Working With Our Students to Foster Learning Equity

Learning from my students

Kevin Kelly headshotMy students have helped me foster learning equity, even before I formally included them in the process. At first they did this without me fully realizing their role in helping me choose more equitable teaching practices. Students would let me know about barriers that were preventing them from successfully completing course activities. For example, early in my online teaching a student informed me that requiring him to save assignments as a PDF (Portable Document Format) created a barrier for students who only had a smartphone. Each time, I would make changes to address a challenge in a way that would support all students. However, as a fairly new online teacher, I needed to know more about the students as humans and to be proactive in supporting their success.

Similarly, my students showed me that I should be checking our collective progress toward increasing learning equity. One student in particular helped me see that, although I had adopted various research-based teaching practices, I did not know how well they actually supported student success. In this case I had adopted the Transparent Assignment Template throughout my entire course. I had seen the research that showed how using the template benefits students—especially first-generation, low-income and disproportionately impacted students. That summer I went through my entire course and converted all of my assignment instructions to follow the template’s format. I also did this with all of the prompts for reviewing content and for engaging in course activities.

The subsequent fall semester went well and at the end I received an email from a student who had gotten an A grade. He had failed the course the previous spring because he had stopped doing the work. He wanted to thank me specifically for revising the instructions throughout the course, closing his note with a powerful statement: “This time I knew what I was supposed to do.”

Being more intentional when including students

Ironically, my students were showing me that I should practice what I teach. My general education course, “How 2 Learn w ur Mobile Device,” teaches students about metacognitive strategies, or ways for them to improve their own learning. Together we use a simplified process—Plan, Do, Reflect—to gain self-directed learning skills. Instructors can take a similar approach to creating and facilitating equitable courses. First, seek awareness of equity-based challenges students face. Next, take action—use a strategy that has been shown to address a challenge. Last, conduct a formative assessment. Review the results of your equity-related actions, and determine what worked and what to adjust next time.

Rather than wait for students to report challenges, now I involve students more intentionally. To gain better awareness of the equity-related issues my students face, I use an anonymous survey at the beginning of the term. I ask them to identify or describe the biases, assumptions and barriers that negatively impact their motivation, opportunities or achievement. Early versions of the survey drew ideas from the research-based criteria on the Peralta Equity Rubric. To gauge the effectiveness of specific equity-related strategies, I include questions on evaluations conducted in the middle and at the end of the term. Once in a while, comments or trends inspire a discussion thread in the Community Café forum.

Putting it all together – addressing potential interaction bias

My online class is large—50 to 100 students enroll in it each semester. When I finished reading a research study about bias in online classes, I changed my discussion forum practices. My first thought was, “Do I do that?” With so many students, my practice had been first to reply to students with no replies from classmates, and then to address questions that had arisen in the different discussion threads. However, I did not know if my strategy confirmed the bias found in the Stanford study, so I decided to manage the potential for bias by keeping track of my replies to each student.

There are no learning management system tools or features that allow you to track your responses to each student, so I created a Google spreadsheet to track it myself. In the first column, I pasted the students’ names from my course roster. Then I created a new column for each discussion in my class. Over 16 weeks, we engage in at least 10 discussions, some of which are small group discussions and the rest of which are whole class discussions. After participating in a discussion each day, I put my initials in that column for each reply to a student. Last, I inserted a column right after the students’ names. In this column, I counted the total number of replies I had written to each student. Before I went to the discussion forums each day, I checked to see who had the fewest total replies from me. They were the first ones to get a reply that day.

Some students have fewer replies because they have not posted anything. In those cases, I encourage them to participate. I let them know that I value their contributions and that I understand they may have competing obligations like employment or caretaking for family.

After that first iteration of using a spreadsheet to track my feedback to students, I added a bullet to my syllabus statement about teacher participation: “Discussion forums: This is a large class! While I may not be able to reply to every one of you in every discussion forum every week, I am committed to equity. I will be keeping track of my replies to each of you throughout the semester so that every student will get equal attention and feedback from the teachers.” In my start-of-semester survey, I ask them how they feel about instructor replies and feedback. In the mid-semester (informal) and end-of-semester (formal) evaluations, I ask how well I did in creating an equitable environment that made them feel welcome and included. I still have a lot to learn, but luckily my students are great teachers.

Baker, R.; Dee, T.; Evans, B. & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence From a Field Experiment. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Winkelmes, M.-A.; Bernacki, M.; Butler, J.; Zochowski, M.; Golanics, J. & Weavil, K.H. (Winter/Spring 2016). A Teaching Intervention That Increases Underserved College Students’ Success. Peer Review, 18(1/2).

Kevin Kelly is an ACUE Educational Advisor and a Lecturer Faculty member in the Equity, Leadership Studies and Instructional Technology Department at San Francisco State University.

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