Equity-focused teaching is a corrective tool that moves beyond inclusion. It is based on the understanding that systemic inequities shape all students’ individual and group-based experiences of social identity and thus produce vastly different relationships of power in and outside of the classroom. How do we define “equity-focused teaching” at U-M? CRLT uses the following definition, which synthesizes a range of research related to teaching and learning, the expertise of our DEI consultants, as well as ideas collected in faculty focus groups:
Equity-focused Teaching is a corrective tool that allows instructors to acknowledge and disrupt historical and contemporary patterns of educational disenfranchisement that often negatively impact marginalized and minoritized students. It recognizes that systemic inequities shape all students’ individual and group-based experiences of social identity and produce vastly different relationships of power in and outside of the classroom, which impact students’ learning and success. The corrective work of equity-focused teaching involves deliberately cultivating a learning environment where students:
- Have equal access to learning
- Feel valued and supported in their learning
- Experience parity in achieving positive course outcomes
- Share responsibility for the equitable engagement and treatment of all in the learning community.
Equity-focused teaching is an ongoing commitment and practice that should develop across the life of a teaching career. This commitment is always in the service of achieving just experiences and outcomes for both students and teachers alike.
Some key aspects of this definition to note: 1. This definition is relevant in every discipline, whatever your content. 2. Equity-focused teaching requires intentional practice over time with the intention of achieving just experiences and outcomes. As one participant in a CRLT faculty interview stated, “Teaching for equity is not the goal; justice is.” 3. Equity-focused teaching does not describe any particular pedagogical approach but names a foundational intention that shapes your approach, whether you are lecturing, leading discussion, holding office hours, or facilitating team-based learning.
As the definition also suggests, equity-focused teaching ideally stems from instructor awareness about the ways that bias and systemic inequities (such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or economic inequality) influence student access to and learning experiences within specific disciplines and institutions as well as higher education more generally. In this way, the idea of equity-focused teaching provides a lens through which to view and disrupt patterns of educational disenfranchisement in your discipline, courses, students, institution, and the interactions among them.
You may or may not already have a clear understanding of how such inequities play out in your discipline. Whatever your starting point, you can increase your awareness by paying attention to -- and discussing with teaching colleagues -- matters such as the following:
- Who has primarily been included and supported in my field of study (e.g., featured as experts or top scholars, hired as faculty, recruited as graduate students, graduated in large numbers from relevant majors)? How has that inclusion been facilitated? Are people of some identity groups overrepresented or underrepresented, suggesting barriers to equity and inclusion? Through my teaching, how might I facilitate equitable inclusion of a broader range of identities and perspectives?
- What do the most common pedagogical approaches in my field assume about students’ educational backgrounds, frames of reference, and/or ways of learning? Who might be disenfranchised by those assumptions, and what role can I play in disrupting these patterns?
- Where do I see gaps in perspective or marginalizing approaches in course materials? Where do I see marginalizing behavior in classroom interactions? How can I intervene to make changes?
- How can I become more aware of my own biases and guard against those biases affecting my interactions with or assessments of students?
- How can I learn about students’ experiences of the learning environment in my course so I can continuously work to create equitable and just experiences?
As you become increasingly aware of such dynamics and seek to respond to them through your instructional choices, it’s helpful to be guided by insights from research on learning and teaching. You can learn more about that research foundation at www.crlt.umich.edu/research-basis-inclusive-teaching. Some key findings stemming from that research include:
- Students’ feelings of belonging are strongly correlated to their ability to learn. By the same token, feeling excluded, marginalized, or devalued on campus or in a class or discipline can be a significant barrier to student learning (Ambrose et al., 2010; Walton & Cohen, 2011). You can facilitate a sense of academic belonging through featuring the contributions to your discipline of researchers with a broad range of social identities, learning and using students’ names, structuring meaningful peer learning opportunities, choosing examples from a broad range of cultural domains to illustrate course concepts, or having students provide examples themselves.
- Students are more likely to persist through challenges when instructors communicate high standards and provide clear paths to success for all students (Dweck, 2006; Steele, 2011; Yeager et al., 2014). You can do this by identifying effective study strategies for exams, providing grading rubrics that outline clear criteria for success on writing assignments, or sharing stories about your own challenges and successes learning difficult material.
- Transparency about expectations and norms benefits all students’ learning and is especially beneficial for first-generation college students and other groups who have been traditionally underserved by higher education (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Stephens et al., 2012). Transparent practices include identifying learning objectives for class activities, explaining how students should communicate with you and make use of opportunities like office hours, and making clear how student work will be assessed in every dimension of the course, including participation.
- Student awareness of and appreciation of diversity are maximized when instructors create structured opportunities for classmates to learn about and from one another (Johnson & Johnson, 2014; Gurin et al. , 2013). Such opportunities could include regular icebreakers at the start of class, team activities where students self-identify strengths and skills, or peer interviews about prior experience with course material.
To support you in reflection and development of your equity-focused teaching practices, this document provides additional specific teaching strategies aligned with five equity-focused teaching principles supported by the research described above. How might your teaching be guided by an attention to such principles? How can you enhance equity in your classroom, studio, lab, and/or office hours? These are questions you can productively reflect upon throughout your teaching career.
Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Chapter 6: “Why do Student Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?”
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset. New York, NY: Random House.
Eddy, S.L. & Hogan, K.A. (2014). Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE--Life Sciences Education, 13, 453-468.
Gurin, P., Nagda, B. R. A., & Zúñiga, X. (2013). Dialogue across difference: Practice, theory, and research on intergroup dialogue. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Johnson, D., Johnson R., & Smith, K. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 85-118.
Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Reprint ed. New York: Norton.
Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: how American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(6), 1178.
Walton, G.M. & Cohen G.L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447-1451.
Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., ... & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804.