Diversity and Inclusive Teaching Practices in STEM

Diversity is vital for the pursuit of knowledge in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), yet many STEM fields lack gender, ethnic, and disability diversity. [1] One of the places of attrition is in post-secondary education: only 40% of students who intend to major in a STEM discipline obtain a degree in a STEM discipline.[2] Students who leave STEM are often those already underrepresented in the fields.[3] So what does that mean for STEM faculty who teach undergraduates? What can we do to help reduce attrition and increase diversity in our field?

One very important consideration is stereotype threat and its impact on diversity. In a nut-shell, stereotype threat exists in any context that puts one at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. Common identity categories that face negative stereotyping include race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Stereotype threat can negatively impact any individual if a situation emphasizes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance.

For example, when researchers subtly primed students to consider race before taking a standardized test, black students performed more poorly than white students[4]. In another study, when athletic ability was emphasized, white students underperformed in golf skills compared to black students[5]. What is disconcerting is that the long-term effects of stereotype threat go beyond immediate performance. Students’ perceived value of a discipline, their sense of belonging, and even their choice of major can be impacted by an incident of stereotype threat. These long-term effects of stereotype threat may contribute to the lack of diversity in STEM disciplines. So how do we reduce stereotype threats for students?

To answer this question we will first need to understand what triggers stereotype threat. Many times students experience stereotype threat not as the result of intentional actions by their peers or instructors but as an effect of implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes that may impact an individual’s actions or decisions.

These biases are not something we can easily identify, nor do they typically align with our conscious beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, etc. As hard as it is to admit, we all have implicit bias. And we, as instructors and/or researchers who mentor students, may have acted in ways that cause students to experience stereotype threat.

At this point you may be thinking ‘but I don’t have any implicit biases’ or ‘I have never made a student feel a stereotype threat, and this is a natural response. I have found a good way to understand the idea of implicit bias and stereotype threat is to consider the following questions:

  • What experiences have you had that led to the beliefs you have about yourself and your capabilities as a student and a professional?
  • How have different people/experiences/messages/cultural ideas throughout your life influenced these beliefs?
  • What are some of the stereotypes or labels that you or others have made about you?

When asking graduate students in STEM to respond to some of these questions, particularly the third question, they have given honest and eye-opening responses. International TAs feel labeled by their students as English language learners and not ‘smart’, Indian students perceive they need to be the best performers in class, and female graduate students feel they need to outperform their male counterparts just to ‘prove’ they can cut it in graduate school. While some marginalized students persist, many students do not.

Thus, we need to make an effort, particularly in STEM, to reduce stereotype threat for our students, demonstrate the value of diversity, and help improve diversity in our disciplines. I think Adrienne Rich’s quote sums up the impact implicit bias has on students:

When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.         – Adrienne Rich

We don’t want our students to feel this way, so what can we do as instructors? I propose two main ways we can promote diversity in STEM through our teaching: A) emphasize the importance of diversity in our discipline, and B) find ways to support diverse students to learn in our courses.


  • Discuss with students how diversity enhances education and the pursuit of science by examining the value of diverse in ideas, hypotheses, solution strategies, etc.
  • Include important contributors to science who represent various ethnicities, races, and genders when discussing various topics
  • Examine the diversity, or lack thereof, in your discipline (both in industry and in academia) through class discussions and course projects
  • Provide students opportunities to read and reflect on issues of diversity in your discipline

There are two ways to SUPPORT DIVERSE STUDENTS IN STEM CLASSROOMS. First, we need to address or own implicit biases. We can do this by:

  • Educate yourself on implicit bias and stereotype threat (resources provided at the end)
  • Emphasize effort and mastery of your discipline over performance and intelligence  (see some of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset: https://mindsetonline.com/)
  • Learn from mistakes by addressing an implicit bias situation and reflecting on various alternative ways to handle future similar situations
  • Get to know all of your students as individuals

Second, the use of inclusive teaching practices can help mitigate bias and support a diverse group of students in their learning. Here are some examples of inclusive and non-inclusive teaching strategies:

