Diversity-aware teaching: how can you do this in practice?

The diversity in your student group requires a diversity-conscious approach that is aimed at offering students optimal opportunities to develop themselves. This education tip focuses on all aspects of such an approach that you as a teacher can deploy and refers to a number of general principles of Ghent University’s education policy. These principles are important to all students, but are often even more crucial if you supervise students with a diverse background. This tip subsequently deals with attention to diversity in your learning material and your teaching practice. 

How do you create diversity-aware learning materials? 

Make clear and accessible learning materials 

Accessible learning material is important for all students, but especially for students with a disability, foreign-language students, etc. In addition, the clarity of the learning material is important. As such, pay attention to the language, structure and form of the material. You can read how to do this in the education tip about clear and accessible learning materials

Keep in mind the student’s environment and their diverse background 

You can stimulate and increase the involvement of students with a diverse profile in the following ways: 

  • Respond to students’ interests and, when transferring learning content, make links (where possible) to the living environment of students. Notice students’ diverse background and profiles. Where possible, link to current affairs and social debate. 
  • Reflect the diversity of society in examples, cases, images, etc. so students from different backgrounds can identify with them. 
  • Let students bring in examples or cases themselves. 
  • Provide meaningful, authentic tasks. These are tasks that are relevant and meaningful and where there are possibilities for input from students based on their own experience. If possible, allow students to choose a topic freely or offer them a list of choices. 

How do you work on a diversity-aware teaching practice? 

Create an inviting and safe learning climate with attention to the group feeling 

Create opportunities for getting to know each other 

Especially for new students or at the start of your course unit, it is recommended to introduce yourself and to let the students get to know each other. Provide an icebreaker. Even in large groups, you can give students time for a chat with their neighbour (on campus). This can be done online in breakout rooms, for example. Especially when students will have to work together (intensively) at a later stage, it is important to first spend sufficient time getting acquainted and to allow them to exchange ideas during short moments or Zoom sessions so they become familiar with each other. Therefore, gradually include cooperation in your education. 

Encourage students to participate actively 

For many students it is not easy to actively participate in large groups or in online lessons. Therefore encourage students to do this several times and use activating methods, for example the ‘think-pair-share method’: students first think individually and then have a consultation moment with their neighbour. This way, two (or more) students share the ‘responsibility’ for the answer that they, finally, share with the entire group. 

Explicitly state that students are allowed to make mistakes 

Emphasize that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Respond understandingly to incorrect answers. Interpret a wrong answer positively by finding the logic behind it. Emphasize the right and wrong aspects of the answer. If necessary, draw the error to yourself: “Apparently I did not explain that properly.” 

Set clear conversation rules  

Invite students to share their own ideas, opinions, beliefs. Welcome all contributions and interactions. However, emphasize the importance of mutual respect, trust and openness. Intervene when you notice that students do not treat each other respectfully or are insufficiently involved. For discussions about difficult or sensitive topics in which the personal opinion or beliefs of students can play an important role, you can agree on discussion rules, such as: 

  • “Everything that is discussed stays in the room.” 
  • There are no right or wrong answers, sharing your opinion and reflecting on this together is the goal. 
  • Make concise points and substantiate them. 
  • Listen respectfully to others, show interest in the perspectives of others by asking questions and do not judge immediately. 
  • Guard your own boundaries: if it becomes too personal for you or you feel uncomfortable, let the group/teacher know. 

Focus on activating, motivating and language-developing teaching 

If you teach a diverse student audience, it is important to encourage the involvement of all students in the educational activities and to offer them optimal opportunities to master the subject matter. Students who feel addressed, who experience that their input, own experiences, opinions and preferences are seen as enriching the educational learning environment, will feel more actively involved in the learning process. Therefore, focus on activating education and motivating teaching, while keeping an eye on the diversity in the student group. In your way of teaching, you can also pay attention to the students’ language development. In this way, you stimulate their academic language skills and increase the chance of study success, even for less linguistically proficient students. 

Vary and differentiate 

A student group is rarely homogeneous, even if the differences are not always immediately noticeable. It may concern differences in prior knowledge, study skills, interests, preliminary training, performance level, language knowledge, motivation, sociocultural context, (work) experience, and so on. As a teacher you can respond to these differences by varying in content, methods, teaching activities and learning materials. You can differentiate if you notice a difference in prior knowledge within the group. Read more about dealing with heterogeneous groups here. 

