university education. 
    • Consider grading systems that reward mastery over the term rather than immediate perfection.
  • Make the content inclusive whenever possible:
    • In cases, problems, and scenarios, vary the pronouns, origin of names, etc., including those of any fictional researchers/scientists represented in the cases.
    • When discussing the history of the field, check to see if diverse researchers are represented. While there may be a history of over or under-representation, you can make the field's existing diversity more visible by including researchers' first names or photos.
    • Avoid language or metaphors with unintended implications about gender, culture, (dis)ability, sexuality, age, etc. For example, choosing a "romance" metaphor for a scientific process that assumes a heterosexual relationship as the norm can feel marginalizing to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) students.
  • Address and correct occurrences of microaggressions in class settings, no matter how they arise. 
    • These statements or actions that communicate bias, often in subtle ways, may occur outside of people's conscious awareness, so addressing them while preserving everyone's dignity is important.
    • Microaggressions may be verbal, e.g.:
      • Expressing surprise at accomplishment or ability to an individual from an underrepresented background in the discipline (this reminds them that people may assume they are not as skilled, intelligent, etc.).
      • Asking an individual to speak for or represent an entire group, often an underrepresented group or identity--i.e., tokenism (this places an unfair burden on that individual, often not borne by "majority" students in the same setting).
    • They may also be nonverbal, e.g.:
      • Not making eye contact with people who have certain characteristics, such as a disability.
    • Whether you realize your words or actions may be perceived as microaggressions, or whether you notice them between students, it is best to address them through non-judgmental, direct methods. E.g.:
      • After your own verbal statement: "I'm sorry, what I just said did not accurately represent my beliefs; I misspoke just now. What I meant was ___."
      • After a verbal exchange between students: "It's an easy mistake to make, but in this class/at Caltech it's important that everyone be treated fairly. Let's avoid (asking individuals to represent a larger group; making assumptions about talent/intelligence; comments about ___)."
      • If you notice students' peer microaggressions continuing following such corrections, please reach out to the Dean's Office, Title IX office, Center for Diversity, or Center for Teaching, Learning, & Outreach to consult about possible solutions.

Additional References and Links