Todd Zakrajsek, Director, Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching
Key Statement: There is an almost infinite number of things a teacher can do to help those who have been too often left behind by the current educational system. Start by simply thinking about learners in our classes, areas of struggle they may face, and how we might mitigate those areas.
Keywords: Student Success, UDL, Equity
Education has an inherent, systemic bias that is even wider than often thought. Why do I say this? To start, everyone is required to attend school at the K–12 level. Some excel while others struggle. Those who do well in middle school are placed into college prep courses in high school. Some portion of high school students on the college prep track actually attend college, and another subset of those graduate. Some who do graduate with undergraduate degrees have the opportunity to attend graduate or professional schools. Some finish, others do not. From the massive pool of those who begin the educational system, a relatively small number reach the level of completing postgraduate degrees. It is from that very select group that we find college faculty members who are given the opportunity, and responsibility, to teach the next generation of leaders and learners.
Building a system such as this has the undesired result of minimizing who in the system will be successful. Yes, it allows a portion of “the best and brightest” to advance their professions, but the subset of that already small group who become teachers tend to teach in a way that works for students who learned much as they did. You have likely heard the phrase “We teach the way we were taught.” On the surface, this might be true, but ultimately, I don’t think we do. We are much more likely to teach the way we best learn; it just happens to be using the system and strategies we know work (because we did it) and it is the system we know best (because we did it repeatedly). What happens to those who engage the educational system in other ways? The ones who don’t fit the stereotype of the ideal student, and as a result struggle with traditional educational practices? The students too often left behind?
Image courtesy of Chris Robert, Unsplash
Universal Design for Learning to Think Differently
Universal design for learning (UDL) has been around since the mid 1980s, but over the past 5 years, there has been an expanded interest in looking for ways to help an increased diversity of students to be successful in higher education. UDL can do that. As a field, we are truly learning that we cannot simply claim that we would like students from a wider range of lived experiences to be successful. We must teach in a way that brings about that diversity, and teaching in that way means expanding the definition of what a good college student looks like. A person who is a quick-thinking, fast-talking extrovert, with solid financial, physical, and emotional resources, has dominated the educational system for too long because that is who the field has been designed to accommodate. There are brilliant individuals with social anxiety who struggle just to be in a crowded classroom. There are amazing students who lack transportation or affordable daycare that would allow them to make it to class. Individuals who are on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, with mental health challenges, first-generation college students, nonnative English speakers, and from marginalized groups all frequently struggle to do well in classes because of factors that have nothing to do with the actual learning process.
Students must certainly have subject-specific prerequisite knowledge and the motivation to succeed. But with just those two things, it seems necessary to determine how to help them to be successful. Unfortunately, individuals typically have more than one challenge (e.g., on the autism spectrum, are food insecure, and struggle with social anxiety), and there is essentially an infinite combination of different types of learners. We can’t possibly use an individualized approach to help everyone who is struggling, as we cannot even identify these infinite combinations. That said, we can do our best to find ways to help provide all students a legitimate opportunity to learn. As an example, early in my career I tended to teach courses that had enrollments that were fairly low (i.e., 25–35 students) and those that were fairly large (i.e., 120–250 students). For two years, I made it a point to learn almost all of the names of my students in the smaller courses, because being known by name has a positive impact on student learning. However, I learned only a few of the names of student in those larger courses; 250 felt too impossible to try. It occurred to me one semester, though, that even if I couldn’t learn 250 names, I could learn at least 30 names. When facing an insurmountable task, I realized it is better to do something, rather than nothing at all.
There is an enormous number of things a teacher can do to help those who have been too often left behind. We can’t incorporate them all, but we can do as much as possible. This starts by simply thinking about learners in our classes and areas of struggle they may face. Following are a few considerations that I offer only as possibilities to stimulate thinking on this subject—the restrictions on the length of this blog prohibit me from listing infinitely more!
Find “nontraditional” ways for more students to participate meaningfully in class discussions. Lee & Mccabe (2020) found that men are 9 times more likely to dominate a class discussion and 15 times more likely to interrupt women than women are to interrupt men. Sometimes just pointing out this statistic and being prepared with simple ways to discourage anyone interrupting is enough to help bring more of a gender balance to discussions.