Support your students and refer them to others 

As a teacher, you can support students in their learning process by the way you teach. In addition to the points above, the following matters are important: 

  • Make sure you are accessible to your students. As a teacher you do not have to be continuously available, but clearly indicate when and for what you are available (online) (e.g. ‘digital consultation hour’). 
  • As a teacher, keep your finger on the pulse. If you have dealt with more difficult pieces of material, ask students to indicate afterwards via chat or in a one-minute paper what they found difficult, what they liked, what was clear, what was unclear etc. Assimilate that feedback. 
  • Do not underestimate your role as a teacher in the study career of students: in addition to being a supervisor of the learning process, you are an exemplary figure and for some students you will be a role model. You do not have to be perfect, but know that students will see you as an example when they start working on the subject matter. Be aware that your own values, standards and beliefs help determine your educational practice: “Consciously we teach what we know, unconsciously we teach who we are.” (Don E. Hamachek) 
  • Apply the graduality principle and provide regular feedback. Students need time to acquire academic competencies. Give feedback regularly: formulate work points but also emphasize successes. Guide the transition to independent and self-regulated learning, for example from observation, to imitation, to independent performance in similar contexts to independent performance in other contexts. This can be spread over the curriculum by means of learning tracks

High-quality education integrates support in the curriculum where possible: in the educational activities themselves. That is not always possible or sometimes students need extra or more intensive extracurricular guidance or help. Make use of the Referral Card.

Set clear and high expectations for all students 

Students indicate that they are more motivated when teachers genuinely believe in their talent and competencies, give them academic self-confidence, encourage and stimulate them. However, a great deal of research has shown that teachers sometimes (unconsciously) have lower expectations of students from minority groups. Teachers base their expectations on the image they have of students. That image is influenced by learning achievements. If students with diversity characteristics (gender, social origin, migration background, language at home, disability, etc.) generally perform less well, this image will (unintentionally) predominate. Certain prejudice or stereotypes can unconsciously determine that image. 

As a result of these lower expectations, students with diversity characteristics more often experience a feeling of futility. They think they have no chance of success or feel out of place. This sense of futility can in turn affect their motivation and learning performance, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

To break this vicious circle, it is important to always set the bar high for all students. Be realistic and base yourself on the final competencies that you aim for in your course unit. Make your expectations clear and explicit. The explicit message to students that it is your express wish as a teacher that everyone succeeds and that you sincerely believe that this is possible when students make the most of their efforts can be very powerful. 

Want to know more? 

Read the resources on which this education tip is based: 

  • Agirdag, O., Van Houtte, M., Stevens, P.A.J. (2011). Why Does the Ethnic and Socio-economic Composition of Schools Influence Math Achievement? The Role of Sense of Futility and Futility Culture, European Sociological Review, 28(3), 366-378.  
  • Carroll, J. (2015). Tools for teaching in an educationally mobile world. London: Routledge. 
  • Crosling, G., Heagney, M., & Thomas, L. (2009). Improving student retention in higher education: Improving teaching and learning. Australian Universities' Review, 51(2), 9. 
  • Geldof, D. (2013). Superdiversiteit. Hoe migratie onze samenleving verandert. Leuven: ACCO 
  • Hockings, C. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education: a synthesis or research. Online available at:   https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inclusive-learning-and-teaching-higher-education-synthesis-research 
  • Rubie-Davies, C., Hattie, J. and Hamilton, R. (2006). Expecting the best for students: Teacher expectations and academic outcomes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 429–444. 
  • Romein, D. (2018). Creating a safe and inclusive learning space. Universiteit Leiden: ICLON. Online avalable at: https://www.highereducationteachingandlearningguide.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Creating-a-safe-and-inclusive-learning-space.pdf 
  • Thomas, L. (2012). Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works. Student Retention & Success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  
  • van den Bergh, L., Denessen, E., Hornstra, L., Voeten, M., Holland, R. (2010). The Implicit Prejudiced Attitudes of Teachers. Relations to Teacher Expections and the Ethnic Achievement Gap, American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 497–527.
  • Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30:6, 1024-1054 

UGent Practices

Last modified Dec. 1, 2021, 11:11 a.m.