Supporting Inclusive Teaching through a Graduate Learning Community

Learning communities can have strong positive impacts on participants’ teaching effectiveness, views of teaching as an intellectual pursuit, and interdisciplinary connections (Cox 2001). For graduate students, learning communities can provide effective mechanisms for professional development as well as a respite from disciplinary isolation (Huntzinger, McPherron, and Rajagopal 2011).

Recognizing these potential benefits, Stanford University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) launched a learning community in 2015–16 to increase graduate students’ knowledge of and confidence in engaging with issues related to identity in the classroom. Ten students participated in the first cohort of the Identity in the Classroom Learning Community, and the pilot program’s success led to a second cohort of twenty-six in 2016–17.

The learning community was intentionally interdisciplinary, involving graduate students (in their first through sixth years) and postdocs from the humanities, the social sciences, and the STEM fields. For participants—many of whom were already teaching assistants or interested in teaching—the learning community was a rare professional development opportunity to explore teaching in a research-focused institution.

Addressing Questions of Inclusion

The VPTL office created the learning community at a time when issues of diversity and inclusion were becoming more visible on campus. Many undergraduate students were joining protests such as Black Lives Matter, demanding greater faculty diversity, and calling for ongoing instructor training on identity and cultural humility. Learning community participants wanted to explore whether and how to address these issues in the classroom; they also wanted to acquire specific strategies for navigating difficult conversations and creating inclusive spaces.

After discussing the dangers of using a checklist or a standardized manual for something as complex as inclusive teaching, participants in the first cohort decided to focus on considerations, or central ideas and values on which to base pedagogical practices. This approach did not prevent participants from identifying best practices, but allowed for flexibility in their application. The cohort discovered that while overall considerations for creating inclusive classrooms may remain constant, the particular features of such classrooms can vary depending on context. For example, an instructor considering the effects of student socioeconomic status might be mindful of the cost of course materials, but might address cost concerns differently depending on specific institutional policies and available resources.   

Each cohort met eight times, with each meeting focused on a different topic, including stereotype threat, gender diversity, trigger warnings, and growth mindset. Each group made decisions about topics, readings, and activities together, selecting one or more shared readings and a designated group facilitator for each topic. As facilitators, group members employed various teaching strategies, such as think-pair-share and gallery walks, thus modeling for one another multiple student engagement techniques. Invited guests from campus, such as a lecturer who conducted gender diversity trainings, a staff member who taught a class on allyship, and a counseling center staff member with expertise in anxiety, brought additional perspectives.

Beneficial Outcomes

An important goal of the community was to develop participants’ understanding of the ways in which student and instructor identities might affect teaching and learning. A questionnaire administered before and after learning-community participation indicated significant gains in participants’ knowledge, preparation, and comfort addressing issues related to student identity in their teaching, as well as improved confidence in creating an inclusive classroom atmosphere.

In addition to developing the skills of individual participants, the VPTL office sought to share the knowledge created by the cohorts with the broader teaching community. Thus, the first cohort produced a series of resources that are now part of the office’s online toolkit. Participants in the second cohort produced a wider variety of resources, including two-page handouts, slide presentations for use in teaching assistant trainings, and blog posts, all with the goal of linking relevant research to practice.

Overall, we found that ongoing interdisciplinary conversations like those that occurred through the Identity in the Classroom Learning Community are vital for creating a reflective, responsive, and learner-focused culture of teaching. They also have broad benefits to individual instructors and the teaching community at large. As one participant stated:

Participating in the learning community was one of the most meaningful and impactful professional development experiences of my graduate career. The learning community helped me to see inclusion as a series of ongoing and overlapping practices that I must intentionally employ and continually reevaluate. Now, as I design syllabi or plan assessments, I ask myself, “What type of learning space do I want to create? Who is included in this lesson? Who is excluded?” These central questions, which were a running theme throughout much of the learning community, have served as a pedagogical North Star of sorts, so that no matter the specific strategies, readings, or formats I employ in a given class session, I am able to continually return to the practices that support the learning of all students.

For complete syllabi and sample resources, contact Jennifer Randall Crosby at jrcrosby@stanford.edu. Jennifer Randall Crosby is former director of faculty and lecturer programs in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University. Derisa Grant participated in the university’s Identity in the Classroom Learning Community during the 2015–16 academic year.

References

Cox, Milton D. 2001. “Faculty Learning Communities: Change Agents for Transforming Institutions into Learning Organizations.” In To Improve the Academy 19, ed. Devorah Lieberman, 69–93.

Huntzinger, Mikaela, Paul McPherron, and Madhumitha Rajagopal. 2011. “The TA Consultant Program: Improving Undergraduate Instruction and Graduate Student Professional Development.” In To Improve the Academy 29, ed. Judith E. Miller, 246–259.


Jennifer Randall Crosby is Coordinator of the Psych One Program at Stanford University and Derisa Grant is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Consortium for Faculty Diversity at Bowdoin College.

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