Communication for Classroom Equity:
How to Foster Equity in Your Course
By Helping Students Hear What You Mean

October 6, 2020

We have talked to college instructors all over the United States and Canada, and we have never met one who has said "I want to maintain an outcome gap between White students and students from structurally disadvantaged groups.” We have never heard an instructor say, “I aim to have more women than men to drop my class,” and no one has ever told us, “My goal is for first-generation students, students with disabilities, international students, and many others to feel like they don’t belong in my class.”

In fact, the overwhelming majority of instructors we have heard from in our faculty surveys, focus groups, and individual meetings, tell us that they care about their students’ success, and many tell us that equity in their classrooms is important to them. And yet, our research suggests that instructors can inadvertently foster classroom environments that maintain those inequities. Often, it comes down to a disconnect - instructors intend to communicate one message to students, but they end up sending a different message, especially to students with underrepresented or structurally disadvantaged identities (e.g. Black, Native American, Latinx students and others), and that is contributing to lost opportunities to foster equity, belonging, and growth in the classroom.

With learning environments affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether in the classroom or on virtual platforms, effective communication to foster equity is more important now than ever.

As part of the work we do with the College Transition Collaborative (CTC), an organization that bridges research and practice to help colleges create learning environments that foster equitable student engagement and success, we have reviewed research on how students experience their classroom environments. Here, we describe three examples of when you, as an instructor, may be communicating a different message than the one you are trying to send, and how that might be contributing to inequities in your classroom. These ideas draw on our collaborations within the Student Experience Project, funded by the the Raikes Foundation.

As you read these examples, keep in mind that we are not suggesting that a few sentences, spoken from the podium or posted on the course website, are responsible for classroom inequities. But the way course elements are framed or messaged - in the syllabus, in course material, or in feedback on a graded assignment - does impact how students experience these elements. And students’ experience, in turn, affects their motivation, academic behaviors, and ultimately academic success.

1. “Look to the left, look to the right, one of you will not be here by the end of the term.”

What you, as an instructor, may mean: “This is a challenging class, so you will need too work hard if you want to succeed.”
How this is perceived by students: “Many of you do not belong here.” This message particularly hits home for students whose identities are underrepresented in college.Students thrive both in and out of the classroom when they have a sense of belonging in college - a feeling that they, and people like them, fit in and are valued. However, when they have belonging uncertainty, they are unsure of whether they, and people like them, belong there, especially when they run into challenges. Students from structurally disadvantaged groups are especially likely to experience belonging uncertainty, due to the stigma and underrepresentation they often face in academic settings. Our research, and that of our collaborators, has found that if such students think that they are alone in their belonging concerns, it leads to withdrawal from social and academic connections and can contribute to gaps in achievement and retention..
What you could say and do instead: “This course has some challenging material. The tests and assignments are designed so that students who attend class consistently, work extensively outside of class, use or develop good study strategies, and reach out if they need help, can ultimately succeed in the course.” This message conveys that the instructor believes that all students, if they are willing to put in the effort, take to heart constructive feedback, and use learning strategies, belong in the classroom. They also structure the course to support this belief.

2. “I am giving you these comments on your assignment so that you know where to improve.”

What you, as an instructor, may mean: “I put a lot of time into giving feedback because I want to help you learn.”
How this is perceived by students: “I am criticizing you because you did not do a good job.” When criticism is provided without the context that the criticism is meant to help students reach higher standards, and without assurances that the instructor believes they can meet that standard, students can conclude that the instructor does not believe students can improve. Students from racially minoritized backgrounds may even hear “I am criticizing you because I hold prejudices, because they are uncertain of whether the professor is judging them through the lens of negative stereotypes.
What you could say instead: “I am giving you this feedback because I have high standards and I know you can meet them.” This wise feedback, compared to feedback that does not include a message about high standards and assurance that the student can meet the standards, has been found to lead students to put more time into revising their assignments and ultimately produce better quality work.

3. “If you have questions about the course material, you can come to my (virtual)office hours”

What you, as an instructor, may mean: “I am offering to spend time outside of class helping students to succeed.”
How this is perceived by students: “If you are all caught up on the readings and have specific questions, you can go to your professor’s office.” In focus groups and individual conversations, we have learned that even when the instructor specifically mentions office hours, some students believe they are not supposed to show up unless they have specific, course-content related questions. First-generation college students, who are drawing on their high school experiences, have told us that they associate going to a teacher’s office with being in trouble, or mistakenly conclude that office hours are times when the instructor is not to be disturbed. Students who come from a different identity group than their instructor (e.g. a Black student approaching a White instructor) may experience the identity divide as an additional barrier.
What you could say and do instead: “I have student drop-in hours twice a week. Come chat about anything on your mind. I’m looking forward to getting to know you – I can help think through how this course material can be used to address real-world problems.” Eric Smith and his colleagues at Stanford University found that when office hours were framed as part of instructors’ broad goals to support students’ holistically, students from underrepresented minoritized groups and first-generation college students earned higher course grades than students exposed to a more standard office hours message, even though they did not attend office hours at higher rates. In very large classes, the same message can be conveyed about teaching assistant office hours. This information can be included in syllabi and linked to other campus resources.

Faculty like you care about your students’ success and well-being, and want to make your course a place that supports equity. Being mindful of the way you are messaging your course is one more way you can work towards that goal.

Authors:

Christine Logel is Associate Professor at Renison University College, affiliated with University of Waterloo.
Kathryn Boucher is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences at University of Indianapolis.
Mary Murphy is Herman B. Wells Endowed Professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University.

Together they are Principal Investigators with the College Transition Collaborative, based at Stanford University and Lead Scholars of the Student Experience Project, funded by the Raikes Foundation.