Research & Teaching
An Initial Look at Inclusive Practices in Major and Nonmajor Courses in Biology and Geology
By Jessica Kansman*, Makenzie E. Mabry*, Aaron Morrison*, Stephanie Rosbach*, and Marcelle A. Siegel
Equity is critical for education and effective teaching in science courses (Boykin & Noguera, 2011; Hurtado et al., 2011). Students of color, first-generation college students, adults, international students, part-time students, transfer students, and students from low-income families now make up the “new majority” of students attending universities (Schneider, 2005). This population has historically been excluded from higher education (Schneider, 2005), and many universities have a long way to go to begin supporting these new majority students with equitable instruction. Traditional instructional systems are driven largely by a deficit understanding of new majority students—that is, a view that these students are less capable or disadvantaged, rather than valuing the critical contributions of a diverse student population. This view tends to further marginalize and limit the educational opportunities of such students (DiGiacomo & Gutiérrez, 2017; Valenzuela, 1999).
While the new majority numbers increase in higher education, many are less likely to complete college. Black, Native American, and Latinx students have lower completion rates, and only 9% of students in the lowest income quartile complete college by age 24 (Witham et al., 2015). Why do less than 50% of students intending to earn a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) complete the degree (Eagan et al., 2014; National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017)? Ongoing research has demonstrated that pedagogical changes are one of the most effective mechanisms for altering these patterns (Tsui, 2007), yet STEM instructors receive little professional development in pedagogy, let alone in equitable teaching practices.
While the policies and structures at universities are important to consider when studying equity, we focus on classroom practices in this article. Both professors and students were included in this multidisciplinary study because targeting these groups is vital to enhancing equitable instruction. We focused on students’ science identity—view of self as a “science-type” person—because science identity is linked to student retention in the research literature (e.g., Hurtado et al., 2010; Morton & Parsons, 2018). It is important to include multiple data sets in this work, such as personal attitudes (of both students and professors) and the pedagogy and practice of professors, as well as an understanding of students’ backgrounds and perceptions or misperceptions, to aid in revealing the structures that inhibit equity (Hurtado et al., 2011). Research has shown ways that culturally relevant pedagogies can create more equitable learning for new majority students (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Although many definitions exist for defining equity (Figure 1), we view equitable instruction as building on this work of Ladson-Billings (1995) to serve the needs of all students and enhance belonging (Al-Issa, 2004; Rosser, 1998); develop science identities (Carlone et al., 2011; Carlone & Johnson, 2007); and focus on “whole humans” in emotional, sociocultural, and personal contexts (Fong & Siegel, 2005; Lee, 2002; Valenzuela, 1999). Acknowledging and accommodating students as people rests at the center of critical and culturally relevant science pedagogy. This can help show students that science is relevant to their daily lives and is open for them as a potential career path (Barton & Tan, 2009; Horowitz et al., 2018; Hurtado et al., 2010).
To begin to assess equity in the classroom, we looked at introductory biology and geology courses that have corresponding major-specific sections. This helped us highlight equitable practices across disciplines and between major and nonmajor courses. We were interested in how equity is considered in a classroom setting from the perspectives of students and professors. This included practices that were already being used in the classrooms to improve equity, how these are different between disciplines, and what strategies can be used to improve equity in other science courses.
We observed four classes: a biology nonmajor course, a geology nonmajor course, a biology major course, and a geology major course. The professors of these courses included one full tenured professor, two tenure-track assistant professors (one of whom was teaching the course for the first time), and one non-tenure-track teaching professor. Each of these professors organized and developed the course in which they taught. During our multiphase project, we combined qualitative methods from classroom observations, interviews with professors, and student surveys. The research was conducted after Institutional Review Board approval.
Observations were used to highlight practical methods directed at improving equity. At least two authors attended a single, midsemester class section from each course to observe the classroom environment. Observation criteria included the following categories that all researchers recorded notes on: students’ behavior and engagement, activities done in class, faculty-student interactions, and the resources utilized for instruction.
After the class observations, we interviewed each professor for approximately 60 minutes to learn their perspectives and pedagogy. We asked them questions designed to develop a deeper understanding of their teaching philosophies and how equity played a role in their course (Table 1). At least two authors were present for each interview.
Open-ended surveys were designed to identify trends in the perspectives of students in each course. Student surveys were distributed after observations were made for each class. We used Google Forms to disseminate the surveys to the professors who were responsible for emailing the link to the students. We let the students respond over the course of 2 weeks before assessing the results. We ordered the survey questions in such a way that the students were prompted to reflect on their identities first before thinking about equity in the classroom (Figure 2). To avoid limiting students in how they identified or in their perceptions of equity, we designed all survey questions as free response. When asked about equity, students were provided a simplified definition that was intended for those who were less familiar with the concepts surrounding equity: “Equity is an educational focus on teaching styles that addresses the needs of all students in a class with a variety of backgrounds, ages, educational experience, gender, ethnicity, ableness, etc. Note: This is different from equality, the idea of sameness.” Questions about equity and resources were left open ended intentionally to allow students to explore these concepts themselves without bias. To test if there was a correlation between student identity as a STEM person and the student’s enjoyment of the course, we performed a Fisher’s exact test (ɑ = 0.05; Fisher, 1954) for each course.
