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Teaching a Diverse Student Body

General Principles of Teaching a Diverse Student Body


General Principles

  • Keep your expectations high and provide support so that students can reach them.
  • Give all students equal attention in class and equal access to advising outside class. Don’t overlook capable but less
    experienced students.
  • Give all students equal amounts of helpful and honest criticism. Don’t prejudge students’ capabilities.
  • Revise curricula if necessary to include different kinds of racial and cultural experiences and to include them in more than just stereotypical ways.
  • Monitor classroom dynamics to ensure that no students become isolated.
  • Vary the structure of the course to include more than just individual and abstract modes of learning.
  • Don’t call on any student as a “spokesperson” for his or her perceived group.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the history and emotions your students may bring to class.
  • Respond to non-academic experiences, such as racial incidents, that may affect classroom performance.

Specific Teaching Strategies

Criteria and Course Expectations:

Give your students a sense not only of what they need to learn, but also of why they should learn this, why you feel your material, and indeed your field, is important and interesting. Teach them not only “what,” but also “so what?”

Do not assume a certain level of experience, but examine the specific needs of the students in your class.Particularly if you are teaching introductory courses, do not assume that all students automatically know what it means to write a literature, psychology or history paper, how or when to skim a text, or even that all their papers must have a well-defined linear argument (Angelo). Rather, attempt to find out what your students do know and work from there.

Don’t merely explain the rules, but also the reasons behind the rules. Students are often simply taught rules for academic discourse, particularly writing (e.g., put your thesis at the end of the first paragraph, don’t use “I,” etc.). Instead, show them the underlying reasons for such rules.

Model what you want your students to do
. Show them through your behavior what it means to be a sociologist or a chemist.

Classroom Dynamics:

Establish ground rules or specific guidelines and appropriate rules of behavior for the class early in the semester. You can also enlist students to help come up with and enforce these rules.

Don’t confuse student responses that indicate an emotional investment in the subject with “irrational” or “unscholarly” reactions. Students from one culture might regard a class discussion as interesting and intense because it evokes excited and personal responses; others might regard the same discussion as overly emotional, chaotic, or rude.

Anticipate sensitive issues and acknowledge racial, class or cultural differences in the classroom when appropriate. Aside from personal or cultural styles, issues of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation may produce deep feeling in the classroom. When discussing such controversial issues, you should expect emotional responses or even conflict. Such emotion is not necessarily negative unless it makes students unduly upset, inhibits class discussion, or causes students to behave rudely. In such cases you may need to intervene and remind the students of your rules for classroom discussion. See chapter IV for a list of other techniques to use if the discussions become more heated.

Break up patterns of segregation in the classroom if it is tied to patterns of nonparticipation.
 It’s usually better to break up such patterns without simply assigning new seats (which students naturally resent). Instead, assign small groups across racial/ethnic or gender lines, and when you reconvene to discuss issues among the whole class, don’t give students time to move back to their accustomed seats. To avoid lecturing to or sitting next to only one group of students, move purposely around the room or think of ways to get students to reposition themselves, since those students sitting closest to you will be most likely to talk. Note also that patterns of segregation often depend upon which students have minority status in the classroom and may differ accordingly.

Small-Group Work:

If some students are hesitant to speak up in class, have them contribute in small groups first. (For further information on small group techniques, see the books on cooperative learning listed in Appendix II.)

Consider setting up study groups or assigning collaborative projects that require meetings outside of class.
Interaction among students and between students and faculty, particularly through activities built around substantive academic work, has proven to have a positive impact upon students’ success in college (Astin 1992, Light). Small study or discussion groups have proven particularly helpful (Light 70-71), yet some students are less likely than others to begin or join such groups on their own (Light 18).

1. Assign students to groups for collaborative learning projects. Projects such as peer editing, group papers, laboratory assignments, or presentations enable students to work with each other. Such groups can meet either in or out of class, and can be either short- or long-term. Such a structure requires careful planning and encouragement and may not be appropriate for all classes.

2. If your students meet in groups outside class, they need to be able to contact one another. Enabling the email function in Instructional Toolkit will allow students to find the email addresses for other students in the class. Only those who have agreed for their email address to be made public will appear there, so any students who do not wish to give out such information may choose to arrange project meetings with their group after class.

