Jocelyn McWhirter, Albion College Center for Teaching and Learning

July 5, 2017

This guide is arranged by six topics: fostering academic success; reducing stereotype threat; cultivating a growth mindset; teaching first-year students; managing classroom dynamics; and understanding and eliminating racism. All referenced books are available in Albion’s CTL library (Ferguson 108).


I. Fostering Academic Success

Gabriel, Kathleen. Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education. Gabriel is a professor at California State University (Chico). Her strategies include the following: developing a teaching philosophy aimed at promoting opportunities and success for all students; clearly articulating expectations during the first week of class; writing a learner-centered syllabus; creating a positive, learner-centered classroom climate; adapting teaching practices to the science of learning; assessing student learning; and promoting academic integrity.

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose et al. It seems obvious that cognitive elements—such as a strong base of previous knowledge, the ability to organize new knowledge, the attainment of mastery, practice and feedback, and self-direction—all play an important role in student learning. But emotional factors are also at work, including motivation, developmental maturity, and course climate. 

College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students, by Terrell L. Strayhorn. Strayhorn, a professor of higher education at Ohio State University, argues that academic success depends in large part on the student’s sense of belonging. “Belonging,” he says, “refers to students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling . . . important to the group” (p. 3). He focuses on Latino students, gay students, first-year students, STEM students of color, and black males.

Faculty Development for Gateway Courses. This presentation was made at the 2016 POD Conference. One of the presenters was Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and professor of history at Elon University. He posted this summary: “Gateway courses introduce students to essential disciplinary content and, too often, also have high student withdrawal and failure rates. Because of this, these courses disproportionately affect student persistence, timely graduation, and sense of belonging—particularly for underrepresented students. Faculty and faculty developers are key actors who can improve student learning and outcomes in gateway courses.” Felten and his colleagues ask, “What is our goal as teachers of gateway courses? Are we weeding out students or are we facilitating their success?”

Felton et al. also point out that academic success often depends on cultural capital. In most colleges and universities, they say, cultural capital is “knowledge (through experience), values, attitudes, language, and tastes of the more [affluent] classes. . . . Those who possess cultural capital have advantages over those who do not.” They suggest Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) as a way to increase the cultural capital of first-generation college students. The TILT project was developed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at UNLV. “Transparent teaching methods,” says Wilkelmes, “help students understand how and why they are learning course content in particular ways” (that is, ways consistent with the knowledge and values of college-educated people). She offers tips for transparent learning strategies, disciplinary methods, classroom agendas, assignments, and grading.

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson. Thirty years old and still relevant. Principles include student-to-faculty contact, student-to-student cooperation and reciprocation, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning.

IDEA Notes on Instruction. Teaching tips for helping students to answer their own questions, helping them to interpret subject matter from different perspectives, and using the seventeen other teaching methods on which students evaluate us.

Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, by Richard J. Light. Harvard students explain how they made the most of their four years. Emphasis on relationships, diversity, and “What College Leaders Can Do” to create a culture of inclusion and opportunity.


II. Reducing Stereotype Threat

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, by Claude M. Steele.

What it is: Steele and his psychologist colleagues think of stereotype threat as a result of “the pressure of group stereotypes”; a pressure that comes into play when people’s    “performance [can] confirm a bad view of their group and of themselves, as members of that group” (p. 59). 

How it can affect our students: When students experience stereotype threat, their protective instincts go into hyper-drive. Their brains are so busy trying to defy the stereotype and guard their image that they can’t give their whole attention to the business at hand. Their performance often suffers.