Non-inclusive Inclusive
Analogies and metaphors used to explain concepts are sports, military, or construction related. A broad range of analogies is used.
All lectures use text-rich slides; all assignments involve reading text with few visuals; all study guides involve only essay-type questions. Lectures use a mix of textual and visual representation; some assignments engage students in collaborative learning that requires discussion, evaluation of ideas, etc.
Under-represented minority students are all grouped together or completely separated from each other. At least two women or members of ethnic minority groups are included in a group.
Instructor’s questions have a single correct answer. Answers to questions have several correct answers, require consensus of the group, and/or require the class’s collective knowledge to be answered.
Instructor uses one instructional method (lecture) and exam (multiple choice). Instructor uses a variety of learning exercises and assessment tools.
Grading is done without discussion or a rubric. Grading rubrics are used and explained to students.

In summary, diversity is vital to STEM disciplines, and we as instructors need to find ways to create inclusive classroom environments and promote diversity in our teaching. It is also important to understand that addressing issues related to diversity can be challenging and uncomfortable, and you will likely make mistakes on the way. However, small changes to the way we interact with students and design our courses could be the difference in a student’s choice to major in our discipline and pursue a career in science, math, or engineering. And that’s worth it.

Some great resources to get you started in addressing diversity in your STEM classroom:



Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., & Wood, W. B. (2004). Scientific teaching. Science, 304(5670), 521-522.

Implicit bias & stereotype threat






Inclusive teaching





[1] For details on scientific workforce diversity, see: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/diversity-in-science/topic/ and http://handelsmanlab.sites.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Scientific%20Teaching.pdf

[2] Waldrop, M. Mitchell (2015-07-16). “Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right”. Nature. 523 (7560): 272–274. doi:10.1038/523272a.

[3] https://www.bu.edu/stem/files/2015/02/The-STEM-Pipeline-booklet1.3-36.pdf

[4] Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

[5] Stone, J., Lynch, C. I., Sjomeling, M., & Darley, J. M. (1999).  Stereotype threat effects on black and white athletic performance.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1213-1227.

Discussing Critical Incidents

In our last blog, we highlighted ways you can support your students though the simple act of acknowledging that you are aware of the range of thoughts and emotions that people may be experiencing around current events. Here, we would like to share some thoughts about ways to respond if, in your class, one or several students want to discuss a recent incident involving, for example, hate or bias.

You may begin by acknowledging the students who raised the issue, maybe by thanking them and pointing to the importance of their concern. You can note that people may have different feelings and thoughts about the issue and affirm your own and the institutions commitment to the values of diversity, civility, and respect. As you consider whether you are ready to discuss the issue right away, it may be helpful to make some of your thinking transparent to your students, acknowledging, perhaps, that you are torn between wanting to make time for the conversation and wanting to honor your commitment to teaching your subject. You may also want to get a sense about the interest and willingness of other students to share their perspective on the issue. You could do so after class by sending out a Google form in which students can state their preference anonymously. (You can also use this technique proactively when an incident occurs, signaling that you are thinking about students, even when they are not sitting in class.) If you and your students want to engage in a conversation, you can schedule it for a later class period, or a time outside of class, and suggest ways for everyone to prepare. If you schedule the conversation during normal class time, you may consider offering students the option of opting out of the conversation to make room for those who may have good reasons for not wanting to participate in a difficult dialogue.

Our colleagues in Michigan break down the actual process of facilitating a difficult conversation in into nine steps including

  • identifying a clear purpose for the conversation
  • establishing ground rules
  • providing a common base for understanding
  • creating a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow
  • including everyone in the conversation
  • being an active facilitator
  • summarizing discussion and gathering student feedback
  • handling issues that involve the instructor’s identity
  • and identifying university resources.

This guide helps you to consider each of these steps in detail.

As always, we would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 434-982-2815 or request a confidential consultation online.

Resources to Support Our Students

In this post-election time, many of you are asking for resources to support your students. In a recent blog post, our colleagues at Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning remind us that there are many factors that will influence whether or not you choose to engage your students in conversations about current events. Your own emotions, positionality, and confidence with facilitating difficult conversations are just three among many legitimate reasons.