3. You can also set up an electronic discussion group for the course using Toolkit. This function allows students to post questions or ideas and to receive comments from you and other students outside of class. Some U.Va. instructors have found that discussion groups allow normally quiet or shy students to express themselves and even take a lead in conversations with classmates. (For information on setting up a discussion group or on Toolkit more generally, see http:// ).

When including projects and activities that use group learning, encourage group interaction and support. Pay careful attention to group dynamics:

1. Assign and monitor small groups to ensure that some students do not become excluded from full participation. Proponents of cooperative learning recommend that you create heterogeneous groups and avoid having friends together in one group. Students who choose their own groups often inadvertently exclude some students. Even in collaborative environments, interracial or intercultural tensions can arise. If you pay attention, you can head off such difficulties by speaking to students privately, reassigning roles within the group, breaking up the group into smaller components, or reassigning groups.

2. Monitor small groups periodically to make certain each member of the group is given comparable responsibility and control. Try to ensure that everyone in the group is assigned equal responsibility, and that some students do not become relegated to more trivial tasks. To do so, you may need to note how students fulfill the assignment and modify your procedures, intervening if more assertive students begin to dominate. For example, in male-female partnerships in scientific experiments, studies have shown that the male student often performs the experiment while the female student writes down the observations (Rosser 59). In such cases the female student does not participate directly. To counter such problems, make the rules of the assignment clear (e.g., each person will help perform the experiment) and request that the teams add this point to their honor pledge, or assign different responsibilities to individuals as part of the instructions (X performs the experiment, Y notes the results, and so on).

Discussion and Lecture:

Create a safe environment for discussion by asking all students to talk in turn and listen actively to their peers and assist those students who need help understanding or responding to a concept.

Avoid using falsely inclusive terms or statements like “women” when you mean European or European American women or “all women/ men” when you mean only heterosexual individuals. Vary the concrete examples and case studies you use to include a variety of social characteristics, such as race or gender. Include multicultural examples, visuals, and materials as much as possible in lectures. Include multiple perspectives on the syllabus, in class discussion, and in assignments, when possible. If you include course material or examples that place a group in the position of oppressed victim, be sure to provide examples of empowerment for balance. Other ways to involve multiple perspectives include playing devil’s advocate, engaging in a debate about the possible interpretations of a text, and assigning the work of relevant minority scholars.

Take care to pronounce students’ names correctly and in the proper order.
 Do not shorten or simplify the student’s name without his/her clear approval. Although mistakes are always possible in a large class and at the beginning of a course, do your best not to call students by the wrong name. Many students of color report that such misnaming makes them feel that to the professor “they are all alike.” If you are not sure what to call the student, ask for the name when you call on him/her. If you are European or African American, remember that Asian and Latino students may arrange their given and family names in an order different from that you are accustomed to.

Don’t ask any student to be a representative spokesperson for his or her perceived group or look pointedly at or away from these same students when you discuss issues of race, class, gender, etc. Do not ask or expect students to be knowledgeable about their ethnic heritage, history, language, or culture unless they volunteer such information.

Be direct and honest about your own engagement with or bias toward or against the material. This gives students permission to be honest about their own responses.

Vary your teaching methods to include visual or active learning when appropriate. Studies have found that kinesthetic and visual learning experiences are more effective than discussion for certain underrepresented groups (Brookfield and Preskill 134-135). Though not all members of a group will have the same preferences, it is safe to assume that every group of individuals will contain a variety of learning styles.


Give frequent evaluations of students’ progress. Tell students who are at risk exactly what their deficiencies are and what they need to do to remedy them. If possible, speak to such students individually. If you ask a student to attend the Writing Center or departmental small-group tutoring sessions, follow up to see if the student has done so. Do not assume particular groups of students will be at risk, but also do not refrain from critiquing their work through misplaced good intentions. If less experienced students are to improve their performance, they must know exactly where they stand, and what they can do to remedy their deficiencies.

Consider monitoring your classroom behavior, by being videotaped, having a colleague observe your class, or relying on the Anonymous Feedback function of Instructional Toolkit, to see if you pay more attention to certain students, or if the students think that you are paying such attention. You might also add questions to the standard evaluations to elicit student perceptions about the dynamics of class participation.