Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Make Sure Students Do Not Feel Pressured to Speak for an Entire Group

It can be an admirable goal for an instructor to want to call upon multiple, diverse perspectives in the classroom. However, this should be done in a way that doesn’t put any students on the spot. Students’ identities are unique, but should not be the only basis by which an instructor chooses students to contribute to class discussions or activities. It is important to remember that their identities do not confine them to a single, predictable, opinion or perspective. In addition, underrepresented students often report either feeling invisible in class, or sticking out like a sore thumb as the token minority, particularly when some visible aspect of their identity is being discussed. This experience is heightened when they are addressed as spokespeople for their whole group, and can have negative implications on performance (Lord & Saenz, 1985). Research has also shown that singling out minority individuals, even for benevolent reasons (e.g. in order to help them), also causes difficulties (McLoughlin, 2005). Ultimately, experiences of identities are diverse and no one can be designated a spokesperson for a certain identity.

To avoid putting students in this type of situation, consider the following strategies:

  • Be careful of the assumptions you are making about your students; peoples’ identities are both visible and invisible, and students are not obligated to share their own personal experiences with you or the class.
  • If hearing from certain perspectives aligns with your learning objectives, supplementing or replacing course material with those from the perspective of interest.
  • If you feel certain students aren’t participating, invite other perspectives or other voices to contribute to the discussion, rather than singling out individuals.
    • “Let’s take X minutes to think about this problem from this angle.”
    • “Since this is a contentious issue, let’s debate this. Everyone in the front will be adopting X position. Everyone in the back will be defending Y.”
    • “Let’s think about what [people who think Y way] would say for the next 5 minutes. Write down your answer without your name, and I will go over those anonymously”.
  • Offer extra help or resources either to all students or based on academic, not demographic, criteria. This will help you avoid singling out underrepresented groups.

References:

Lord, C. G., & Saenz, D. S. (1985). "Memory deficits and memory surfeits: Differential cognitive consequences of tokenism of tokens and observer." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 918-926.

McLoughlin, L. A. (2005). Spotlighting: Emergent gender bias in undergraduate engineering education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 373-381.

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