The graduation gap continues to exist between traditional and nontraditional students. Although the classroom experience has not been the focus of most institutions’ retention and persistence efforts, faculty can and do play a major role for improving the retention and success of all students. It’s a topic covered extensively in my new book, Creating the Path to Success in the Classroom: Teaching to Close the Graduation Gap for Minority, First-Generation, and Academically Unprepared Students, released earlier this month. While recognizing that there are no easy answers, I offer ideas that can be incorporated in, or modified to align with, faculty’s existing teaching methods. Following are a few excerpts from chapter two, where I suggest five steps for promoting an inclusive classroom:
- Promote a Positive Classroom Climate: Whether our classes are in a physical or virtual space, a positive climate can have a powerful and constructive effect on students’ engagement and learning. We can start the process on the first day of class and provide a welcoming atmosphere for all students, no matter their ethnicities, social-economic backgrounds, or educational preparedness. In addition to having a “welcome message” in our syllabus, we can set the tone by making a habit of arriving to class at least 10 minutes before it is scheduled to begin to greet students (by name, if possible) as they enter the classroom. This technique also affords opportunities to chat briefly with small groups of students about school or other topics. The greeting can be as simple (and obvious) as “How was your weekend?” or “How are your classes going?” These informal conversations can lead to more in-depth conversations and personal relationships as the semester moves along. Having a personal connection with students can increase class participation and enthusiasm based on a greater mutual respect between professor and students.
- Embrace Students’ Diversity: We must value and embrace diversity—not just diverse talents, but diversity in ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic backgrounds, and even academic readiness for college. Failing to do so can have a negative impact on students’ learning, on the development of their talents, and, in turn, on their retention and persistence. The topics of diversity and inclusion can and should be part of all college classes. As Heuberger, Gerber, and Anderson (1999) explain, “Given the political, economic, social, and educational interactions that are part of our global society, people must develop cultural competence in a world that is increasingly multicultural. That competence includes knowledge of how culture influences stereotypes, perceptions, and actions, along with the ability to communicate across cultures” (p. 107).
- Increase Our Own Cultural Competence: One way that professors can increase their own cultural competence is to read both nonfiction and fiction material that addresses issues around multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion. Furthermore, part of increasing our own cultural competence also means that we need to engage in self-reflection about our own experiences with diversity and “unpack” any unconscious bias that we may have. “Most of us do not wish to be viewed as bigots or as individuals harboring prejudice, but we simply lack the confidence and expertise to deal with issues of diversity” (Watson et al., 2002, p. xi). Attending conferences or workshops that focus on diversity issues in the classroom and culturally responsive teaching practices can help us face our deficits and biases and increase our sensitivity and skills.
- Encourage Student Interactions: The more academically and socially connected students feel to their college or university, the more likely they are to persist. Faculty can help support an institution’s student engagement efforts by providing opportunities for students to meet and connect with each other. This includes helping them learn each other’s names and stretching their comfort zones by having them move to different seats and sit with different small groups. The benefits are far reaching—from increasing attendance to building a positive rapport and respect among all those in class. Because most college students are accustomed to choosing where they want to sit, often staying in roughly the same location each class, it is important to share with them why they are being asked to sit in different places throughout the semester. The goal is that our students will have thoughtful interactions and conversations with people from different backgrounds and life experiences.
- Foster a Community of Learners Within Our Classes: We can foster a community of learners in several ways. First, we can encourage students to collaborate and cooperate with their classmates. As our students start experiencing the benefits of being part of a classroom community, they are more likely to participate and will become more involved in learning the course content. Secondly, we can also confirm and support students by using academic validation practices to foster a community of learners because such practices can give students a sense of belonging, a vital component for improving retention and persistence rates. The concept of validation does not assume that students know how to make connections and get involved, or even know how to ask for help. Traditionally underserved students may also be afraid to talk to their professors, participate openly in class, or even ask questions in class for fear of looking incompetent. As professors, we can make purposeful attempts to actively use validation practices help our students build confidence in their own learning and their capacity to learn. Validation practices can also motivate students to respond to our expectations and the academic rigor of our courses.
Integration and involvement are key ingredients for increasing student retention and promoting success. The type of classroom climate we seek to create and the teaching techniques we use can produce an environment that either supports or impedes our diverse students. Studies continue to confirm the positive impact of open and inclusive classroom environments and the enhanced learning that comes with it. This has a direct effect on students’ sense of fulfillment and their persistence and retention.
Now through Dec. 31, 2018, Stylus Publishing is offering Faculty Focus readers a 20% discount on Creating the Path to Success in the Classroom: Teaching to Close the Graduation Gap for Minority, First-Generation, and Academically Unprepared Students. Visit the Stylus Publishing website and use discount code: FFCP20.
Kathleen Gabriel is an associate professor at California State University, Chico.