One pattern from the students’ responses in the surveys was the correlation between student identity as a “science type (STEM) person” and their enjoyment of the corresponding course. For both the nonmajor biology and geology courses, we recovered a P value of 1.0 from the Fisher’s exact test, meaning that students may or may not identify as a STEM person and still like the class. However, for the biology major course, we recovered a P value of 0.056, meaning students who identify as a STEM person like the course and students who do not identify as STEM do not like the course. Although we could not perform a Fisher’s exact test for the geology major course (due to sample size), all five students who responded to the survey identified as STEM and liked the course. With several studies showing that science identity influences science persistence (Hazari et al., 2013; Hughes, 2012; Olitsky, 2007), identifying techniques to help make science more appealing, even to those who don’t immediately identify as STEM, is necessary. For example, in the biology nonmajor course, which was a flipped classroom, the professor utilized several teaching strategies to encourage student participation through inquiry. These techniques included a short lecture with iClicker responses, as well as an in-class assignment based on reading a newspaper article, answering questions on a worksheet, and sharing responses using a wireless microphone (e.g., Catchbox). The geology nonmajor course was more of a traditional lecture-based class; however, the professor provided a variety of examples to back up each topic. They lectured from the front of the room using different types of visuals on lecture slides, the chalkboard, and a large map on the wall. The professor was very approachable and complimented students when they asked questions. Both of the courses for majors were traditional lecture-based classes with many open questions to gauge student understanding. From observations made, students seemed engaged and responded to questions posed by the professors. Although patterns revealed by the student surveys show that students who declare STEM majors more readily identify as STEM students, we still highlight the success of nonmajor courses in engaging students who do not idenify as STEM students. This is an important aspect that should be fostered in order to improve the accessibility of science fields to those who may not have initially thought they would be welcomed.
Professors’ comfort level with discussing and utilizing equitable techniques seems to stem from their previous training in education (interviews summarized in Table 3). The non-tenure-track professor with a full teaching appointment seemed the most knowledgeable about equity, having an open dialogue on equity with the students at the start of each semester. Although professors are typically aware of the need for equitable practices, some seem to lack a clear idea of concrete ways to do this. One professor commented that they struggle to get underrepresented groups (broadly defined) and non-underrepresented groups to intermingle. Another professor expressed concern with the unknown inequity (i.e., inequity that has not been identified and is left unaddressed). One professor even noted that equity was not something that they had been forced to consider directly.
Students have a more wide-ranging sense of equity in the classroom, with some students exhibiting a thorough understanding and others showing minimal understanding (see Online Appendix). By keeping the questions open ended, we allowed students to interpret the questions in their own way, resulting in varied replies that ranged from informed, lengthy responses to a single emoji (e.g., 👌; intention unknown). This suggests some students may lack understanding of the concept, did not wish to share opinions or feelings, or did not have enough motivation to complete the survey in detail. The students who provided more thoughtful responses tended to be from underrepresented groups (e.g., students from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds or students with a physical or mental disability). Collectively, of the 89 responses, several themes were identified as commonalities between all courses. Typically, students thought that (i) equity only concerned the availability of resources; (ii) they were responsible for creating equity; and (iii) they were not able to identify what is equitable, due to their gender or race (Table 5). Within these themes, however, no relationships were obvious between students’ identities and their responses. For example, responses showed no pattern between students who identified as able versus disabled, male versus female versus nonbinary, and so on (possibly limited by sample size). In some responses, students highlighted the disability services center as a resource but acknowledged that they must advocate for themselves. A higher proportion of students from the biology nonmajors course had more thorough responses to the survey questions on equity in the classroom. This is the same course in which the professor began the semester by discussing equity with the students, suggesting that this discussion was successful in engaging students to think about equity in the classroom despite being a large lecture. While equity was still valued and considered important in the geology courses, the classes were composed of a less diverse population of students than the biology courses. This, again, could be due to the sample size available (Figure 3). However, the geology major course professor pointed out that equity discussions within a field are sometimes dependent on the diversity of that scientific community. While geology has improved with regard to gender diversity, the racial composition of the field is still fairly homogenous.
