Academics & Research / Winter 2018

Students give instructors lessons in inclusivity

A pilot project that launched in 2017 out of DU’s Office of Teaching and Learning asked students to sit in on classes in academic areas outside their majors and to share their observations and ideas with professors about how to make their teaching styles more inclusive. Illustration by James Yang

When it comes to making all students feel included in classroom lectures and activities, even college professors don’t have all the answers. Especially when it comes to first-generation students and students from underrepresented populations, both of whom may not be familiar with higher-ed customs and who may understandably bristle at being assigned a reading from yet another dead white dude.

But what would happen if the playing field were leveled even a bit — if students from varying backgrounds could give professors honest feedback on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all that instruction?

That was the idea behind a pilot project that launched in 2017 out of DU’s Office of Teaching and Learning. Associate Director Virginia Pitts asked students — including a number of minority and first-generation students — to sit in on classes in academic areas outside their majors and to share their observations and ideas with professors about how to make their teaching styles more inclusive.

The project put interested students and faculty members into pairs. They met at the beginning of spring quarter to get to know one another and so that professors could share their reasons for getting involved with the experiment. Students sat in on at least one class per week for the duration of the quarter, observing and taking notes. The student-faculty pairs continued to meet weekly; the group of student participants had their own weekly meetings as well.

“It’s all premised on this relationship that the student and the faculty partner are developing,” Pitts says. “It’s taking the whole notion of student-faculty engagement into the classroom.”

Many of the students and faculty who participated found the experience to be transformative, Pitts says. And while the broader impact may be small for now, as the project continues (it is scheduled to start again in winter quarter), she hopes that instructors can find ways to make their teaching styles more inclusive — and to share those strategies with their peers across campus.

“There were some changes [to teaching styles], but the bigger thing that the faculty members talked about getting out of it was this better understanding of how their students are experiencing their class,” she says.

One faculty member who is already making changes is assistant philosophy professor Michael Brent, who was actively looking for ways to increase diversity in his program when he signed up for the pedagogy project.

“Philosophy in my area of the world is predominantly white-male driven,” he says. “This was an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I know I’m a white guy, but if I’m learning about this as a teacher, maybe we can share these experiences with the wider profession.’ It exploded into something really cool.”

Brent’s student partner was junior psychology and sociology major Marie Spence, who sat in on classes, talked to some of Brent’s students and wound up offering suggestions on everything from reading selections and group projects to the way Brent stood when he addressed his class.

Pitts considers the pilot project a success — not only because of the specific recommendations from students but also because of the partnerships formed among students and faculty members.

“It created a space where the students were willing to take risks in sharing their observations, where they might not be as interested in sharing if they weren’t asked and if this relationship hadn’t been formed,” she says. “And faculty members were willing to be more vulnerable in sharing things that they hadn’t figured out.”

 

2 Comments

  1. Martha Holman says:

    Wo! great job, Virginia!!

  2. Sounds amazing! I can’t wait to hear more about it.

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