Develop strategies for facilitating class discussions other than cold-calling on students. Use the think-pair-share method or another strategy to give students an opportunity to contribute their thoughts in a lower-pressure situation before the option to share with the class.
List support services in your syllabus and take time during the first week of the course to point out the value of these services. Most importantly, convey the message that use of support services does not mean a student is weak or in any way “less than.” Even the strongest authors can use writing assistance at times; tutoring centers are as much to strengthen skills as to develop them. Gurung and Galardi (2022) found that students were more likely to seek out faculty assistance if campus services were normalized in the course syllabus.
Consider deadlines that have flexibility. Try selecting a deadline that is one week before you would like to have papers turned in and then plan to offer up to a one-week extension, provided students (a) request the extension at least 72 hours before the deadline (to encourage students to not wait until the last minute to request assistance) and (b) provide a short summary of what work needs to be done and anticipated days needed to finish the assignment.
Avoid sarcasm and insinuations in the classroom. Those on the autism spectrum and students from other countries may well misinterpret statements that seem obvious to you. If, during an exam review session, you want to make sure students know something they will be tested over, say, “This material, in some form, will be on the test.” If you say, “Here is something that might be important very soon,” some may misunderstand that as important ancillary material, rather than imminent exam content.
Consider items on exams or assignments on which students, especially those who struggle, performed poorly. Errors are often clues as to misunderstandings that can be clarified, even if students are afraid to speak up or unaware of the patterns they are exhibiting.
Find ways in class to clarify and address repeated queries. Instead of being frustrated and lamenting the fact that students don’t read the syllabus or your emails, work at figuring out why and how you can best address those items most frequently missed. For example, if students regularly ask when the next exam will take place, you could have a playful “countdown to the next exam.” That does not take any extra time for a teacher.
Be proactive. Watch in class for students who look puzzled or confused and catch them after class or email them to ask if there is anything you could do to help make the material clearer. You can also continue to work on increasing your teaching toolbox. Instructional strategies such as the jigsaw, gallery walks, and pair-shares consistently show increase participation from a variety of students (Major et al., 2021).
Even very slight adjustments to your typical teaching strategies and, especially, the ideas behind them can have positive outcomes. Remember, how you best learn does not mean that is how all, or perhaps even most students best learn. With your advanced degree(s), you are not necessarily similar to most undergraduates. Work to teach how they learn, and fewer students will be left behind.
There are individuals who assert that the system is fair because it is the same for everyone and that change would be unfair to those who “follow the established rules.” My point is that those policies and procedures are not inherently fair. They may be equal, but they are not equitable (Zakrajsek, 2021). They are designed primarily for a relatively narrow range of students, which may be particularly hard for educators to acknowledge, because we have succeeded because of (or in spite of) this system. As a system, we can do better, but it starts with individuals thinking about education differently.
What is your typical thought when a student fails an exam? How might it look differently to a faculty member who considers failure to be the student’s fault versus a potential flaw in the educational system?
What behavior or challenge do you most often see from students who struggle in one of your courses? What is one thing you could do to help those individuals to struggle a bit less?
How might we best find out which students are left behind because of lack of motivation or prior knowledge versus those who struggle because of the rules of the course and the way material is taught?
Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2022). Syllabus tone, more than mental health statements, influence intentions to seek help. Teaching of Psychology, 49(3), 218–223. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632
Lee, J. J., & Mccabe, J. M. (2020). Who speaks and who listens: Revisiting the chilly climate in college classrooms. Gender & Society, 35(1), 32–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243220977141
Major, C. H., Harris, M., & Zakrajsek, T. (2021). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Spaeth, E., & Pearson, A. (2023). A reflective analysis on how to promote a positive learning experience for neurodivergent students. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 11(2), 109 – 120. https://doi.org/10.56433/jpaap.v11i2.517
Zakrajsek, T. (2021, September 2). Do we need equity or equality to make things “fair”? Actually, we need both. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/do-we-need-equity-or-equality-make-things-fair-actually-we-need-both