Diversity and Democracy

Diversity in Teaching and Learning: Affirming Students as Empowered Learners

Teaching and learning models informed by social justice education have described how diversity is embedded in who we teach, who teaches, what is taught, and how it is taught (see Jackson 1988; Marchesani and Adams 1992). In the Multi-Contextual Model for Diverse Learning Environments developed by Hurtado et al. (2012a), students' multiple social identities are at the center of curricular and cocurricular spheres, where they exist in dynamic relationship with faculty and staff identities through practices involving both content (or educational programming) and process (pedagogies and forms of practice). To help practitioners understand how such a model might operate on their campuses, researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) devised the Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) survey. For institutions seeking to learn more about faculty identity, values, and behaviors, the HERI Faculty Survey provides a way to collect information about campus diversity and its relationship to student learning and success.

In this article, we provide evidence from the 2010–11 Diverse Learning Environments survey and the 2010–11 HERI Faculty Survey to illustrate three key points: (1) the relationship between an inclusive curriculum and academic validation as experienced by students, (2) the link between faculty identity and goals for undergraduate education that shape the learning environment, and (3) the connection between faculty diversity and academic validation among diverse students. These data begin to show how inclusive learning environments—defined both by the diversity of who is represented in the learning environment, and by the practice of incorporating diversity into teaching and learning—can be central to empowering students as learners.

The Impact of an Inclusive Curriculum

What is the impact of integrating diversity content into the curriculum and shifting pedagogy to include engagement with diverse peers and communities? Our research indicates that these practices have distinct benefits. DLE findings from 2010–11 show that both course content that addresses diversity and specific pedagogies that encourage engagement with diversity tend to enhance levels of student academic validation.

A concept originating in transformative teaching and counseling as a way of theorizing how students may find success, academic validation involves faculty actions in the classroom that foster students' academic development (Rendón Linares and Muñoz 2011). The DLE survey measures academic validation in terms of how frequently students experienced the following: "instructors were able to determine my level of understanding of the course material," "instructors provided me with feedback that helped me judge my progress," "I feel like my contributions were valued in class," "instructors encouraged me to meet with them after or outside of class," "instructors encouraged me to ask questions and participate in class discussions," and "instructors showed concern about my progress." These items form a scale that campuses can use to gauge students' levels of academic validation, which has been linked to student re-enrollment in initial studies focused on community colleges (Barnett 2011) and four-year broad-access institutions (Pryor, Hurtado, and Ruiz Alvarado 2013).

As figure 1 shows, the mean level of students' academic validation scores is higher on the scale with more courses taken in college that include specific content such as materials/readings about privilege, race/ethnicity, or gender. Figure 2 shows a similarly positive association between students' academic validation and the number of courses taken that included service learning or opportunities for intensive dialogue between students of different backgrounds. Such pedagogy and course content resonate with students' identities and help students feel valued and affirmed as learners.


The Impact of Faculty Diversity

The course content and pedagogies described above bear an implicit relationship to particular goals for student learning. Faculty may infuse such content and practices into their courses with the aim of increasing students' engagement with and appreciation for diversity. But is there a relationship between faculty diversity and the goals that may lead to these practices?

Drawing from the Faculty Survey, figure 3 shows how a selected set of goals for undergraduate education differs by faculty race/ethnicity. These goals translate into actual classroom practices or preferences for teaching courses that address diversity and service to the community. For the most part, national data show that the majority of faculty support diversity goals (Hurtado et al. 2012b), but the HERI faculty survey indicates that among instructors who teach general education courses, underrepresented minority (URM) faculty and white faculty place different emphasis on goals related to citizenship in a multicultural democracy. In addition, fewer faculty from both groups rate as "essential" engaging students in civil discourse around controversial issues—a skill that is critical in a democracy that thrives on difference. Further work is needed to increase faculty skills with managing conflict and discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. All of these diversity values are tied not only to identity, but also to faculty training and academic discipline, all factors that can be explored further using the comprehensive HERI Faculty Survey on work/life experiences.

The question remains: does a diverse faculty result in practices that support student academic validation? Although answering that question would require a more complex analysis than we can provide here, evidence from student surveys begins to illuminate the relationship between faculty diversity and student success. Figure 4 shows the percentage of URM faculty (calculated using data from the US Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS) at institutions that administered the DLE in 2010–11. Indeed, there is a positive relationship between faculty diversity and the extent to which students reported academic validation.


Using Surveys to Improve Climate and Learning

While there is much research supporting the importance of diverse peers in relation to a wide range of learning outcomes, there is less on the formal conditions that help structure opportunities to learn among diverse peers. An inclusive curriculum, a diverse faculty, and practices that make the most of interactions among a diverse student body are all factors linked with learning. This article provides just a few key examples of how diversity in the faculty and curriculum may affect how students begin to feel competent, adopt feelings of self-worth, and become active agents in their own learning.

Administered annually, the DLE survey addresses many issues related to institutional climate experienced by members of different identity groups, institutional practices, student outcomes related to retention and achievement, civic competencies, and habits of mind for lifelong learning. While most institutions have used the survey to address difficult issues related to campus climate, we also encourage campuses to use the instrument to examine issues associated with student success. Institutions should link DLE data with student transcripts, enrollment data, or data from the National Student Clearinghouse to study retention, enrollment mobility, and achievement. Provided they focus on collecting adequate responses from underrepresented and nontraditional students, institutions can use the survey to gain information about these students' experiences and needs.

The Faculty Survey is administered triennially, and the 2013–14 administration will remain open for registration until May 2014. The survey addresses many issues related to faculty work and life experiences that also affect teaching, research, and service activity. This year, we have expanded the general survey with additional items on teaching and have added modules to tap into campus climate; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning; student advising; spirituality; and identity items, including LGBTQ identity. As with the DLE survey, campuses can choose to administer the general Faculty Survey with or without any of the modules, and also can add a limited set of locally developed survey items.


Our research suggests that introducing diversity into the higher education workforce and into teaching and learning processes is important wherever improving student success is a priority. By teaching and designing inclusive educational programs, faculty and staff who value diversity and know how to work with diverse students will provide the necessary scaffolding for student success. Institutions can use the surveys described above to gather the information necessary to engage in practical self-assessment that puts students and their success at the center of higher education. While improving the success of diverse students and the assessment of their learning outcomes is important, so is taking stock of key institutional features that shape the learning environment—including faculty diversity and practices that use diversity as an asset in teaching and learning processes.

To learn more about or register for HERI surveys, or to learn about HERI's Diversity Research Institute and its Retention and Persistence Institute, visit www.heri.ucla.edu, or email heri@ucla.edu.


Barnett, Elisabeth. 2011. "Validation Experiences and Persistence among Community College Students." Review of Higher Education 34 (2): 193–230.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Cynthia L. Alvarez, Chelsea Guillermo-Wann, Marcela Cuellar, and Lucy Arellano. 2012a. "A Model for Diverse Learning Environments: The Scholarship on Creating and Assessing Conditions for Student Success." In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 27, edited by John C. Smart and Michael B. Paulsen, 41–122. New York: Springer.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Mark Kevin Eagan, John H. Pryor, Hannah Whang, and Serge Tran. 2012b. Undergraduate Teaching Faculty: The 2010–11 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute. http://www.heri.ucla.edu/facPublications.php.

Jackson, Philip W. 1988. The Practice of Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Marchesani, Linda S., and Maurianne Adams. 1992. "Dynamics of Diversity in the Teaching–Learning Process: A Faculty Development Model for Analysis and Action."New Directions for Teaching and Learning 52, 9–20.

Pryor, John H., Sylvia Hurtado, and Adriana Ruiz Alvarado. 2013. "Why Do They Return? First-Year Retention Findings Using Validation Theory." Presented at the Annual Forum Association for Institutional Research, Long Beach, CA.

Rendón Linares, Laura I., and Susana M. Muñoz. 2011. "Revisiting Validation Theory: Theoretical Foundations, Applications, and Extensions."Enrollment Management Journal 5 (2): 12–33.

Sylvia Hurtado is professor and director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, and Adriana Ruiz Alvarado is a graduate research analyst at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles.

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