Skip to main content

Point of View

Focusing on Learning as a Marker of Success for Underrepresented Students

The achievement gap between majority and underrepresented students is neither new nor limited to science. In spite of some improvement, it remains an important knotty problem in education. Page, Espinosa, Mares, Del Pilar, and Shelton (2018) proposed a nonlinear grading curve as a way to improve success of underserved populations. Although a nonlinear curve may have some appropriate uses, it does not address the underlying lack of equity in achievement that remains so important for students’ futures.

At most institutions, grades are used as a proxy for learning gains or achievement of a performance benchmark. There are many reasons that grades are not a perfect such proxy—exam anxiety is an obvious example—and also reasons that the mismatch between grades and learning may be most pronounced for underrepresented students. Stereotype threat (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995) and language barriers (with the time and mental load they add to exams) are two such factors.

To the degree that grades are not a perfect proxy for learning, strategies such as nonlinear curves are an easy way to attempt to reduce potential grade bias. They do not, however, distinguish between reasons for low grades or contribute to students’ learning and confidence. The alternate approach of allowing students to correct their exams for up to half credit back provides a practically identical compression of grades as Page et al.’s (2018) 10√𝐺 curve. It has the added advantage of requiring students who missed points to correct their mistakes, explain their revised understanding, and experience another learning cycle. The additional points also bring the confidence of being earned rather than given. Several grading efficiencies can be used to open time for the additional cycle of grading. Homework can be submitted through an online system, graded for completion during a laboratory or discussion section, or spot checked. Laboratory reports can be submitted by groups, partially graded (e.g., Method section graded one week, Data or Results another), or replaced with online lab quizzes. In addition, because students will rework the exam, very few comments are required on the first pass of grading, which makes it surprisingly efficient.

More important for this discussion, however, is the degree to which grades are a reasonable proxy for achievement. Any approach that addresses disparity by passing students without providing them the learning their grade promises merely perpetuates the true problem of lack of equity in our educational system. If the solution were easy, universal, or clearly understood, the achievement gap would no longer exist. And so it matters that approaches instructors can take to make their own courses more equitable remain at the forefront of educational discussions in every discipline. The limited examples that follow highlight just two of the frameworks from which the conversations take place.

Students with the benefit of resources—high-quality high schools, families with education—are more likely to be independent learners and know how to access support resources than students who start with less. So one framework for approaching equity focuses on getting information and resources to the students who will benefit the most.

A twist on the exam regrade curve described above requires metacognition about studying and can help students, especially those with less rigorous high school experiences, learn more effectively going forward. In this twist, to have regraded work considered, students must provide two pieces of preliminary information: the relevant physics principle and a place in the course (conceptual) or homework (mathematical) where they learned or practiced a similar question.

Providing course resources such as weekly content study sessions, time management and effective study information, or math review sessions is much easier than directing those resources to students who will benefit the most. Enthusiastic teaching assistants or tutors who are themselves representative of the diversity of students in the class are the desired approach for attracting underrepresented students to support sessions. When a diversity of peer leaders is not available, connection to active campus multicultural centers can be a source for communicating the importance of the sessions to students or for advising faculty members on the best ways to foster participation.

Fostering participation ties directly to a second framework for addressing equity—providing a welcoming, validating, and inclusive classroom. It is tempting to look for an easy-to-identify set of rules for climate, first day of class, and syllabus. In reality, the experiences of Latinx students in a small Midwestern town are different from the experiences of Hmong students in that same town and from the experiences of Latinx students in a large Southwestern city. For the price of a few cups of coffee, visits with local leaders of color can provide invaluable information about experiences of students on a given campus. Leaders may be from the multicultural center, faculty ranks, advisors, the Dean of Students office, student group advisors, student government (including officers of students groups), or the local community. Every student deserves to be recognized as an individual, but knowing the strengths, pressures, and experiences of ethnic groups on campus goes a long way to establishing a welcoming and inclusive course climate.

These strategies alone do not close the achievement gap. The conversations—of equity in higher education in general, of success measured by learning, and of ways individual instructors can affect change within their own courses—are ongoing. And it is important that it continue in disciplinary discussions as well as general educational journals.

Heidi S. Fencl ( is a professor in the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. 


Page R. B., Espinosa J., Mares C. A., Del Pilar J., & Shelton G. R. (2018). The curvy road to student success in underserved populations. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(5), 6–7.

Steele C. M., & Aronson J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811.

Equity Inclusion Postsecondary

Asset 2