Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology Department at Seminole State College in Florida.
What is Educational Equity?
Educational equity is a measure of achievement, fairness, inclusion, and opportunity. It can have many different definitions, but basically involves giving students the tools and support they need to be successful. Promoting or boosting learning equity requires educators to embrace the unique backgrounds, identities, and experiences that each student brings to the table. To achieve equity, we must address the ways in which those differences shape how our students learn. From there, we must build on those different perspectives to make learning meaningful and relevant for everyone in our courses.
Educators must not only recognize the differences in social identities among their students. They also have to adjust their approach to teaching those students. By developing an approach to teaching in this way, we can create a learning environment that celebrates diversity and inclusivity—and builds a community of trust to support all students.
Why Is Educational Equity in the Classroom Important?
Equity in the classroom contributes to productive learning by removing personal and social barriers. This helps ensure every student has the resources and support they need to be successful. In an equitable classroom, individual factors won’t hold students back from reaching their full learning potential.
The closing of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the quick switch to online learning showed educational inequities that exist across the United States. Young people transition from high school to college with vastly different levels of preparation due to societal inequities. Even if our schools and classrooms are “equal,” they may not be equitable. This causes severe achievement gaps. We must carefully reflect on why students fail or succeed and be persistent in promoting equity at our schools and in our classrooms.
Educators and institutions must be more culturally aware and possess the ability to communicate and work effectively to create an equitable learning environment. Students and teachers bring unique perspectives, identities, and experiences to the classroom. If education—as a whole—doesn’t actively work to break down barriers, it will continue to reinforce the inequalities that currently exist. When equity in the classroom is a priority, all students benefit.
Six Areas of Focus to Ensure Educational Equity
Identify and Understand Your Own Biases
Teachers, like anyone else, may not be aware of their biases. Understanding your own biases, influences, and cultural background can help you become more conscious of issues related to racial and gender equity and help you support all students in your class. You will be better equipped to engage with your students and foster equity in the classroom. Examining and reflecting on your own beliefs can ensure you are not excluding students.
We also need to be aware of bias, oppression, and assumptions that students bring to the classroom. Educators should use these as teaching moments so students can learn from their differences. This will help bring more inclusivity and equity to the classroom.
Set the Right Tone with Course Materials and Class Climate
Making sure students have access to all course materials at the start of the semester is crucial to their emotional and academic success. By starting with getting them logged in to the LMS the first week of class and gaining access to publisher materials, we make sure all students start strong. Be aware of grace periods, financial aid assistance, and scholarships to help students access all materials. If we can get students started on the right foot, they tend to be more successful overall.
Choose textbooks and other materials that address the needs of students with diverse abilities, interests, and learning preferences. Consider the use of digital materials that provide feedback, background information, vocabulary, and other support.
Part of building an equitable classroom is ensuring all materials are accessible and relatable to every learner. Closely examine the voices present in your teaching materials. Use teaching methods that are motivating and relevant to students with diverse characteristics, such as age, gender, cultures, and interests. Incorporate pictures and articles from authors of every race, color, and gender and work with your students to examine missing voices in your discipline or profession.
Create a welcoming environment for all students by learning their names and encourage the sharing of multiple perspectives. Be approachable and available with varied individual and group office hours and encourage students to meet with you to ask questions, discuss accommodations, or share their points of view. Provide contact information for tutoring and writing centers, disability services, and other campus services. These resources could be helpful for students who need extra attention.
After making sure all students can get into your class and understand course expectations, you should set the tone for learning with low-stakes activities and exercises to build community and ease them into more difficult topics and assignments. Keep discussion questions open-ended to invite a variety of responses. It’s important that each student feels that their voice will be heard.
Course materials, notes, and additional resources should be engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students. Release your syllabus early so students can review course requirements and purchase and review materials. This gives them the chance to arrange for alternate formats if needed. By presenting content in a logical, easy-to-follow manner, students will be more comfortable with the content and able to easily navigate your course.
Distribute and Provide Opportunities for Flexibility and Support
To distribute and provide opportunities for all learners, faculty should implement instructional practices that support student success. Besides access to materials, there are many inequalities among students when it comes to internet access, food security, family situations, and more. Flexibility and empathy can make a huge difference in creating an equitable learning environment. You may employ several formal and informal ways of accommodating students in your classes to respect their needs.
To promote educational equity, it’s important to understand your students and how they learn. Sending out a survey will help you get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. This way you can connect with them to better understand their situations. By working together to understand the barriers they face, we can create solutions to overcome them.
Making all teaching materials accessible and available online so students can reference them later is one general strategy for promoting equitable opportunity for all students. Use different methods and ways to connect students to the lessons with a combination of written content or video so they can pick and choose what works best for their learning style.
Providing opportunities for students to practice allows them to review the material in a low-stakes environment. Consequentially, they can build their confidence before entering high-stakes assessments. By delivering a mix of in-person activities and pre-recorded lessons, with due dates visible ahead of time, students can better manage their time and complete work around their busy schedules.
Assigning peer mentors or offering a variety of individual, paired, and group activities will further promote educational equity. When students learn together, they are exposed to different learning styles and learn respect for each other. Incorporate multiple examples and perspectives to make content relevant to ALL students. Provide support tools such as outlines and summaries to help support student learning.
Make instructions clear in the syllabus and consider a Q&A discussion forum or orientation quiz to reinforce course expectations and ensure student understanding. Be sure to carefully consider a wide range of abilities, interests, learning styles, and experiences when implementing each instructional method. This will help ensure engagement and accessibility for all students.
