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Checklist: Responding to Student Diversity

General Principles

Treat students as individuals whose identities are complex and unique.

For example, you can ask open-ended questions to solicit students' reports of their experiences or observations without calling on a student to speak for his or her race/gender/culture. Also, learning to pronounce all of the names correctly shows respect for varied backgrounds.

Encourage full participation while being aware of differences which may influence students' responses.

For example, you can make eye contact with everyone, increase your wait time to include less assertive and/or more reflective students, ask questions that draw out quieter participants or challenge dominant students in small groups, or talk with students outside of class to provide encouragement.

Vary your teaching methods to take advantage of different learning styles and to expand the repertoire of strategies tried by each student.

For example, you can foster peer relationships with in-class collaboration, include concrete examples whenever possible, use visual or dramatic presentations, or value personal knowledge and experience when students share it.

Promote a respectful classroom climate with egalitarian norms and acceptance of differences.

For example, you can encourage student projects involving diverse perspectives, discuss guidelines or "ground rules" for good participation, and monitor language use for implicit assumptions, exclusions, or overgeneralizations.

Be aware of possible student anxiety about their performance in a competitive environment such as Carnegie Mellon's but try not to "overprotect."

All students - including those whose personal or cultural histories may include being a target of stereotypes and discrimination - need clear standards and evaluation criteria, straightforward comments on their work delivered with tact and empathy, and early feedback so that they can change their learning strategies or get help if needed.

Avoiding Common Problems

Avoid highly idiomatic English.

Idioms are especially confusing for non-native speakers of English or any student who may have been raised in another country or another region of the U.S. While the expressions may be colorful, many students may miss an important concept if the phrase in unfamiliar (e.g. "once in a blue moon," "between a rock and a hard place").

Provide some linguistic redundancy.

Many students, particularly non-native speakers of English, benefit from both seeing and hearing language (e.g. through the use of the blackboard or overhead projector) and from hearing key ideas stated in different ways.

Use diverse examples rather than ones which assume a particular background or experience.

Examples that come easily are often those which come from our own experiences. Make sure you aren't consistently assuming all your students share that experience. For example, notice when many of your examples are based on cultural or regional knowledge, hobbies favored predominantly by one gender, or political or historical knowledge unfamiliar to those from other countries.

Don't assume that students who don't talk don't know the material.

Being quiet in the classroom and not "showing off" are considered respectful in many Asian cultures. For some women and people of color, silence in the classroom may have been learned in response to negative experiences with participation (e.g. being interrupted by others, not getting credit for their ideas, having others talk to them in a condescending or dismissive way).

Watch the type of humor that occurs in your classes to be sure it denigrates no one.

A surprisingly large number of jokes involve putting down people who are different in some way and who may already feel marginal because of those differences. For more about classroom humor, see page 30 of Collected Wisdom.

Reference

From Freeland, R. (1998). Collected Wisdom: Strategies & Resources for TAs. Pittsburgh, PA: Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon.