Equity in the Classroom

Posted January 9, 2020

By Deepti Karkhanis and Rika Meyer

As instructors, we are always looking for ways to achieve equity. In other words, instructors strive to provide equal opportunities for success to their students. This can be achieved through accessible course design, thoughtful and equitable practices, and academic resources. However, sometimes it can be overwhelming to start putting equitable practices into action. Therefore, we decided to put together some clear, tangible tools you could use today to start making changes and promote educational equity in your classroom and at your institution.

Calling on students

In psychology classes, we cover many topics that personally relate to everyone. Instructors typically ask students to apply what they learn in class to their life and pull examples from their lives to help them understand a concept. I think this is a great way to show the utility of what we learn in class. However, we need to be mindful of practicing inclusion in a way that it doesn’t hamper student morale. To implement this, I don’t call on my students by name when I ask questions to the class. I do this because when instructors do this, it usually immediately increases anxiety in the student that is called on. This doesn’t always mean I have the same students speaking up in class. I think you can continuously work on the classroom environment to enable students to feel comfortable speaking up. For the students who never speak up in class, I already have students type/write down their responses that I can immediately see on my iPad in class. Therefore, I can give them a voice by bringing up points not made by the students who already willingly shared in front of the class.

About a year ago, one of my international students came to my office hours and thanked me for that practice. She said that the academic environment she was used to was not one where there is a lot of discussion, so the transition to a classroom where it was split into lecture/activities/discussions each class, she was intimidated with speaking up. However, in small group discussions, she participated in lively discussions and was one of the most engaged students in the classroom. Each student “participates” differently, who are we to say that ‘raising your hand’ means engaged?

An image of colorful paperclips
For instance, one way that equitable class participation can be practiced such that each student is given an opportunity to share their idea and/or ask a question is the “paperclip” method. Provide each student with two or three paperclips at the start of class that they can use as talking chips. Each time a student contributes to the discussion and/or asks a question, they turn in a clip with the goal being that all students use up their clips. This strategy encourages students who tend to monopolize classroom participation to save their clips for their most thoughtful questions and comments. One could also extend this method into participation notecards, which less vocal or shy students can turn in at the end of the class or even pass it down during class so the instructor can read out their thoughts and/or questions.

Re-thinking your late-work policy

An image of an hourglass and a clock
Why do we have late policies? Instructors will usually say, “To teach them the importance of turning things in on time,” or “To teach self-reliance.” We agree that those are important skills to learn. However, many students of color face more challenges and daily hassles compared to a typical student. For example, having to stay home to care for a sick child, working a full-time job while being a full-time student, or having to take two buses to school for 2 hours instead of driving 30 minutes to campus. Non-traditional students also have additional challenges. For example, an older, non-traditional student may be writing a paper for the first time in 30 years. Perhaps they may need more time for an assignment like that. These types of anecdotes made me re-think my late policies. To address this, one can have students come and speak to the instructor if they need an extension before the due date comes. This encourages students to seek the help they need and allows me to get to know them better. One could also consider using a late-work contract for paper submissions wherein a student commits to turning in the work on a later date so that as an instructor you are not stressing about missed grading. Or even perhaps turn the writing assignment into an opportunity to learn writing (see Learning Writing by Rewriting blog post on Noba).

Guest speakers and videos should represent professionals of color.

Several of us resort to a combination of lecture and activity when teaching a course. From both the UDL and equity perspective, it is a good idea to show short videos during class time to help further explain the concept(s) being taught. When choosing videos to show, be mindful to look for speakers that are coming from different backgrounds, nationality, and even accents. It allows for students to be receptive of professionals from other parts of the world. It also helps validate and motivate students of color in our classrooms to see themselves at higher posts in the field. On the same lines, it is a good idea to invite speakers (when possible) to present research or real-life content to the class. Again, looking for speakers in the community, who are inspirational and belong to marginalized sections of the society can help promote educational equity.

Normalizing failure.

A hand holing a piece of paper with the words "I can't" written on it and a pair of scissors in the other hand cutting the piece of paper.
When striving for educational equity, it is necessary to create an environment when it is safe to fail. Life is already very demanding and stressful for our students, and adding to that stress level doesn’t help learning. Taking out time to pause and share people’s failures and what they learned from it, is a good way to normalize and neutralize it. As their instructor, providing personal anecdotes about failing reminds the students that no one is perfect, and that failure can be seen as an opportunity to grow. Is it a good idea to celebrate failure? Yes, absolutely! If a class bombed a group discussion, it is a good idea to focus on the 1-2 positive points made rather than focusing on what students got incorrect. The misconception(s) can be corrected during lecture and/or future assignment.

Open Educational Resources

Mindfully selecting and using textbooks that are OER, and monitoring the costs of the textbooks assigned by our colleagues can help increase access to content among students. There are several repositories where instructors can find the various OER texts in psychology. For e.g., Open Textbook Library

Bringing snacks and water to class, especially during test days

Food insecurity is a growing problem in the college student population. Although many campuses have been working towards reducing this insecurity with food banks and the availability of affordable food, students are still coming to class hungry. Bringing healthy snacks (e.g., fruit, crackers), particularly on test days, not only helps to address this issue in the classroom, but also helps to create an environment where students feel like they are cared for and understood. One can also incorporate class activities that involve healthy. For instance, I demonstrate the ‘schedules of reinforcement’ when teaching the Conditioning and Learning Noba Module by bringing in protein/cereal bars to reinforce class participation behavior.

Equity can be a hard goal to achieve in the classroom without actively critiquing your syllabus, activities, and assignments. Is your syllabus demonstrating inequity to begin with? What are ways you can make your class as a whole equitable? Are we creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment? These are ongoing challenges we should tackle as instructors. Some instructors may ask: “Am I making my class too easy?”, “Am I teaching them the skills necessary to be successful professionals?” While these are all questions we should be asking, at the same time, we should also be asking, “Are we creating barriers to learning?”, and strive instead to make learning fun and accessible to all.

A poster that reads "Learning is fun when" Providing these responses: "You can choose when you learn", “you love what you do”, “it is fun to fail”, “the environment is inspiring”, “you feel safe”, “you are appreciated for who you are”, “it becomes a healthy addiction”.
Image Credit: Sharkey134~enwiki. Describes the different conditions necessary for learning to be fun. This poster was created by the Fun Academy to illustrate the Fun Learning philosophy. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Learning_i...


Deepti Karkhanis is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Bellevue College, WA. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Delhi University in India, and her Doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She is a developmentalist whose teaching interests include Lifespan psychology, General psychology, Cross-cultural psychology and Positive psychology. Dr. Karkhanis explores a variety of pedagogical topics such as collaborative testing, student-teacher rapport, positive psychology in classroom curriculum, and teacher training on social justice and educational equity.

Rika Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Child and Adolescent Development Department at California State University, Northridge. She received her BA in Psychology from UCLA and her MA and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She currently teaches Developmental Impacts of Abuse and Neglect and Helping Children Cope with Medical Environments. Her research interests include chronic pain and stress in children, adolescents, and their families, and ways to promote academic success from childhood to emerging adulthood.