Even if you choose not to discuss events directly in class, there are a few things you can do to support your students’ well-being and learning. For example, your students will appreciate it if you acknowledge in person or in an email that this is a difficult time and that they may be struggling to keep up with school work. This simple acknowledgement can normalize feelings of distress, ease a sense of isolation, and signal that you care. If you teach immediately following a distressing incident, consider inviting your students at the beginning of class to free-write for a few minutes about a prompt such as the following: “How do you make sense of the current events and your emotions in light of your values? Who do you want to reach out to later in the day for more processing and support?” You may also give students the choice to leave class if they need to process differently and offer flexibility regarding assignment deadlines. We know from the research that such an acknowledgement can increase students sense of belonging and their ability to learn.

For further resources on responding to specific incidents and on inclusive teaching and difficult dialogues more generally, please see the following selection.

Responding to specific incidents (U Michigan):

Resources for critical conversations and inclusive teaching:

Self-care as a member of a marginalized group and an academic:

We would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 434-982-2815 or request a confidential consultation online.

The CTE is committed to the values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and education.

What are students really typing?

During my graduate career at the University at Buffalo in the Anthropology program, I was occasionally invited to lead a class discussion.  The classroom itself could seat upwards of 200 students, many of which had brought along their laptops.

Photo from Wikimedia.org

On one balmy spring morning, I was asked to give a lecture on social scripts.  Seeing a natural connection to the classroom setting, I began my discussion from the back of the classroom, immediately breaking the students’ social expectations (i.e. their social scripts) for what a prototypical lecturer should be doing.

Although the strategy worked, that is not the point of this post.  Carrying on the theme of a recent “Flipping the Classroom” conversation within the Hybrid Challenge group, I was struck by the number of students who had their own laptops (this was about 8 years ago), and further struck by the percentage of those students who were updating their social network status, checking last night’s basketball scores, or browsing YouTube.

For someone who self identifies as an ‘engaging teacher’ (perhaps engaging teaching assistant would have been more accurate at the time), the students’ lack of engagement left me downtrodden.

Map of Online Communities from xkcd

It appears I was not alone, because recently a St. John’s University law professor had researchers look over students’ shoulders and two University of Vermont business professors used computer software to monitor what students were doing on their laptops during lecture. Though neither study had quite the precision of a true controlled experiment, these results are notable because they relied on observations of students instead of self-reporting and surveys.

In the Vermont study, students cycled through an average of 65 new windows per lecture, of which over half were considered distractions. At St. John’s, most second- and third-year law students used their laptops for non-class-related purposes over half the time.

Any visit to a large lecture is likely to reinforce these data. Students are apt to drift to email inboxes and social networking sites. Facebook is a staple of many college students’ laptop screens.

Many times, students will simply pull up Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to copy down bullets when the professor advances to the next slide, and then return to surfing the web.

The study also revealed a significant deviation between student survey results and actual computer-use practices. Students tend to under-report the amount of time they spend on distracting activities in class.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Self, this is horrible!  By allowing my students to bring their laptops into my classes I am condemning them to a fate of distraction and disengagement.”

To which I reply,  “Wait!  The end is not nigh!”  Do not be so quick to ban laptops in your classroom.

In later posts, I will further discuss the consequences of laptops in the classroom, and propose a number of ideas to engage students through their technology.

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

Read the next post –>, “Engaging Students Through Their Laptops”.

About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Engaging Students Through Their Laptops

As more and more faculty begin to flip their classroom, design blended learning experiences, and think about a hybrid model, it is important to consider how students use their technology.  In today’s college classroom, students are not only able to escape paying attention through daydreaming and crosswords, but also by text messaging, browsing millions of webpages, watching streaming videos, and updating social networking sites.  (for more background on this topic, please refer to “What are students really typing?”)

From your position at the front of the room you may notice that the laptop itself creates a physical barrier between you (the instructor) and your students. Furthermore, your students recognize that from the front of the room, you (instructors) can’t see what is happening on their laptop screens. This situation provides a lot of incentive for students to wander away from class-related activities.

Additionally, this means students around the laptop-user can become distracted as their eyes are drawn to web content on the nearby computer screen.

Notably, however, according to a recent PEW Research report students who checked email and distracting websites did not score lower than their less distracted peers did on homework, quizzes, or exams. Only one activity created significant negative correlation with performance: instant messaging.

