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As higher education professionals, our goal is always to ensure that students are learning and growing in a safe and intellectually stimulating environment. But even with the best intentions and preparations, student complaints against faculty do occur, and one of the most important topics for all academics to consider is how to prevent and navigate these instances.
Some complaints are purely academic: grading issues, syllabus inconsistency, and classroom policy. These issues can usually be resolved by creating or facilitating an effective channel of communication that is open and honest between the student and faculty. But other cases may include more subtle and complex details, yet do not rise to the level of grievances. These cases often include complaints of bias and microaggression felt by the student, but usually without explicit intent or awareness of the faculty.
Evidence-based studies demonstrated that an educational, restorative justice approach is superior to punishment in education settings because they lead to the most sustainable change in human behaviours. So, facilitated conversations, restorative justice practice, open dialogues, coaching, and ongoing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) training are all resolutions that are commonly applied to these situations. But a pressing issue still remains – how can we prevent these situations from occurring?
Here are a few guidelines based on cognitive psychology principles along with a DEIB framework that may be helpful for faculty to consider as they plan their curriculum and approach to classroom teaching:
Implicit bias awareness
One of the most important first steps to providing a safe, open, and intellectually stimulating classroom is to acknowledge that we all come into any discussion with our own biases. No one is bias-free and as faculty, we need to help students understand that we all come from different backgrounds and carry with us different attitudes, expectations, and perception of the world; and we are here to share and inspire conversations related to a common topic of interest. As such, it is critical that faculty actively practice and model awareness of their own biases, and set good examples of how to bracket or isolate these biases as we introduce varied intellectual viewpoints to our students. College classrooms should be where diverse intellectual viewpoints are presented, discussed, and challenged in a way that is respectful and impactful.
Many colleges have instituted mandatory DEIB/antiracism training, but faculty can also use the Implicit Attitudes Test from Harvard University’s Project Implicit to further understand their own biases. These online tests are completely free and will reveal one’s unconscious, implicit biases in a private setting. Please keep in mind that taking these tests is only the first step toward understanding our own biases. It takes conscious effort to actively work against these implicit biases in thoughts and behaviours.
Cognitive psychologists have long examined the implications of emotion on human memory and cognition. Emotional memories are much better remembered than neutral memories, due to the biological and psychological significance of the events. One really interesting phenomenon is the fact that young adults often exhibit a negativity bias, which means they remember more negative memories than positive memories overall. This is a significant finding to consider as we discuss classroom climate in college students, especially if the student population is mostly traditional age.
Researchers have also found that the ability to take other age-related perspectives grows with age and experience. This is key as we consider faculty’s work with students. In the classroom dynamic, faculty can utilise their accumulated knowledge and experience to help students process and interpret viewpoints that may be challenging and seemingly contradictory to one’s personal beliefs. Modeling perspective taking by stating that one does not have to agree with everything that the literature presents in order to learn and grow may help increase diversity and inclusion of thoughts in the classroom setting.
Cultural competency and cognitive load
It is essential that faculty work hard to get to know their students and learn about their backgrounds. Faculty must actively educate themselves by researching and reading materials that are freely available nowadays online and in printed format. This is especially important when it comes to teaching students from underrepresented groups (such as BIPOC, LGBTQ+ individuals, students with disabilities, diverse religious orientations, and international students) because they often already carry an extra cognitive load of having to deal with stereotypes and discrimination that exist in our societal structures. Cognitive load refers to the demand placed on our working memory or active mental processing while carrying out any activity. Although the impact of this extra cognitive load will differ based on each individual’s experience and personal upbringing, it is important for faculty to keep in mind that this load could impact students’ academic performance if it is somehow increased within a classroom setting. It is, therefore, crucial for faculty to be mindful of presentation of materials that could negatively impact underrepresented student groups.
Microresistance for microaggressions
Microaggression happens in many settings, not just the classroom. However, it is paramount that faculty are trained to identify such behaviors so as to prevent them from happening. DEIB/antiracism training is often the first step toward gaining awareness of these instances, but how can faculty actively help students feel more empowered in situations where they feel uncomfortable? Microresistance methods such as open the front door (OTFD) to communication may be a good way to model these responses to our students.
Here’s an example of OTFD when one encounters or witnesses a microaggressive episode:
- Observe. Concrete, factual observations of the situation, for example: ‘I noticed that Amy was cut off when she was speaking just now.’
- Think: Thoughts (yours and/or theirs) based on what was observed, for example: ‘I don’t think Amy was done with her thoughts and would have appreciated the opportunity to complete her statement.’
- Feel. Emotions using ‘I statement’, for example: ‘I felt uncomfortable witnessing the event.’
- Desire. Specific request for a positive desired outcome, for example: ‘Let’s allow each person to complete their statement so that their thoughts can be heard.’
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in the Classroom
What does it really mean to incorporate DEIB principles in the classroom? It means to teach and discuss a diverse collection of ideas, thoughts, and results presented by scholars and thought traditions from different backgrounds and walks of life, see this example. It is extremely important that faculty work to create a safe and welcoming environment where different viewpoints can be discussed and debated. In order to truly foster these ideals in the classroom, the faculty has the responsibility (as the more experienced individual) to carefully build the trust with students and to allow them to be their authentic selves as they delve into the many angles in which a scholarly topic may be examined. The classroom should be the safest place to experiment and to fail – students learn the most when they can be vulnerable while challenged to think critically about topics that could be contradictory to their own beliefs.
It is our responsibility as faculty and higher education leaders to help students develop a sense of respect for diverse viewpoints and build intellectual resilience against conflicting thoughts. In many ways, students have entrusted their most valuable and transformative years to us; and we, in turn, have the unique honor of shaping our students’ career paths and beyond. It is up to us to teach our students more than what is presented in textbooks.
Christie Chung is the associate provost for student success and undergraduate education, and professor of psychology at Mills College in California.