When I was a freshman at the University of Alabama in 1992, there were a few times when I was the only Black person in my classes. Some of the classes had between 100 to 350 students.
As I progressed in my major, the class sizes got smaller, but there were still times when I was the only one. In my mind, I often wondered if my classmates and instructors thought I was smart enough to be there, so I didn’t want to do or say anything to reinforce those perceived thoughts. I never asked questions and rarely engaged in class for fear of not sounding intelligent and having people think I did not understand the material. I never experienced racism at Alabama, but my knowledge of the stereotypes that existed about my race affected my sense of belonging at times.
In 2018, my colleagues and I conducted a focus group of 10 African-American males enrolled at Greenville Technical College. We wanted to find out what barriers, if any, they were facing as they pursued their degrees. Two of the four themes that emerged that day were “stereotype threat” and “sense of belonging.” It was disheartening to me that 26 years after I entered college, some students are still experiencing the same things.
Think about a time when you were the only one. Maybe you were the only White person visiting a Black church, the only man in a room full of women, the only female pursuing a predominantly male major in college or the only woman at the boardroom table. It can be uncomfortable when you are the only one, and you may think the people around you are questioning your presence or judging you. Your thoughts may not be accurate, but it doesn’t negate how you’re feeling. It can be challenging when you are in a minority group because you often worry about what people are thinking and whether you fit.
Instructors everywhere need to be aware of stereotype threat and ways to mitigate it. These simple strategies cost nothing to implement, yet positively impact students’ engagement, confidence and sense of belonging.
1. Learn the students’ names. Calling students by their names promotes the critical connection between instructors and students and dramatically affects their sense of belonging. Instructors may have multiple classes and hundreds of students, but it is essential to treat each one as an individual. Making the time to learn names is a simple way of doing that.
2. Get to know the students in your class. One of my instructors gave us an assignment called “All About Me” to get to know her students. She asked about our biggest fear and our strongest motivator. It gave her some perspective on each person, and it let the students know she cared enough to understand who we were.
3. Share some personal stories. Maybe you were the first in your family to go to college, and your parents sacrificed a lot to make that happen. Sharing that information can let another first-generation student know it’s okay to be the trailblazer in the family. It’s important not to overshare in every environment, but a personal story or two can break down walls and help students see themselves in you through your experience.
4. Accommodate all learning styles. K-12 educators use various teaching methods to accommodate all learning styles and demonstrate them in their lesson plans. Things change when students go to college as some instructors rely only on one approach. If instructors lecture for most of the class session, auditory learners excel while visual, kinesthetic and other learners struggle to understand the material. By diversifying instructional methods, all students’ learning styles are included, increasing their ability to achieve.
5. Check for understanding periodically. If students are not asking questions or engaging in class, that’s usually a bad sign. Students may be confused, bored, intimidated or have checked out mentally. Use strategies such as non-graded assignments, small group discussions and quizzes to assess students’ understanding of the material before you move forward. Otherwise, many students will be left behind.
6. Encourage students to ask questions. Let the students know it is okay to ask questions in class, and treat each question with respect. Never dismiss a question, appear aggravated or show impatience if a student is brave enough to raise his or her hand.
7. Promote communication outside of class. Many students are uncomfortable asking questions in class and are often too scared to seek their instructors’ help outside of class. Let them know your office hours, email address and phone number, and assure them you are happy to help.