May 3, 2019
Widespread ethnic/racial discrimination, high poverty rates, and an historic decline in social mobility in the US contribute to systemic barriers for students seeking four-year degrees. Students who are Hispanic or Black, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, non-native English speakers, or first-generation college students may feel like outsiders on campus, and this can ultimately increase the risk of not completing college. Students from low-income households face the extra challenges of balancing work and college or even homelessness and college. Consequently, Whites attain bachelor’s degrees at significantly higher rates than either Hispanics or Blacks. Students from more educated and more affluent households are 2.5 times more likely to attain bachelor’s degrees than first-generation college students from low-income households.
While Instructors have little agency over larger, systemic threats, they can disrupt inequity at the classroom-level. They can deliver inclusive instruction that: incorporates inquiry-based, group learning; nurtures positive academic mindsets; layers in college and career skills in ways that dignify students; and fosters a community of learners. These strategies create classroom environments where students from all backgrounds are motivated to take risks, make mistakes, share their unique approaches and perspectives, and develop their own identities as powerful life-long learners. This asset-based instructional approach can help to make the world a more just and compassionate place, one classroom at a time.
Below are three classroom-level strategies for instructors seeking to disrupt systemic inequity in order to equalize the playing field for students historically underrepresented among those with four-year degrees.
I.Develop a Community of Learners
“The greatest act of social justice an instructor can commit is to create safe learning environments where students from all backgrounds and identities can actualize their full potential as powerful learners” (Darling, 2019). Taking steps to create a community of learners on the first day of class will help build such an environment. Tip: Cultivate strategies to memorize and correctly pronounce every student’s name by the first day or first week of class to foster a community of learners.
II.Facilitate inquiry based, group learning
“Good instruction provides the container in which students can freely explore, experiment, improvise, take risks, make mistakes, and co-construct new knowledge. That is the sweet spot to create; structure that fosters freedom of expression” (Darling, 2019). Inquiry-based, group learning—framed with a growth mindset and equity lens—invites all students to build on their prior knowledge to co-construct understanding with their peers. Jerry Miller, Senior Dean of Career and Technical Education at the Santa Rosa Junior College, says, “Nowadays employers have employees work in teams. Employers tell me, ‘Send me the C student who can work with others in a group as opposed to the A student who can only work in a silo.” Tip: Launch your first class by asking students to share out what they like and do not like when working in groups. Scribe these ideas and incorporate them into the norms for doing group work.
III. Layer College and Career Skills into instruction
Teaching college skills is an equity issue. Every student deserves equal access to instruction of the content. If some students are denied access because they lack specific skills, then that is unfair. Explicitly teaching college and career skills can break down barriers for these students and ultimately improve their chances of attaining 4-year degrees. Examples of college skills are knowing how to: study for tests; decipher assignment directions; take notes; strategically read; use academic language; write an essay exam; and communicate with a professor. Teaching college skills is not watering down the curriculum. Students who are academically underprepared do twice the work as academically prepared students during a course, because they are mastering college skills while simultaneously mastering the course content. Instructors who spiral in college skills do twice the work too. To make instruction equitable, instructors need to layer in college skills in ways that leave students with their dignity intact. Tip: I tell students, “In regular life, I swear quite a bit. However, that language is not appropriate for a professional academic environment, so I code-shift and do not use that language here in the classroom” (Darling, 2019). This helps students understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with their own vernacular and that appropriate language is contextual.
In conclusion, systemic inequity is a more pervasive and pernicious threat to access to higher education than celebrity admission scams. Instructors can disrupt systemic inequity at the classroom level by implementing inclusive, inquiry-based instruction that layers in college skills in ways that dignify students’ lived experiences. An instructor should breathe life into their students’ big dreams. This includes students of color, first-generation college students, and other students who are underrepresented among those who have four-year degrees.
Dr. Felicia Darling is author of Teachin’ It! Breakout Moves that Break Down Barriers for Community College Students to be published by Teachers College Press, June 28, 2019.