Culturally Responsive Teaching in an Online Environment

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DEIBOnline LearningStudent Success
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Essie Childers is a professor of Student Success at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas


COVID-19 is prompting colleges and universities to prepare for the fall semester using a number of modalities of instruction—a vast majority of which will occur online or in a HyFlex model.

As in the classroom, online students are diverse; representing different nationalities, races, genders, languages and cultures. I propose four ways in which instructions can infuse culturally responsive teaching into their online spaces.

First, one must understand the meaning of culturally sensitive teaching. Secondly, it is imperative to abandon the self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color. Third, instructors can provide opportunities for students to journal. Last, instructors offer timely, clear and constructive feedback.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

When asked about being a culturally responsive teacher, the response is, “Oh, I have several students of color and they visit me in my office.” Another answer is, “I make sure my groups are diverse, if possible.” However, being a culturally responsive teacher is far more than students visiting a professor in their office or assigning students to a group.

According to Pugach, “culturally responsive teaching is teaching that is continuously responsive to the race, class, culture, ethnicity and language of each student. It is based on the knowledge and active use of students’ backgrounds and cultural experiences to create and implement curriculum, ensuring that all students are successful in school.” Having a working definition of culturally responsive teaching can help instructors abandon the self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color.

Abandoning the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

As educators, we must approach our students with a new set of lenses. Students of diverse backgrounds are assets to the class as they bring their own valuable cultural and community experiences. The self-fulfilling prophecy is when instructors have already developed a mindset that a student will not pass the class because of their ethnicity. Anita Woolfolk further defines this self-fulfilling prophecy as “…a groundless expectation that comes true simply because it has been expected.”

Therefore, these students are treated differently than other members in an online environment. Let’s look at an example.

In a remote setting, an instructor may avoid calling on a student for comments when their hand is raised. The effects of neglecting to notice a student promotes negativity towards the instructor and class. The student will become detached, develop a lack of motivation and eventually may drop the course. To send a message of inclusion, allow students to journal.

Reflective Journaling

Reflective journaling has been referred to as focused reflection or as guided journals. In an online environment, instructors can provide a prompt for students to respond and reply to their classmates’ posts in a Discussion Forum. For sensitive discussion starters, one can set a private mode where other students cannot see responses.

Reflective journaling allows students an uninterrupted space for them to share their feelings and concerns about life, school, etc. I give my students several chances to journal their thoughts throughout the semester.

In reading students’ journals, one may be able to offer success tips or words of encouragement to keep students engaged in the class. In his book, On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and life, Dr. Downing suggests that in writing each journal, students be spontaneous, honest, creative and dive deep. Reflective journaling sends a message to students that you see them, you hear them, they matter. This message also applies to feedback on assignments.

Timely, Clear and Constructive Feedback

“Ouch! I don’t mean to step on toes.” Are you guilty of not giving timely, clear and constructive feedback on assignments? According to Ginsberg and Wlodkowski, feedback appears to enhance student motivation because individuals can evaluate their progress, locate performance within a framework of understanding, maintain efforts toward realistic goals, correct errors efficiently and receive encouragement from teachers and other learners.

Keep your audience in mind when relaying feedback messages. Timely feedback allows the student to avoid making the same mistake on the next assignment. It is always helpful to point out the positives of the task to encourage intrinsic motivation. A culturally sensitive instructor knows how to offer positive, constructive feedback. Consider the feedback examples below.

Biased feedback: I can’t believe you write so well. You are a credit to your race.

Positive feedback: I enjoyed reading your essay. All the sentences are connected, creating flow. This feedback sends a message void of race.

Biased feedback: Why did you use the word, “Hence?” Most blacks don’t talk that way.

Positive feedback: I enjoyed reading your essay and your choice of using the transition word, “hence.” This feedback sends a message that you are not surprised that the student knows how to use different transitional words.

Which feedback would you prefer to receive? Students welcome positive, non-biased feedback. Yes, feedback can be timely. Keep in mind that audio feedback is available and quicker in most Learning Management Systems.

Grasping the meaning of culturally sensitive teaching, abandoning the self-fulfilling prophecy, providing reflective journaling and timely, clear and constructive feedback are a handful of ways you can become a culturally sensitive online instructor. When your students see that you are making an effort to value and respect their work in an unbiased format, they will make every effort to perform and stay engaged in your online community.

Looking for more on culturally responsive teaching? Check out our Empowered Educator event covering this topic, virtual meeting platforms, student perspectives on online learning and more!