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Inclusive Classrooms: Student Experiences

Unfortunately, just because faculty members are well-intentioned and good people, it doesn’t mean students automatically experience their classrooms to be inclusive and welcoming.

Sometimes things happen in classrooms that make some students feel they don’t belong or aren’t welcome. It might be something said by another student, something said or done or not said or not done by a professor. Several universities have compiled information for their instructors about some negative student experiences in their classrooms. A 2009 focus group with 35 African American students at Elon University found that while they appreciated much about the Elon community and faculty, there were ways their academic experiences could have been improved.

Simply because they are members of particular groups, some students may come into classrooms feeling (or being) at a disadvantage. In “Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students,” psychologist Claude Steele describes a phenomenon researchers call “stereotype threat” which negatively affects student performance in certain circumstances. Although the title refers to Black college students, their findings have been replicated with others including female students, male students, and students of lower socioeconomic status. In his book Whistling Vivaldi, Steele provides some strategies for mitigating stereotype threat (pdf). Research exists on many diverse student populations since clearly it can be difficult to be one of only a few members of particular groups in some fields. 

Armed with awareness and knowledge, it appears that faculty can help all their students succeed. In articles like “Do Interracial Interactions Matter? An Examination of Student-Faculty Contact and Intellectual Self-Concept” (see resource page), Darnell Cole has investigated classroom faculty interactions with students and issues related to learning environment, mentoring relationships, and types of feedback. After an extensive review of the literature on women in STEM disciplines, an AAUW report entitled Why so few? concluded, “At colleges and universities, little changes can make a big difference in attracting and retaining women in STEM.”

At the minimum, it seems important for faculty to communicate their high expectations clearly and also to communicate their belief that individual students can succeed. Faculty can investigate suggestions for their fields and also check out practical suggestions that might apply to many fields.