This reinforces the notion that many students are effective multi-taskers, while tasks that demand constant attention (like IM) are detrimental to student learning.

The problem is many of our students use laptops legitimately, so anytime we ban laptops, we are cutting off the ability of students to do that. So it’s a decision that should be based on data rather than misconception.

Lectures that are taught interactively have been shown to improve student learning. Whether instructors are engaging students through Chromebooks, laptops, or traditional clickers, how effective the instructor is at facilitating interactivity determines how students are engaged.

Laptops enable students who are fast typists to take more comprehensive notes, curious students to quickly search for more information, and, with the right tools, confused students to seek clarification from teaching assistants or classmates.

There are many ways laptops can improve a student’s educational experience. The key to preventing students from spending the entire class on distracting websites is deliberately engaging laptops rather than ignoring them.  I find that the connectivist model of teaching fits perfectly when attempting to engage students through their technology.

Banning laptops eliminates the potential of such technologies as powerful learning tools, and it is unlikely disengaged students will begin to pay more attention. They are still able to find distractions via mobile phones, nearby friends, the student newspaper, or even an open window.

Instead, encouraging students to engage with the class via technology increases student attentiveness, student engagement, and promotes active learning. Students will act rationally and pay attention in class if incentives favor appropriate use of technology.

How do you encourage students to use laptops appropriately during lecture?

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

<– Read the previous post, “What are students really typing”.
–> Read the next post, “Three roles faculty have when incorporating technology into their course”.

About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor


Three roles faculty have when incorporating technology into their course

Are you an instructor using technology in your classroom? Well, there are three roles that you should be taking as the instructor… Role model, tech support, and cheerleader!

Instructor as role model

image shared with creative commons

Any faculty member who is using technology in (or out) of class has the opportunity to become a role model for students in using particular technologies. This role allows you to demonstrate responsible and academically beneficial ways of incorporating technology into your students professional and personal lives.

Whenever I’m teaching a class, I immediately introduce my students to all of the different ways to witness my digital (and technological) presence. That means, giving out my Twitter handle, blog address, personal webpage, and class blog. Some faculty even invite students to connect with them on Linkedin, or friend them on Facebook. This then gives you the opportunity to interact with your students beyond class time (and beyond the semester), and continually model the benefits of using technology in an academic and professional context.

So if your class is examining Twitter as a journalistic tool, consider creating your own Twitter account, and invite your students to follow you and each other. This way, you have the opportunity to model using Twitter beyond your students existing capabilities. (Yes, Twitter can be used for more than sharing pictures of food and organizing a weekend party!)

Ditto for blogs and digital storytelling. If you ask your students to create DSTs, why not create one yourself? Not only does this allow you to model what an acceptable course project should accomplish, it has the added benefit of exposing you to the workload your students will experience throughout the semester. Your students will appreciate your effort!

Instructor as tech support

image shared with creative commons

This is the role that faculty often have the most difficulty accepting. Don’t worry, this faculty role will not put ITS out of a job. There will always be new technology coming over the horizon to keep them busy. We as instructors should have just enough training so that we can handle any initial difficulties (or questions) our students experience while taking our classes.

Using blogs as an example here. If a student wants to incorporate a YouTube video into the course website, it is very beneficial if you are able to tackle that question right in class (or over email), so that you can immediately tap into that student’s excitement and energy for sharing that YouTube clip with her fellow students (and you).

The alternative is the student having to wait a day or two to hear back from ITS, who may only be able to offer a general response because they to not know the particulars of your course. By that time, the student may have already moved on to a project that is not as pedagogically relevant to the course, but was easier to share.

This has the added benefit of adding a sense of legitimacy and authenticity to your teaching from your students’ perspective. “Oh my gosh! My professor actually knows what she’s talking about when it comes to this technology!” This concept ties into the idea of role modeling.

Instructor as cheerleader

image shared with creative commons

This is one of the most important roles an instructor has when incorporating any technology into their course! It all starts by devoting in-class time to the assignment that utilizes the technology. To many students, if something doesn’t happen within the physical confines of the classroom, the activity isn’t as valuable. The #1 misconception of technology-enhanced teaching, is that the physical classroom is the only space that learning happens. Online work is too often perceived as busy work. (Hopefully by the end of the semester you have broken this incorrect hypotheses.)