What we can do:

  1. Provide “critical feedback.” Be explicit about our high standards. When students fail to meet those standards, tell them you think they can. Then explain exactly what they have to do (p. 163).
  2. Educate students about growth mindset (p. 168). Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has pioneered the research about mindset. Human intelligence is not fixed, she concludes. We can all learn if we make an effort. Her research has profound implications for how we teach all students, especially those who have learned that their success depends on innate intelligence more than hard work. For more information about mindset, see below.
  3. Change cues about inclusion. If students’ identity groups seem under-represented in academic disciplines, they will feel less like they belong in our department – or at college in general. Post multi-cultural pictures in classrooms and hallways, says Steele. Broaden representation in syllabi and lectures (p. 171, in the footnote). For more information on inclusion and classroom dynamics, see below.
  4. Early on, give students the opportunity for self-affirmation. Have them “write down their two or three most important values” followed by “a brief paragraph about why those values [are] important to them” (p. 174). This simple private exercise has been shown to improve the performance of negatively-stereotyped students for as long as three years.
  5. Cultivate positive teacher-student relationships. Practice learner-centered teaching; use diversity as a classroom asset; be approachable (p. 180).
  6. Foster intergroup conversations (p. 167). Although this is more of a strategy for the residence hall, we can integrate our classrooms as well – especially since students tend to self-segregate.
  7. Change the narrative about new-student alienation (p. 165). Learning the ropes is always difficult, and even more so when a student’s cultural background is very different from college culture. For students facing stereotype threat, it helps to know that all first-year students feel alienated, and that upper-class students from their identity groups eventually felt more included.

Reducing Stereotype Threat: Strategies for Instructors. More ideas for cultivating growth mindset, providing critical feedback, and fostering a sense of belonging. From The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis.


III. Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. Students with fixed mindsets believe that their intellect and abilities are essentially innate traits that can’t be significantly developed. If they think they are not good with certain skills or subject areas, they have no incentive to learn. Those with growth mindsets, however, realize that human intelligence is not fixed. Our brains can generate new neurons and make new connections. Growth-mindset students know that, if they make the necessary effort, they can learn just about anything.

Mindset Online. Introduces the basics about mindset, the relationship between mindset and achievement, and instructions for changing your mindset. There’s also a page for parents, teachers, and coaches.

Mindsetworks. Online tools for cultivating a growth mindset culture and promoting growth mindset in students, among other things.

Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students, by Alexander W. Astin. Astin, a professor emeritus at UCLA and a highly influential thinker in the field of higher education, argues that privileging intelligence in admissions and teaching only adds to student stress and effectively marginalizes education. Faculty culture, he says, lies at “the core of the problem.” “The priority that faculty attach to smartness can be seen in almost everything they do: student recruitment and selective admissions, testing and grading, honors programs, merit aid, faculty recruitment, collegial relations, and the academic reward system (in particular, the value of research over teaching)” (p. 86). “They have created a culture that venerates smartness,” he says, “but they happen to be employed in institutions where their main responsibility is to educate students” (p. 88). For Astin, the “way out” involves revaluing “smartness” and committing ourselves to educating all students (Chapter 7).

They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier, by Sheila Tobias. Tobias has worked in higher education as a professor, an administrator, and a consultant. “Not every student who doesn’t do science can’t do science,” she writes. “Many simply choose not to” (p. 13). Her recommendations for recruiting and retaining STEM students: avoid classifying students as those who can and cannot do science and math; recruit and support all students in introductory STEM courses; provide role models and mentors; welcome nontraditional STEM students and give them the tools to succeed (pp. 87–88).


IV. Teaching and Mentoring First-Year Students

What Are the Skills Every 18-Year-Old Needs?” ( Julie Lythcott-Haims lists eight necessary skills (for example, talk to strangers in the real world). This short article is a helpful reminder that many of our students have turned 18 without them. Lythcott-Haims has 30 years of experience at Stanford University, including service as Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising.

Helping First-Year Students Help Themselves,” by Christine B. Whelan (The Chronicle of Higher Education). Whelan, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discusses how adult skills (or lack thereof) influences the success of first-year college students.

How to Support First-Generation College Students.” Colleen Lutz Clemens, a first-generation college graduate and professor of non-Western literature at Kutztown University, offers advice for first-year, first-generation students. We can offer it, too. From the website Teaching Tolerance.

Why First-Generation College Students Need Mentors Who Will Get Them” (PBS News Hour Essay). Jennine Capó Crucet, a professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of Make Your Home among Strangers, shares her experience as a first-generation college student.

