Prioritize inclusive teaching to enhance learning, professors say

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathy, professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently highlighted several hallmarks of inclusive course design that remove unnecessary and unproductive barriers to learning.

Excellence and inclusion are not at odds, Jack and Sathy emphasize, noting that some faculty equate movement away from so-called “rigor” with “lowering standards.” Jack and Sathy urge instructors to “push against outdated notions of rigor”—for instance, the expectation that, in a challenging course, only a portion of students will succeed.

That kind of “weed-out” approach privileges students who are already familiar with and skilled in navigating higher education’s so-called hidden curriculum—implicit expectations and norms that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students and those from other underrepresented backgrounds.

“By all means, design a course that helps students…master concepts and skills,” the authors write. “Set high standards and help as many students as you can to meet them. Perhaps most important, start with the assumption that they are all capable of success and deserve to pursue the academic discipline of their choosing.”

Among their recommendations for supporting all students’ learning and belonging, Jack and Sathy call on professors to:

  • Clearly convey course expectations and develop structured assignments that do the same. Invite students to be creative in demonstrating their learning. Show students the specific process that will lead to success.
  • Establish a grading structure that doesn’t assume that only a small, fixed number of students will earn top marks. Those sorts of forced-curve policies, the authors write, imply that an “instructor does not see all students as capable of success and is intent on sorting those who can succeed from those who cannot.” Moreover, creating that kind of competitive environment is “antiquated,” given the real-world emphasis on collaboration.
  • Ensure that students frequently have low-stakes opportunities throughout the course to practice skills and concepts.

Inclusive excellence in action at Georgetown

Georgetown University Associate Professor Heidi Elmendorf spoke with THE FEED about the institution’s commitment to inclusive excellence and how it has shaped her work teaching biology and researching intestinal pathogens.

Beyond the classroom, Elmendorf founded the educational partnership between Georgetown’s science departments and the Washington, D.C., public and public charter schools, as well as the Regents STEM Scholars Program, which seeks to address the shortage of underrepresented and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. Elmendorf also directs The Pivotal Network and previously served as senior advisor for equity in education to Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia.

THE FEED: Why is inclusion so crucial in your area of focus, the sciences?

Elmendorf: Science is about creativity. If you are not a scientist, you often think science is about the facts. But science only advances because people who think differently come into the discipline. Important work in science has always been done by the people who think differently than those that came before.

One of the best ways to ensure that science will continue to advance as a discipline is to ensure that we’re doing the very best job possible of welcoming in the greatest diversity of people from the most diverse perspectives with the most diverse ideas. Beyond Georgetown’s mission, science has an obligation for its own future to make sure that we are creating opportunities for more individuals from diverse backgrounds.

THE FEED: How has this shaped your approach in the classroom?

Elmendorf: We know that, nationally, STEM disciplines present unusual barriers to inclusive excellence. So we work to change our teaching approach to rethink what we are valuing and the support structures we are building in.

I love biology, but biology to me is most interesting when it meets my students. I’ve taught over 4,000 students at Georgetown. I’ve been here 22 years now, and I teach one of the largest courses, Foundations in Biology. I guarantee I will have students this fall who will help me see things about biology that I haven’t seen before.

That has to be at the front and center of any design when you think about your pedagogy and the way you construct your courses. It has to be based on providing opportunities for students to find their own way to enter a new world.

I’m a better teacher now than I was a decade ago. I’m not just a better teacher for diverse students. Everything that I’ve done with an eye toward inclusive excellence, it just makes my course better for everyone, and it has made me better.

Related: Summer Institute convenes 28 colleges working toward a more equitable future >

THE FEED: Could you share a few examples?

Elmendorf: We’ve rethought the content of what we teach. We’ve worked hard to figure out where the big ideas lie, where the connections lie, so that it’s less of a random sea of facts and more of a narrative. We’ve found ways to value creativity. We’ve found ways to value uncertainty. We’ve found ways to value ownership.

One low-tech example is that on all my exams, you write out answers; there aren’t multiple choice bubbles. If you don’t know an answer, but you can do a good job of describing where you got to in your thinking and where you got stuck, then you can get partial credit, and often almost full credit, because that sort of awareness of the parameters and boundaries of one’s knowledge is actually what helps you move forward.

We’ve built the course so that early work in the course counts for less than late work in the course, so that when you stumble out of the starting gate, as most students do, as I did when I was a freshman back in college, it’s fine. It has taught you something about yourself, and the subject, and being a student here at Georgetown, but it hasn’t sealed your fate.

Among the faculty in the course, we have 18 hours of office hours a week. In addition, my student academic assistants—undergraduates themselves—are highly trained and run the Georgetown Undergraduate Science Study Center. It’s open 18 hours a week. We call it a study center, because smart people get together with other smart people to do their work. One thing smart, successful people do is find strategic collaborations and collaborative partners. Lots of students come to us from high school not having been part of very good, productive, intellectual, collaborative environments. We want them to think that joining those environments is not because you’re struggling—joining those environments is what success looks like.

Learn more about support for inclusive pedagogy at Georgetown

Many of Georgetown’s centers and units provide support for inclusive pedagogy, including the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), a leader in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

As CNDLS shares on its website, “it is clear that learning outcomes are improved for everyone when teachers attend to student differences and take deliberate steps to ensure that all students, across differences in academic and social background as well as physical and cognitive abilities, feel welcomed, valued, challenged, and supported in their academic work.”

CNDLS encourages educators to critically review their teaching practices and offers an array of strategies, support, and resources to foster inclusive classrooms.

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