When asked about their racial, economic, gender, and ableness identities, student responses were clear, with the exception of ableness (Figure 3). Responses to S4 (Table 2) include “Able, though I do have anxiety” or “Physically able, some struggles with mental illness,” suggesting a disassociation of ableness with the challenges of mental health. The biology nonmajor professor gave an extreme example of a student who filled out a Scantron in pen because their pencil broke. They could not bring themselves to ask other students, the proctors, or the professor for a replacement, which ultimately impacted their success. These examples demonstrate that students may be diverse in ways that are not readily apparent or visible, such as their gender identity, ableness, mental health, economic status, or other ways that have yet to be identified. As the biology major professor pointed out, equitable practices also have to address aspects of student identity that are currently invisible, unseen, or unknown. This challenge is further complicated by confusion surrounding the concept of equity (Figure 1), what it is, and how to be equitable. From the professor interviews and student surveys, it is clear how much perceptions of equity deviate between individuals and can influence instructional choices. The biology nonmajors’ professor identified trying to use an overarching view of inclusion and equity in course development by incorporating several strategies. This included group and class discussions and recording lectures for English as a second language (ESL) and hearing-impaired students (also done by the geology nonmajor professor). However, this professor also stated that inclusive practices can exclude other students with social anxiety or discourage class attendance, identifying how equitable teaching practices can be flawed themselves. The geology nonmajor professor’s view of equity focused on students’ ableness and economic status. The professor specifically mentioned contemplating ways to make field trips more accessible for disabled students, which has historically not been the case for geology courses (see additional vignettes in Table 3). The biology major professor’s main equity concerns were differences in students’ prior science education and determining barriers that have yet to be identified. This professor provides out-of-class opportunities for students to seek additional assistance to try to accommodate as many student needs as possible, which becomes exponentially more difficult as class size increases. Deciding which teaching strategies best benefit the varying backgrounds and struggles of students can be difficult, especially given the confusion surrounding our current understanding of equity.
As instructors of diverse groups of students, teachers assist students in “cultural border crossings,” taking into consideration students’ classroom experiences combined with their cultural perspective and identity (Cobern & Aikenhead, 1997). Students’ identity is relevant to their learning and can be used to engage them in learning science (Fong & Siegel, 2005; Tatum, 2000). In another sense, student identity as a “STEM” or “science-type” person has been important in social science research on student retention in the sciences (Hurtado et al., 2010) and especially critical for underrepresented groups within science (Hazari et al., 2013). In this study, we identified that in classes for majors, there was a direct correlation between students’ enjoyment of the course and their identity as a STEM student. However, the same was not true for classes of nonmajors, with students liking the course regardless of their STEM identity. Several practices can be integrated to demonstrate that diverse identities are valued in the classroom. One observed practice was starting the semester by asking students to share their concerns regarding the class and something interesting about themselves, prompting students to provide information about their identity. Creating flexible assignments and exploring other types of culturally relevant pedagogy are ways to facilitate engagement with diverse groups of students (Horowitz et al., 2018). Using students’ real-life experiences or cultural backgrounds to connect with disciplinary content can show students that instructors value them and their diverse experiences (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Allowing students to have input on the material covered in the course, such as suggestions of literature assigned, is another method that gives students agency over the material (Sleeter, 2016). We list additional strategies and tips with resources for setting up an equitable classroom in Table 4.
Although many definitions exist for equity (Figure 1), one of the most powerful strategies we observed was simply addressing equity from the first day of class. Across all of the classrooms included in this study, an overwhelming majority of students seemed unfamiliar with what equitable teaching practices look like and how it may impact their success as students. As instructors, this is a great place to start. Acknowledging the cultural wealth students bring to the classroom signals to diverse students that this will not be another class that operates from a deficit perspective. By beginning the course discussing this topic, instructors can demonstrate to all students that they are aware and ready to address issues of equity and inclusiveness. As the course develops, it is the responsibility of the instructor to be conscious and self-reflective in their use of equitable practices (Gay & Kirkland, 2003; Shadiow, 2010). By understanding the lens with which one observes the world and being critical of prior assumptions, one can more effectively engage with critiques of their teaching practices and make lessons more equitable.
Our experience with gathering student and faculty views on equity prompted us to ask, “Do classrooms incorporate more equitable practices because of their student diversity, or do equitable practices draw in a more diverse student population?” We suggest that instructors start including equitable teaching methods into courses regardless of the current class demographics. The structure of the class will then be predesigned to work for a diverse classroom. This is a preferable choice because, as discussed earlier, not all diversity is visible or known. Oftentimes, students forgo getting accommodations to avoid the stigma of needing additional help (Kranke et al., 2013; Reutlinger, 2015). Therefore, by creating an equitable classroom, instructors can account for visible and invisible, known and unknown, present and future diversity while embedding practices that lessen the “othering” of students who require accommodations.