Closing the Gap for First-Generation College Students” (The Chronicle of Higher Education). Kathleen McCartney, a first-generation college graduate, shares lessons learned at Smith College where she is now president. Among them: “Many first-generation and low-income students start college with less preparation than their peers. Mentoring is a powerful way to close that gap.”

Mentoring: The Five C Approach, from “The Positive Encourager” website by mentoring consultant Mike Pegg. This is a decent model for the kind of mentoring we learned about at the Building PathFinder Connections retreat in June, 2017. The key is how mentors best help students to explore their options: by listening and asking questions. “What do you want?” “What’s important about that?” “What do you see as your biggest challenges?” “What else?” “What would you like to do?” “What would happen if you . . . ?” “What’s your next step?”

Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students, by Robert Leamnson. A former biology professor at UMass, Dartmouth, Leamnson makes some remarkable claims. Here’s one: “There is nothing to be gained . . . by dwelling on our students’ prior schooling. But neither can we be content with them as we find them. Seeing them as flawed vessels will only tempt us to pour in what we can and hope it doesn’t all leak out. The more constructive view is that they are neither finished nor vessels, but works in progress, perhaps behind schedule and maybe in need of some retrofitting” (p. viii).  Here’s another: “One of the most obstinate notions that needs dislodging from the minds of new students is their conviction that school, including college, does not deal with real things. . . . School has come to represent a totally contrived and artificial system. It has, in other words, all of the required elements of a game. . . . New students are quite prepared to play a game by any rules we lay down, but they do not take readily to mixing up ‘school facts’ and their real beliefs. Doing so requires a conceptual change.” (p. 39).


V. Managing Classroom Dynamics

Culturally Proficient Instruction by Kikanza Nuri Robins et al. A workbook on assessing your classroom culture, valuing its diversity, managing difference, and working for organizational change. Premise: culturally proficient instruction does not begin with the teacher’s familiarity with student cultural backgrounds. Instead, teachers need to be familiar with their own backgrounds, understanding that their values and expectations are specific to their culture. They are not necessarily the values and expectations of the students.

“Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom”: A collection of twenty articles such as “Creating an Inclusive and Respectful Classroom Environment” and “Building a Collegial Classroom across Cultures.” Download from Faculty Focus.

The Culturally Inclusive Educator, by Dena R. Samuels. Topics include preparing to teach a diverse group, building culturally inclusive classrooms, and reflecting on diversity.

All the Classroom’s a Stage,” by Sarah Rose Cavanagh (The Chronicle of Higher Education). Cavanagh, a professor of psychology at Assumption College, points out that all conversation, including classroom lecture and discussion, involves negotiating status. “Teachers, especially college professors, come with high status preinstalled,” she writes. “We sweep into the room with our Ph.D.s, our jargon, our mysterious notes to shuffle, and, of course, our ability to cast judgment on students in ways that could open or close doors to their desired futures. Then we demand that they stretch out their tender necks and hazard guesses that might betray their ignorance or (worse) their shallowness or strangeness of thought. . . . Such pressures are present for every student. But just imagine how much heavier the burden for students who walk in already under a big spotlight due to their ethnicity, gender identity, or disability status. No wonder so many students risk getting docked a few participation points rather than lay their unadorned thoughts on the table to be scrutinized. To participate is to risk a lowering of one’s status.”

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014). Here’s an insightful microaggressions taxonomy from UCSC. And here are some helpful suggestions from Diane J. Goodman for responding to microaggressions.


VI. Understanding and Eliminating Racism

“Racism is a system of advantage based on race” (David Wellman, Portraits of White Racism).

“Racial prejudice combined with social power—access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision-making—leads to the institution of racist policies and practices” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?).

Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology, ed. James Marsh et al. How we got to be racist is complicated, but we don’t have to stay that way. Learn more from Jill Mason’s subject guide on Are We Born Racist? 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Because of race and racial identity, says Beverly Daniel Tatum. Tatum, a psychologist and past president of Spelman College, explains why black students can’t ignore these issues.

Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Topics include school resegregation, race and achievement, cross-racial relationships, and educating students for citizenship in a democracy.

Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School, ed. Mica Pollock. Topics include race, opportunity, curriculum, teaching and learning, family and community, and systemic inequality.

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