Teaching Today

Is Your Math Course Racist?

Regardless of how quantitative their disciplines are, STEM faculty members also need to care about the science of inclusive pedagogy, José Antonio Bowen argues.

September 15, 2021
 
 
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While about the same percentage of Black students declare STEM majors as white students, Black students are significantly less likely to successfully earn a STEM degree. Yet despite an increased awareness of structural racism on our campuses, I’ve not seen greater numbers of STEM faculty attending the workshops that I regularly conduct on inclusive teaching. The excuses are familiar: “I teach facts” or “My field has clear standards for excellence; students just need to work harder” or “My content is already determined.”

All good teaching is inclusive teaching. Your teaching is a place where you can increase equity at your institution. But if you’re finding racial disparities in your pass rates, then your class might be an example of structural racism.

We should all care about transparency, belonging, engagement, scaffolding and modeling change -- these inclusive practices may have a stronger benefit for marginalized students, but they reflect good pedagogy in any situation. Regardless of your content or discipline, and how quantitative it is, you could be reaching and supporting more and more varied students with attention to such principles.

All good teaching also combines human relationships and design -- both the reality of and student perceptions of our caring, clarity, fairness and organization influence student learning. How you set up your syllabus, your responsiveness to questions and email, your classroom examples, your recognition of stereotype threat, how you discuss your own failures, whether you set up study groups, whom you call on and how, and how you talk to students are all places where unconscious bias can make you appear less welcoming to all students than you might think you are.

A (false) assumption in STEM disciplines is that the “facts,” “standards” and “content” are free from bias and that gaps in performance are all due to inadequate student preparation. Even if that were so, you still have a choice in how you present material and which scientists you give extra attention to -- say, in a picture in the slides you present in a course. We know that women and other students do less well when they feel like outsiders in your field and that they do better in classes with more diversity, where you look like them. If you don’t, you can’t change that, but you can highlight someone who does look like them from the history of your discipline by, for example, featuring one of these TED talks by brilliant women in STEM.

If you are a white male professor and announce a summer research opportunity in your lab, Black students are less likely to apply unless you make an extra effort. Try adding that you hope a diversity of students will apply, or better yet, make a quiet and personal invitation after class to that -- perhaps solitary -- Black student in your class.

There is plentiful science and research to help STEM faculty teach more equitably, including many discipline-specific teaching journals. We also know, for example, that cognitive load is limited: if students are shopping or trolling Twitter, they are clearly paying less attention in class (and research finds a third of students in large lecture classes are preoccupied with these pursuits at any moment). At almost any pedagogy workshop, you would discover that more active learning helps students focus, and you can apply many successful and well-tested STEM pedagogies along those lines: peer instruction, collaborative problem solving or jigsaw techniques. You might also learn that real-world examples or perceived relevance also help. For instance, a preclass survey about what students think they know about your course and how they hope to benefit from it is an easy way to prepare more meaningful and engaging examples.

You probably already know that if your slides have too many words or images, they are distracting. That, too, is good practice that derives from cognitive load theory: you want to limit the things that might distract students or force them to use valuable cognitive load for nonessential tasks, such as when one has difficulty remembering an unfamiliar name.

So, for example, perhaps math problems with Charles and Steve dividing apples are familiar and require no extra cognitive effort for you. Those are simple names to you, but they are also less relevant to me. (I never once encountered a José using math in a word problem in school.) You might engage more students if, at least occasionally, it was Abdul or Carlos who went to the market and had to divide up figs and guavas.

If that seems to require a bit more working memory on your part, then should you not be spreading out that cognitive distraction? Note that students like seeing their own names in problems -- my name grabs my attention -- so try using the names of students in your class for your examples and problems. It will build community and motivation -- both good teaching practices -- and be less racist and sexist, too.

By the way, no one really cares if train B catches up with train A. Ever. Could you teach the same math with something more relevant and motivating by, for example, asking how many new voters campus group A needs to register to catch up with group B? Imagine how much more motivated students would be if each could choose (choice also increases intrinsic motivation) to do word problems in a topic of interest? Maybe your field needs a shared database of problems, sorted by topic and problem type, that also allows you to customize and offer a diversity of names and experiences in the problems.

Five Basic Concepts

Here are some basic inclusive concepts that we can all apply in our teaching.

Belonging. Do you actively demonstrate that you care about every student and believe they can all succeed? It is the combination of high standards and support that is the real magic of all good teaching: everyone deserves both. Does your syllabus, for example, include language that says and implies that you see and care about all students? (Ask to make sure.) Do you make the effort to learn the preferred names and pronouns of students? If it is a large class, students can make table tents so you can see how they like to be addressed. Do your examples and problems use a variety of names, genders and situations? Even if your class is huge, try greeting students at the door to your classroom and learning even a few more names.