Teaching strategies and resources suggested by students (Table 5) to make classes more equitable include utilizing online recording and file distribution systems (e.g., Tegrity, Blackboard, D2L), posting lecture slides, offering additional homework options, using two-stage testing (where students have the chance to revise their exam responses), and reducing costs or using open educational resources. However, student suggestions tend to be teacher centered. Instructors need to go beyond these recommendations to incorporate student-centered instruction, which is shown to be more engaging and effective for learning (e.g., Borda et al., 2017; Chaplin, 2009; Kamen & Leri, 2019; Wright, 2011; Table 4). Instructors should promote a supportive classroom community, incorporate team-building activities, and foster peer support and review as a way of centering student success in the classroom (Hurtado et al., 2011; Shadiow, 2010). Equitable practices also include assessment policies that promote peer collaboration instead of competition. Assessment should include clear criteria that are shared, modeled, and practiced with students, if not developed by the students themselves (Siegel, Halverson et al., 2011; Dorimé-Williams, 2018). Providing multiple opportunities to use both instructor and peer feedback to revise and resubmit work for evaluation that has clear criteria is another recommended practice for equitable assessment (Siegel et al., 2011). Additionally, further studies with a broader depth are warranted to assess the outcomes of incorporating suggested practices on retention in STEM and improved learning.
The variety of observed teaching practices may be linked to the career stage of the professors. Both geology professors are “early career” and have not had the same amount of time to hone their teaching practices. One professor admitted not having needed to think about equity until this position. Another reason for these differences may be a result of the departmental structure. Biology is a much larger department than geology, and non-tenure-track teaching professors in biology can focus on developing equitable teaching strategies. Geology has no such positions, and all faculty must balance teaching with research and service. This challenge is also exacerbated by the fact that, from faculty perspectives, teaching is less valued by academia when considering promotion and tenure (Green, 2008; Gardner & Veliz, 2014). Research faculty are mainly evaluated on research productivity through grants, publications, and other materials and often have little to no training in how to teach. Teaching faculty are evaluated on their teaching and typically have additional training and time to provide more equitable environments for students. Therefore, we feel teaching faculty members are critical and underappreciated (and likely underpaid) as resources in helping departments develop more equitable courses.
The trend of higher research productivity and devalued teaching has been occurring throughout the 21st century (Green, 2008). This trend is systemic and must reverse in order for meaningful change to occur. We recognize that such an undertaking is difficult at every level, demanding time and energy that are already in short supply. To accomplish the suggestions laid out in the previous sections, universities and colleges will need to support professors in providing both opportunities and support for training, professional development, and the hiring of additional teaching-focused faculty with competitive pay and tenure options. Incorporating the strategies mentioned in this article will take time and effort on the part of the faculty members (i.e., time taken away from research). If a move toward more equity in the classroom is going to happen, then it should be explicitly stated at the university, department, and promotion and tenure committee levels that this is an expected, valued, and acceptable use of a faculty member’s time. We are not suggesting that universities no longer focus on scholarship or maintaining high levels of research output. However, what we are suggesting is that universities reevaluate their expectations of faculty members engaged in those activities. Is having a more inclusive and equitable student environment worth the reduction in research output? If not, can the teaching and research responsibilities be shared to maintain fidelity on both fronts? These questions need to be grappled with by institutions at the highest levels in order to effect change.
In this study, we have demonstrated that students’ understanding of equity is more robust when instructors intentionally address it in the classroom. Many students associated equitable teaching with resource availability or ableness, perhaps unaware that equitable instruction could also be used to benefit students struggling with anxiety and other mental health challenges in addition to creating more inclusive environments for underrepresented groups. However, implementing equitable teaching structures can be challenging for professors due to intense research demands and the lack of time for training and resources available to them. Equity is a complex issue that reaches far beyond just the classroom. More in-depth studies should be undertaken to better understand how equity is defined and perceived for different groups and how higher education can foster environments where the population can come to an agreed-upon understanding of what equity means and how to move closer to it.
We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers and Dr. Christopher Slaten, all of whom helped us greatly improve the original manuscript. We thank the four professors who let us sit in their courses for observations, met us for interviews, and helped us send surveys to their students. They were instrumental in this study process, and we are grateful for their willingness to participate. We also thank our University of Missouri college science teaching classmates for thought-provoking discussions and support of our ideas. Lastly, we thank Dr. Terrell Morton for the advice on project design and assistance with data interpretation.
*These authors contributed equally.
Jessica Kansman (email@example.com) is a doctoral student in the Division of Plant Sciences, Makenzie E. Mabry (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral student in the Biological Science Department, Aaron Morrison (email@example.com) is a doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences, Stephanie Rosbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences, and Marcelle A. Siegel (email@example.com) is a professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum and the Department of Biochemistry, all at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.
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Join us on Thursday, April 20, 2023, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM ET for an edition of NSTA’s Science Update about marine debris. Our oceans are fille...
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