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Parallel session 10: Supporting Diversity in the Classroom

04 October 2017

What does diversity mean? Who is the traditional student? Who isn’t? Defining diversity is not easy.

“When we started to articulate what we mean, [the topic of] diversity becomes quite open-ended and multi-level”.

So say Sunniva Braaten, President of the Student Parliament, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Norway and Alvin Birdi, Director of the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching and the Undergraduate Academic Director, University of Bristol, UK.

They jointly chaired a group discussion on supporting diversity in the classroom at the First European Learning and Teaching Forum in Paris.

Birdi and Braaten invited delegates to think about two principles in terms of approaching diversity and inclusion: personalised learning and continuous support.


Personalising the learning experience

Active and student-centred pedagogies such as the flipped classroom and blended learning challenge teachers to re-think their roles as guides and facilitators, said Birdi. They also drive student responsibility.

“Digitising the lecture activates students in a sense, and gives them a chance to give feedback and to participate in developing the courses. It helps predict what they need.”

The benefit of these pedagogies is that they empower students to self-diagnose and define what they need.

Continuous support

Inclusive support is permissive rather than selective, said Birdi. At Bristol University, students and professors keep a portfolio of strength – an act of self-reflection as a learning experience, he said, that helps students identify a need they might not realise they have.

“Good examples of continuous staff developments are hard to find,” said Braaten. “One-off development is ok but that’s all it is. Relevance and meaningfulness matter here. Should we have reward systems for staff who develop their teaching? Could this be a way to break down barriers – having teaching practices discussed across faculties, and disciplines?”

Exchanging best practices – and bad ones – is key to this.

Class size and architecture

Sharing their experiences, some delegates argued that group sizes and facilities at universities could be barriers to certain pedagogical practices – the flipped classroom, blended learning – that encourage self-paced and autonomous learning.

Most agreed that the notion of “pedagogical freedom” was a good thing – though students are at times “passive” in their learning and prone to needing varying degrees of direction.

Things are moving, said some, but we have to recognise that they are moving slowly.

That said, many voiced appreciation for government and institution-level incentives to recognise and reward initiatives in diversity and inclusion.


Diagnostic testing

Another group of participants highlighted the need to include “traditional” students in testing methods. The problem, some argued, is that diagnostic testing could lead to a negative feedback loop – communicating weaknesses to students that could demotivate and demoralise. Singling out, they said, could lead to negative outcomes.

The group advocated peer mentoring and involving older students or alumni to drive a sense of community and support.

Faculty diversity

Teacher diversity as well as student diversity was also key in building international outlooks, broadening perspectives and cross-cultural communication skills. Some universities said that diversity in the faculty had been built into hiring strategy .

Barriers to professional development

Some delegates regretted that staff training and development opportunities were not taken up sufficiently in their universities .

Staff are used to being experts in their field. Acknowledging a need – or even knowing that you have a weakness through unconscious basis – might be barriers to seeking out development mechanisms.

This might be addressed through institution-level culture. A culture of life-long learning and self-reflection will drive intelligent insight and drive solutions to barriers, said some.

Your pedagogical portfolio

Some delegates discussed the benefits of curating and publishing a personal pedagogical portfolio covering practices and outcomes. And the benefits of sharing these findings with colleagues to build self-knowledge and community.
A final remark from one delegate put the case for lecturing as a relevant and non-passive methodology. “We hear a lot of negative things about the sage on the stage, but lecturing is a vital means of conveying information – it is an experience that still provides multiple experiences. Remember that we encourage active listening. Active thinking. Exploration of ideas.”

Others agreed. Demonising one methodology over another was fruitless. No one method could or should trump another.

Finding a balance across different approaches to reach different students, it was agreed, can inform “good teaching.”


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