Promote an Environment of Respect and Comfort
Create an open, collaborative, welcoming community to promote comfort and establish an inclusive environment early in your course. Share your own struggles and be relatable. Be open about how you intend to create an inclusive space for your students. Discussions should represent a variety of views, and students should feel comfortable expressing themselves. Address incivility and let students know that personal attacks and hostile interactions will not be tolerated. Teach students to respond to each other with respect, even if they disagree.
Creating a classroom environment where all students feel welcome and comfortable will go a long way in promoting educational equity. Asking challenging questions and employing random response strategies will allow each student to have their voice heard without worrying about whether they are right or wrong or feeling stupid for what they have to say. Create space in your classroom to have open and honest conversations.
Using multiple ways to assess students, looking for multiple perspectives and acknowledging all responses promotes equity. Keep all religious holidays in mind when creating your schedule. It’s important to be respectful of the diversity you have on your roster and in your class.
Because every student comes to the classroom with their own set of biases and assumptions, they may sometimes voice them in ways that are inappropriate. Open dialogue is important in an equitable classroom but shutting down insensitive comments so every student feels comfortable is equally important. It can be tricky at first, but discussing inappropriate remarks immediately is a powerful tool for promoting respect and comfort for all students.
Modeling inclusion, equity, and respect for others can help students see and understand appropriate words and actions to use. Discussing proper behavior and adding it to your syllabus will make your classroom more collaborative, open, safe, and inviting.
Establish Success and Achievement Practices Through Growth Mindset
Students will only perform as well as you expect them to. Don’t let assumptions and biases color your opinion of their potential. By holding all students to high standards and promoting a growth mindset, students should naturally rise to the challenge. Getting to know your students and encouraging them to succeed is a solid step toward equity.
By setting a high bar for achievement, you encourage students to engage and avoid any stereotypes of what they’re capable of accomplishing. By encouraging a growth mindset, you are telling your students you believe in them and their ability to do well in your class.
What better way to build equity in the classroom than encouraging success and promoting the voices of your students? Students want and need meaningful ways to express their opinions, so involve them and give them a choice in class activities and assignments to aid in their success. This is especially important when students are learning remotely and you have fewer ways to check for understanding, engagement, and enthusiasm. To make sure involvement is equitable, try seeking out the perspectives of students who don’t share as much and find ways for those students to offer input.
To the extent that you can control or diversify your curriculum, consider exposing students to a variety of multicultural content. You’ll more accurately represent people in your discipline and potentially establish a cultural connection for your students.
Learning styles can vary drastically from student to student. By presenting information in different ways, using a variety of media, making sure technology is accessible, and providing additional tools and supplemental resources you can reach most every type of learner.
Secure accommodations for students whose needs are not fully met by your instructional content and practices. Follow campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, captioning videos, and arranging for student accommodations. Employ interactive teaching techniques and multiple options for communication and collaboration to have engaging and interactive classes. Make sure interactions are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities.
Assign group work so learners can collaborate and engage with other students using a variety of skills and roles. Encourage different ways for group members to interact with each other. Facilitate student engagement as needed to ensure that participants communicate in ways that are accessible and inclusive of all group members.
Set clear expectations and keep academic standards consistent. By providing assignment details, deadlines, and assessment methods well in advance, along with straightforward grading rubrics, there should be no surprises and students can ask questions as needed for help along the way.
Allow students to turn in partial work for feedback before assignments are due and give them resubmission options to correct errors to help improve success and build confidence. Consider peer feedback when appropriate for another perspective.
Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned through traditional testing, group work, presentations, papers, or portfolios. Giving students choices in assessment methods will allow for more equitable assessment practices.
Consider sharing study guides and sample test questions, hold review sessions, and discuss how to study for exams to ensure all students are successful. Assess students’ progress and provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Through regular assessment, instructional content and methods can be adjusted to reach all learners.
Encourage Institutional Equity in Learning
While the above practices are aligned with strategies an educator can use to promote equity in the classroom, this responsibility falls as much to the students and organizational leaders within a school or university as it does to the teachers. Students can positively partake in generating an equitable learning environment by simply being curious and open to the process, while listening to and learning from their peers.
Any institution that takes on the issue of equitable learning successfully can do so because their leadership is on board. Leadership has the power to create an inclusive and equitable environment to successfully serve all students. Your administration must be involved and take responsibility in this process.
Your administration must ensure that all facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are accessible to and usable by all students. Classrooms, labs, and workspaces must be accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities. Space must be made for wheelchairs and personal assistants with minimal distractions. Institutions should routinely apply UD principles in the design of facilities and renovations.
Providing an early alert system is a key element in student success and retention that institutions should invest in to help with educational equity. They are not intended to replace the guidance and mentorship faculty already provide to students in their classes. Instead, they are a way to assist and complement current efforts by connecting students to resources, or to simply tell a student that their hard work is paying off.
Institutions should be aware and mindful of all religious holidays and encourage faculty and staff to account for these observances. Program reviews help leaders take a deep look at course and college inequities to understand the complex systems that affect student performance. Similarly, student perceptions of instruction help to further identify inequities in instruction based on student ratings and feedback.
“The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone justly according to their circumstances.” – Paula Dressel
Looking for more strategies on incorporating diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the classroom? Explore our Empowered Educator event: DEI&B in the Classroom: Higher Ed Faculty Training.