In my previous role as Associate Provost for Student Success and Undergraduate Education at Mills College, I helped resolve complaints from students regarding academic integrity and classroom situations. As a cognitive psychologist who has been examining the topics of emotional memory, aging, and perspective-taking for almost 20 years, I quickly realized the commonality between my professional experience and the skills needed to provide the best possible resolution to these complaints. As noted in my publication (Chung 2021), older adults are often more able to take a wider range of perspectives than a young adult, while cultural background and experiences play a significant role in how people view and interpret a situation. So, the key question here is how do we capitalize on the wisdom and deeper perspective that a more experienced individual (faculty) possesses to help our student population learn and grow in a classroom setting, especially when the materials may be challenging and difficult?
There is no doubt that increasing diversity and inclusion in higher education means fostering an inclusive classroom culture of learning. However, creating a sense of belonging in the classroom is sometimes harder to achieve than expected. As Dr. Beverly Tatum clearly stated in the 2022 ACAD keynote speech, helping students find themselves in that “group photo”, i.e., affirming their identities, is key in building a diverse and inclusive community. To truly embrace diversity and inclusion in academia, we need to help faculty feel empowered to take a multi-prong approach in the classroom: considering student backgrounds, including diverse scholarship and viewpoints, and encouraging varied scholar representation are a few beginning steps toward this goal. Building an open and trusting relationship with students is essential in introducing them to stimulating and conflicting theoretical viewpoints as they develop intellectual and personal resilience.
This article outlines the core values that administrative leaders can apply while designing programs to enhance classroom diversity and inclusivity. Furthermore, how can we encourage faculty to foster student engagement and resilience in the classroom, which would ultimately lead to a decrease in student concerns and complaints?
Encourage Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in the classroom
First of all, it is important for faculty to create a welcoming environment where different viewpoints can be discussed and debated. For example, consider opening a class with a statement that encourages differences in thoughts and views, and ensures a safe space for intellectual exchange and discussions. In order to truly foster diversity, inclusion, and belonging, faculty has the responsibility as the more experienced individual in the classroom to carefully build trust with students and allow them to be their authentic selves as they delve into the many angles in which a scholarly topic may be examined. In an article in Inside Higher Ed entitled “A New Roadmap for Campus Speech” (Flaherty, 2021), it is suggested that true diversity in the classroom cannot be achieved until students are willing to take the risk to entertain and engage with difficult concepts that may be seemingly against their own beliefs. Helping students build personal and intellectual resilience to engage with such conflicting materials aligns, rather than goes against, DEIB principles.
Perspective-taking, i.e., to take another person’s point of view, plays a critical role in advancing trust and DEIB principles in any setting. Cognitive psychologists have long discussed the implications of emotional memory on individuals. Emotional memories are much better remembered than neutral memories, due to the biological and psychological significance of the events – this is called the emotional enhancement effect (Hamann, 2001). Furthermore, young adults often exhibit a negativity bias, which means they remember more negative memories than positive memories overall (Carstensen & DeLiema, 2018). This is a significant finding to consider as we discuss classroom climate in college students, especially if the student population is mostly traditional age. Researchers have also found that the ability to take another person’s perspective grows with age and experience (Chung, 2021). This is key as we consider our work with students. In the classroom dynamic, faculty should utilize their accumulated knowledge and experience to help students process and interpret viewpoints that may be challenging and seemingly contradictory to their personal beliefs. For example, faculty can give a concrete example of a theory that contradicts their own personal beliefs and discuss how studying and teaching such theory advance knowledge building in academia. Instructors can also design classroom activities, such as debates, by randomly assigning students to different sides of the topic. This exercise will require students to think deeply about their argument and to collect relevant supporting material by taking different points of views. Modeling perspective taking by stating that one does not have to agree with everything that the literature presents in order to learn and grow may help increase diversity and inclusion of thoughts in the classroom setting.
Cultural Competency & Cognitive Load
It is essential that faculty are supported in continuously expanding their knowledge about their students. This is especially important when it comes to teaching students from underrepresented groups, e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQ+, different religious orientations, because they often already carry with them an extra cognitive load of having to deal with stereotypes and discrimination that undoubtedly exist in our societal structures. Cognitive load refers to the amount of information that one’s working/active memory can handle or process. For example, an Asian-American student may be processing the effects of race-related hate incidents that increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore have fewer cognitive resources to pay attention in class. Although the impact of this extra cognitive load will differ based on each person’s background, it is important for faculty to keep in mind that this load could impact students’ academic performance if increased within a classroom setting. It is, therefore, crucial for faculty to be mindful of presentation of materials and context that could negatively impact underrepresented student groups. Workshops, training programs, or peer review of teaching materials can all serve this purpose.