Creating community has been shown to be especially effective in STEM courses. Uri Treisman eliminated racial achievement gaps in calculus by pairing collaborative learning with an emphasis on student strengths and ability, and his mathematics workshop program has been widely replicated and extended to related fields (like computer science).

Transparency. Could you provide more clarity and even rubrics for what counts in a good lab report or anything else students are doing? First-generation students might wonder why you only assign the odd-numbered problems and might feel it is a “stupid” question. Do they not know whom to ask?

Every course has a hidden curriculum of everything from your jargon preferences and the rules about plagiarism to the purpose of office hours. Articulate good study behaviors, like doing extra problems, and ask previous students what was initially mysterious to them and provide answers to FAQs in your learning management system.

The cost of your textbook is another source of inequity. Start by asking if some students do not have textbooks -- or delay getting them -- because of the expense and are thus less likely to persist in your courses. Open educational resources will provide the greatest benefit to your poorest students, both saving them money and giving them access to learning resources. Even in a large class, you could ask on the first day if everyone has access to the materials.

Engagement. Do you provide early feedback and relevant real-world examples? Do you vary your teaching strategies, assignments and examples? Do you consider your students’ prior knowledge and motivation? Both belonging and engagement rely on how much you know and care about your students. Conducting an anonymous midterm survey and asking for feedback on how to make your class better speaks volumes.

Active learning and peer interaction were also shown to be especially valuable during the recent pivot to online classes. There is a substantial literature to help you implement these more equitable pedagogies. Active learning, in particular, has now been demonstrated to reduce achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate STEM classes, and STEM faculty participation in teaching workshops results in more active learning.

Scaffolding. We know that students who do more work benefit, but do students know when, where and what work they need to do? More frequent mastery testing and second-chance testing can significantly increase performance -- doubling the number of A’s in a recent study of an undergraduate engineering class. The best coaches, designers and teachers illuminate the path, considering where mistakes are likely to occur and what will support student persistence. Does every assignment articulate its purpose or connection to a learning goal?

A checklist provides the elements of an assignment. Scaffolding goes beyond that to give students guidance in managing how they study. It answers questions like: Are there different ways to study effectively -- such as with flash cards, by tackling harder problems or doing more highlighting? Do you need to do the problems in order? What do you do about the problems you can’t answer? How long should each part take? Do you need to space out your studying -- like finishing a draft the day before so you can check it with fresh eyes the next day? A study scaffolding can help students determine how much time is required and also what study habits, activities and places can support their goals.

Model change. Do you talk about your own failures or those of your discipline? Do you stop and explore why wrong answers provided in your class are wrong or how those mistakes might also contain insight? Critical thinking and change are hard and require increased tolerance for ambiguity. Students have been conditioned to want right answers, and your class may even be reinforcing the idea that science is about undisputed facts and content. But science is really about experimenting and testing hypotheses against ever-changing data. Do you emphasize only the correct answer or also process? Understanding how previous scientists overturned the ideas of their professors is inspiring and empowering. Even, maybe especially, in STEM, there is an opportunity to reinforce the value of ambiguity, different perspectives and changing your mind.

Further, STEM departments often do not see the bias in how they place students into classes. Recent research finds that predictive analytics (algorithms using multiple measures) are less likely to put students into noncredit remedial courses than the placement tests that 71 percent of colleges use to track students. Better placement benefits both institutions (through lower costs) and students (who are more likely to pass more advanced credit classes and gather credits more quickly).

Dealing with unconscious bias is uncomfortable and hard, but Ibram X. Kendi argues persuasively that our institutional focus should be on results. He demonstrates that racist thinking arises from racist outcomes that then lead to racist explanations. We need to look harder at the results and how our systems -- placement tests and pedagogy -- are contributing to unequal outcomes. When we assume our good intentions cannot be the cause, we open ourselves to racist or false explanations, like, “This student must be too lazy or too damaged to succeed in our field.”

We will need to look carefully and with forgiveness at our own practice and policies if we are truly to begin making our classrooms and institutions more inclusive. I’ve mentioned plenty of small things here as a way to start, but you can only really begin with the awareness that, despite your intentions or experience -- even perhaps because of them -- the way you teach may not be as inclusive as you think. Even if you believe deeply in the ideals of inclusion, you owe it to your students and yourself to dig deeper into the scholarship of inclusive teaching -- and maybe even attend a workshop.

Bio

José Antonio Bowen is former president of Goucher College and the author of Teaching Naked and Teaching Change, to be published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is also a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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