By devoting class time to showcase the course blog, student video projects, recorded interviews, forum discussions, etc., it adds that sense of legitimacy students recognize as a valuable learning experience. It also has the added benefit of enabling you to provide instant feedback to your students, and shape the future direction of the class project.

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

<– Read the previous post, “Engaging Students Through Their Laptops”.

About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Center’s 25th Anniversary Open House

Date: Friday September 18, 2015
Location:CTE, Hotel D, East Range

For additional workshop details, please click here.


Please join us on Friday, September 18, as we celebrate our 25th anniversary!

With our anniversary come two exciting changes:

  • a name change from the TRC to the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE)
  • a beautifully renovated meeting space in Hotel D

The Center remains committed to supporting schools’, departments’, and instructors’ efforts to improve teaching in innovative ways, enhance student learning, and enrich the University’s distinctive residential experience. We look forward to increasing collaborations with colleagues around Grounds as we continue to help faculty and graduate teaching assistants “provide educational experiences that deliver new levels of student engagement,” as envisioned by the University’s Strategic Plan.

On Friday, September 18, between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m., stop by the CTE Open House in Hotel D, East Range (click here for directions).

At about 3:15 pm, Marva Barnett (CTE), Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Maurie McInnis, Tolu Odumosu (Engineering and Society), and Alison Levine (French) will speak briefly about the Center’s history and future.

Help us name our renovated meeting space in Hotel D and win a prize!

We will enjoy seeing old and new friends.

Our thanks go to the Provost’s Office for supporting our endeavors. And we thank you for contributing to fine teaching and learning at U.Va.

For additional details, and to Register, please click here.

Teaching, Learning, & MOOCs

Author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) here to stay? How are they impacting our teaching? How are they impacting ours students’ learning (expectations)?

As more and more MOOCs pop up, I can’t help but wonder if the current MOOC model is flawed. The drive for mass educational attainment (raised most notably by the popularity of MOOCs) concerns me. The success of a MOOC seems to be measured by seat time rather than learning. I grant you that “seat time” may actually be “listening while driving time,” or “on the treadmill time,” or the always popular “half listening while also Facebooking, texting, eating, and watching the muted television time.”

With this technique, I’m left wondering how many students are engaging the material, and how many are distracted by the instructor. Students complete online assessments through Content Management Systems, automatically graded by the computer. Students go the entire semester with the expectation that they will never need to learn their fellow students’ names, or that the course facilitator will ever know theirs.  Thankfully research is being conducted on MOOC learning outcomes, and we’ll know more as continued research unfolds.

Why is this large classroom/disengaged student model becoming the standard? Replicated online throughout the increasingly popular arena of MOOCs?

Other than the pure size of the classroom, this model is nothing new! (It’s called a lecture.) Rather than bring the lecture online, why aren’t we using technology to bring quality learning experiences to the masses?

As a teacher, I want my students invested and engaged in their learning. As a student, I would want an instructor who can make the subject matter relevant. This can be done online (and offline). The online learning experience is at its best when helmed by an educator who understands that knowledge exists in the world rather than in a Podcast. Knowledge exists within systems access through people actively participating in the learning experience. This type of teaching uses the “Connectivist Model of Teaching” also sometimes called “Connectivism.”

Under this model, online learning becomes a knowledge creation process, not a Podcast consumption process. Faculty using Internet technologies are situated perfectly to teach students how to build their learning network and take advantage of the learning opportunities presented by digital technologies. In this framework, faculty become more than bearers of knowledge (or a voice transmitted via earbuds), they become learning architects, modelers, learning concierges, change agents, synthesizers, connected learning incubator, and network gurus.

By treating your students as participants in the learning process, your students are then able to take the skills they’ve gained in building their learning network and foster them throughout and beyond their time in your course.

Why would you enter the realm of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? How would your MOOC differ from what is already available? Why should it?

(For an alternative model, please check out Jim Groom’s course DS106 through the University of Mary Washington. I think it is a MOOC model worth replicating. And I’m not alone…)