Microresistance for Microaggressions
Microaggression happens in many settings, not just the classroom. However, it is paramount that faculty are trained to identify such behaviors because this is often the basis of many student complaints. Although DEI/antiracism training may be the first step toward gaining awareness of these instances, faculty can be empowered to actively help students feel more agency in uncomfortable situations. Microresistance methods such as Open the Front Door (OTFD) to Communication by Souza (2016) may be a good way to model these responses to our students (Cheung et al., 2016). Consider the following example: an instructor witnesses an episode where a student, Mary, is interrupted by another student during class discussion. The instructor can use the OTFD method to mitigate the situation.
- Observe: Concrete, factual observations of the situation, e.g., “I noticed that Mary was cut off when she was speaking just now.”
- Think: Thoughts (yours and/or theirs) based on what was observed, e.g., “I would like to offer Mary the opportunity to complete her statement.”
- Feel: Emotions using “I statements.”, e.g., “I am interested in hearing what Mary had to contribute to the conversation.”
- Desire: Specific request for a positive desired outcome, e.g., “Let’s allow each person to complete their statement so that their thoughts can be heard.”
Implicit Bias Awareness
Finally, one of the most important steps to providing a safe, open, and intellectually stimulating classroom is to acknowledge that we all come into any discussion with our own biases. No one is bias-free and we need to help our faculty and students understand that we all come from different backgrounds and carry with us different attitudes, expectations, and perceptions of the world. In the classroom, we aim to share and inspire conversations related to a common topic of interest. As such, it is critical that faculty model awareness of their own biases, while acknowledging and isolating these biases as they introduce different intellectual viewpoints to students. College classrooms should be where varied intellectual viewpoints are presented, discussed, and challenged in a way that is respectful, honest, and impactful. Many colleges have instituted mandatory DEIB/antiracism training, but faculty can also use free online tools such as the Implicit Attitudes Test from Harvard University’s Project Implicit (Nosek et al., 2002) to further understand their own biases. These online tests are free and will reveal one’s unconscious, implicit biases in a private setting. However, please note to faculty that completing these measures is only the first step toward understanding one’s own biases. It takes conscious effort to actively work against these implicit biases in thoughts and behaviors. In fact, perspective-taking once again becomes important because the most effective way to combat negative implicit biases is to continuously push against them both in thoughts and behaviors on a daily basis. To truly understand a person’s feelings and viewpoint, we have to put ourselves in their shoes.
Keeping the above five key points in mind, administrative leaders can help design workshops and programs to enhance faculty understanding of the importance of keeping DEIB principles as the core of their work with students. But better yet, we can practice the above principles daily to improve the landscape and climate of higher education for everyone.
Carstensen, L. L., & DeLiema, M. (2018). The positivity effect: A negativity bias in youth fades with age. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 7–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.07.009
Cheung, F., Ganote, C. M., & Souza, T.J. (2016). Microaggressions and microresistance: Supporting and empowering students. Faculty Focus Special Report: Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom. Magna Publication. http://ww1.facultyfocus.com/register/free-reports/main.html?product_id=520).
Chung, C. (2021). The effects of culture and view of aging on perspective taking in young adults. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 17(2), 99-106.
Flaherty, C. (2021). The roadmap for campus speech. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/12/01/new-road-map-campus-speech?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=d7652b30b4-DNU_2021_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-d7652b30b4-236727186&mc_cid=d7652b30b4&mc_eid=31c4bbaece
Hamann, S. (2001). Cognitive and neural mechanisms of emotional memory. Trends in Cognitive Science, 5(9), 394-400. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01707-1. PMID: 11520704.
Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Harvesting implicit group attitudes and beliefs from a demonstration web site. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6(1), 101–115. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.199
Souza, T.J. (2016). Managing hot moments in the classroom: Concrete strategies for cooling down tension. Faculty Focus Special Report: Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom. Magna Publication. https://www.academia.edu/31355266/Article_1_Managing_Hot_Moments_in_the_Classroom_Concrete_Strategies_for_Cooling_Down_Tension_Paper_2_Microaggressions_and_Microresistance_Supporting_and_Empowering_Students