SENATE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATIONAL EQUITY AND CAMPUS ENVIRONMENT
Addressing Issues of Classroom Climate and Bias in the Classroom at Penn State
Prepared by the Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity (CORED)
Implementation: Upon Approval by the President
Introduction and Rationale
A climate of implicit bias and stereotype threat in classroom situations can have a negative impact on both students and instructors (Steele and Aronson, 1995; Sue, 2010; Suarez-Orozco et al. 2015). Specifically, students who identify with an underrepresented racial/ethnic/gendered group are more likely to perform poorly in classrooms where stereotype threat is present (Steele, 2010), whether the source of bias is another student or the instructor. At the same time, minority instructors’ teaching effectiveness can be greatly impaired if they feel discriminated against by students. When instructors fail to acknowledge or manage bias in the classroom, which studies suggest is frequently the case (e.g., Suarez-Orozco et al., 2015), the morale of the classroom can be dragged down, and can lead to serious performance and/or legal issues in the future if not addressed.
Implicit bias manifests through microaggressions, which are verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights that are often unintentional, but communicate negative messages to individuals in the target group based on their group membership (Sue, 2010). As an example, this can happen in the classroom if an instructor singles out a student in class because of their background or engages students of one gender, class, or race more frequently than others (Portman, Bui, Ogaz and Treviῆo, 2013). A common microaggression between students occurs when students are forming teams for a class project and do not choose students from underrepresented groups to join or do not include them in the work of the team.
Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group (Steele, 2010). For example, high-achieving women in math classes may do more poorly than men as a result of their fear of confirming the stereotype that women cannot do math. The impact of stereotype threat has been confirmed in hundreds of studies over the past 20 years (see http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org)
Concern over implicit bias and stereotype threat in the classroom at Penn State, both from students and faculty, has been brought to the attention of members of the Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity (CORED) repeatedly. Furthermore, in our conversations with President Barron in spring 2016, he indicated that he has heard similar concerns consistently from multiple student groups with whom he has spoken. In our 2016 annual meeting with President Barron he suggested that CORED work with the Faculty Senate to address this issue so all students and faculty can feel respected in Penn State classrooms.
Data from Penn State’s Office of Educational Equity’s Report Bias website indicate that in the years 2013–2015 inclusive, ninety reports of bias at the University were made. See Figures 1 through 5 (attached) for data on the targets, perpetrators, the targeted issue, and the type of offense. Sixty-six of these were reported on the University Park campus, with the remaining twenty-four reports from the Commonwealth campuses. Seventy-three of the ninety reports came from students. As indicated in Figure 3, the largest group of perpetrators of reported bias was faculty members (27 reports). These data do not indicate whether these actually occurred in the classroom, but since most students interact with faculty in classes, we can safely assume some of these occurred within the context of a class.
Reports of bias have increased since Election Day, as has fear in students of many races and ethnicities. The Report Bias website received eleven reports of bias in the first week after the election, as compared to ninety reports over a three year period. During that same one week period, staff in the Office of Educational Equity had over twenty-five separate conversations with students encouraging them to complete the Report Bias incident form so an actual record of the incident can be created. This indicates that the number of reported cases of bias is unlikely to represent the number of actual occurrences of bias.
To provide an illustration of these concerns, we point to a recent incident that occurred with a Latina student at Suffolk University, where a faculty member responded to her use of the word “hence” in a paper with the comment “These aren’t your words.” The student snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook, which went viral, and resulted in mandatory microaggression training for all faculty at Suffolk University. (see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/11/02/suffolk-responding-controversy-over-treatment-latina-student-require-microaggression?utm_content=buffereea9e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=IHEbuffer). It may only be a matter of time before this occurs with a Penn State student if classroom microaggression is not addressed in the Penn State community. We hope that the implementation of all of the recommendations below may help to change the Penn State climate.
Strategies for managing the classroom environment may vary depending on the sources and targets. Sources and targets of implicit bias in the classroom include; from instructor to student; from student to student; and from student to instructor. Fortunately, documented strategies already exist to address these concerns. For instance, Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence conducts workshops on this topic; Penn State’s Affirmative Action Office’s Charleon Jeffries, coordinator for Diversity Education, offers trainings for faculty; and Melissa Walker, associate director, Talent Search, Office of Educational Equity, is available for trainings with faculty, staff, and students. Other organizations in the U.S. offer trainings as well (e.g., Social Justice Training Institute, Race Forward, and Dynamics & Racism on Today’s Campus: Engaging the Community to Reduce Acts of Hate and Improve Cultural Competency)]. Additionally, there exists a plethora of private consultants (e.g., Jamie Washington, Kathy O’Bear). Considering these resources, we provide the following recommendation.
- Ask the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to post on their website a checklist of best practices for creating a welcoming climate for diversity in the classroom, including strategies for managing disruptions in the classroom environment by students. See Appendix 1 for an example supplied from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.
SENATE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATIONAL EQUITY AND CAMPUS ENVIRONMENT
- Kimberly Blockett
- Denise Bortree
- Julia Bryan, Vice Chair
- Dwight Davis
- Erinn Finke
- Timothy Lawlor
- Robert Loeb, Chair
- John Malchow
- Adam Malek
- Karyn McKinney
- Dara Purvis
- Eileen Trauth
- Marcus Whitehurst
Portman, J., Bui, T.T., Ogaz, J. & Treviῆo, J. (2013). Microaggressions in the Classroom, University of Denver Center for Multicultural Excellence. http://otl.du.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/MicroAggressionsInClassroom-DUCME.pdf
Steele, C. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 797-811.
Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Suarez-Orozco, C., Casanova, S., Martin, M., Katsiaficas, D., Cuellar, V., Smith, N, & Dias, S. (2015). Toxic rain in class: Classroom interpersonal microaggressions. Educational Researcher, 44 (3), 151 – 160.
Sue, D.W. (2010). Migroaggressions: More than just race. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race
GENDER OF TARGETED PERSON
29 female, 24 male, 9 did not answer
GENDER OF ALLEGED PERPETRATOR
The majority of perpetrators were male.
STATUS OF ALLEGED PERPETRATOR
Most alleged perpetrators were either faculty members or undergraduate students.
The most common targeted issues were race, ethnicity/culture, color, gender, religious/spiritual beliefs, and sexual orientation.
TYPE OF OFFENSE
The most common types of offenses were hostile attitude/environment, verbal comment, harassment, “other,” and written fax, email, note, or text message.
Appendix 1. Penn State University’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence’s Strategies for Inclusive Classrooms.
Linse & Weinstein, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State, 2016
The strategies below have been collected from a variety of resources. They serve as a key component of a workshop on inclusive teaching developed by the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. They are most effective when coupled with the opportunity for faculty members to understand why these are considered inclusive, discuss specific implementations, and place them in a larger context. Contact the Schreyer Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a workshop on inclusive teaching.
Motivate Learning/Establish Relevance
- Situate the course in a broader global and/or societal context.
- Connect the course to other courses within or outside of the major.
- Discuss how the course will help students function more effectively with a diversity of people.
- Relate specific topics within a course to previous and future topics.
- Provide students opportunities to make connections inside and outside of the course.
- Use personal anecdotes to create interest among students.
Get to know your students as individuals and create opportunities for students to do the same.
- Examine your background and experiences (so that you understand how your students see you).
- Consider your academic traditions and the biases that they may inadvertently reinforce.
- Learn students’ names.
- Ask about students’ interests.
- Ask about students’ experiences with and concerns about the subject matter.
- Provide opportunities for students to learn about each other and from each other.
Design an inclusive course curriculum
- Use visuals that do not reinforce stereotypes, but do include diverse participants.
- Choose readings that consciously reflect the diversity of contributors to your field; consider whether tradition-based reading lists represent past stereotypes (or present ones).
- Use varied names and socio-cultural contexts in test questions, assignments, and case studies.
- Analyze the content of your examples, analogies, and humor; too narrow a perspective may ostracize students who have differences.
- Invite guest speakers and ensure that they have varied backgrounds and experiences.
- Recognize how your choices of materials, readings, and content organization reflect your perspectives, interests, and possible biases.
- Teach the conflicts of your field to incorporate diverse perspectives.
Create an inclusive course environment
- Set high standards and communicate your confidence that each student can achieve them.
- Let your students know that you believe each has important contributions to make.
- Applaud creative solutions and sincere efforts to learn.
- Help students understand that intelligence is not a fixed ability, not all academic challenges are a result of personal inadequacies, and many academic challenges can be overcome.
- Talk to students about how they learn best and how to adopt compensatory strategies.
- Do not ask or expect students to represent an entire group, either by look or by request.
- Encourage multiple perspectives (as opposed to consensus) in discussions.
- Establish ground rules.
- Use a variety of strategies to encourage contributions and to reduce over-participation by verbally assertive students.
- Create a culture of shared purpose by periodically collecting feedback to learn how students are experiencing your course.
- Avoid assuming that a student needs assistance, which can convey that you have low expectations and further hinder their learning.
- Do not ignore or change the subject when students voice negative comments about a group.
- Make diversity and the free exchange of ideas an early discussion topic.
- Do your best to correctly pronounce the names of your students.
- Avoid religious holidays when scheduling tests.
- Avoid expressing racially charged political opinions.
- Do not ask individuals with hidden disabilities to identify themselves in class.
- Avoid assuming the gender of any student.
- Do not assume all students speak English fluently.
- Ensure that the physical classroom space is inclusive for all students (e.g., are students who are alternately-abled marginalized in some way?).
- Use a variety of teaching methods; do not rely solely on lectures and didactic questions.
- Use pictures, schematics, graphs, simple sketches, films, and demonstrations.
- Provide a balance of concrete information (facts, data, real or hypothetical experiments) and abstract concepts (principles, theories, models).
- Balance material that emphasizes practical problem-solving methods with that emphasizing fundamental understanding.
- Provide brief intervals during class for students to think about what they have heard, seen, and learned.
- Provide opportunities for students to use or apply the course material/content.
- Have students work on class activities in pairs, triads, or small groups.
- Assign group membership randomly. Do not allow students to choose their own groups.
- Allow students to work on projects that explore their own social identities.
Provide varied opportunities for success/achievement
- Allow students to accumulate grade points in a variety of ways.
- Allow students to select the weighting of different aspects of the course.
- Provide explicit information about your grading criteria using matrices or rubrics.
- Allow students to collaborate/cooperate on homework and class assignments.
- Offer a variety of ways for students to participate in class other than speaking aloud.