LEARN Center

An Approach for Teaching Diversity

A Dozen Suggestions for Enhancing Student Learning by Jim Winship

The key word in this title is "An"—this is "an approach" not "the approach" to teaching about diversity. The dozen suggestions here were derived from an extensive literature review, conversations with a number of people nationwide who are knowledgeable about the subject, the contributions of a dozen UWW faculty during a LEARN Center discussion group on "Teaching about Diversity, Teaching in Multicultural Contexts" in the Spring of 2003, and my own twenty-five-plus years of college teaching, twenty-two of these at UW-Whitewater. At UW-Whitewater, I teach a diversity course that draws students from all four colleges at the university and I also integrate diversity-related content and skill development in the social work courses I teach.

The following list of twelve suggestions is not exhaustive. They are ones that are supported by published literature on teaching for diversity, on effective college teaching, and are ones that both colleagues here at UW-Whitewater and I have found effective in teaching our undergraduate students. Faculty are encouraged to adopt those that fit with their discipline and teaching style, and adapt the exercises, simulations, and other materials on this website to their specific courses. The twelve suggestions are roughly sequential—starting with course planning and the start of a class, followed by ideas and approaches that can be used throughout a semester, ending with the importance of providing and receiving feedback.

  1. Become increasingly aware of our own identities, fears, and biases as we teach about diversity issues. Our own identities—racial, gender, social class, and others—are more present when we treat topics of diversity in a course than when dealing with less controversial issues. As the subject matter is both broad and also emotionally charged for students, faculty members often question their own abilities teach about and manage diversity-related discussions.
  2. Differentiate between your goals for the class and learner objectives, and be clear with students on the objectives and grading. Students' apprehension about diversity-related learning is partly due to their concerns that they need to have a perspective on issues that mirrors the instructor's. Clearly stated objectives and transparent grading can reduce the level of this apprehension.
  3. Work on developing the students' ability to reflect and use higher order thinking skills as much as possible. Studying diversity-related material and remembering/repeating it on exams may not lead to students being able to meet diversity-related objectives. Reflecting on readings, discussions, and exercises can Students are more likely to internalize course learning when they compare and contrast situations across groups, time, or geography, apply course contents, and use course material to critique statements or positions.
  4. Create a safe and engaging classroom climate. Students will not (and should not) engage in open discussion in class if they fear what will happen. Clearly written ground rules for discussion and modeling both openness and safety leads to more honest interactions.
  5. Use building blocks and key concepts as a basis for consideration of diversity issues. The word "diversity" for many white students is interpreted as "them." Concepts such as culture, identity, communication, power and privilege, stereotypes and prejudice, and discrimination and oppression can provide a framework for students to understand difference. The concepts can be used to comprehend the impact of attitudes, laws, and other societal forces on the treatment by society and opportunities for advancement on members of marginalized groups.
  6. Structure the course so that students learn from interaction with course material, not relying on minority students to educate their peers. In a class with both majority and minority students, it is not the job of minority students to help other students understand issues such as prejudice, exclusion, and discrimination. The instructor can focus student attention on Information on demographic realities, selected reading, or a video segment can be the starting point for students to analyze or respond to the information, an author's point of view, or a character's actions.
  7. Connect when possible to students' experience and interests. There are separate and connected ways of knowing. When students apply course concepts to their personal and family life and/or to their proposed career, course learning is more likely to be appreciated and applied.
  8. Use relevant exercises and simulations to engage students. Exercises and simulations can allow students to "step outside themselves" and see things from a different perspective. The experience of a class in a simulation or exercise can be used as a reference point during the semester during the presentation/discussion of course concepts.
  9. Move from lower risk to higher risk activities during the semester. Some diversity-related topics are more highly emotionally charged than others. Plan a course so that students acquire needed content and concepts and the class becomes accustomed to talking about diversity-related issues before moving to "hot button" issues.
  10. Plan classroom discussions at least as carefully as lectures controversial situations. Discussions are more likely to be effective when the teacher is clear on the reasons for conducting discussions, adopts approaches for making the discussions productive, and is comfortable with the various roles that the teacher must play in discussions.
  11. Be prepared for conflict and/or reluctance from students as they are being asked to examine long-held beliefs. Some issues are controversial because they concern the distribution of valuable resources, such as employment in the case of affirmative action. Other issues address strongly help beliefs values. Resistance by some students to some diversity-related learning should not only be expected but can be seen as valuable for learning by both individuals and for an entire class.
  12. Receive and provide feedback both to individual students and to a class. Classroom Assessment Techniques can be used to provide the instructor with important ongoing information on what students are learning and how they are reacting to course material. Written feedback (aside from grading) can increase faculty-student communication.