Universities Scotland

Race Equality Toolkit

Learning and Teaching

Racial Equality Strategies in Learning and Teaching

#1Classroom environment

1.1Are all students valued equally regardless of their ethnicity, culture, faith and diverse backgrounds?

Now I get the feeling from staff, they are going “ah … the Polish students are really good.” As though, though these are foreign students, because they are from Europe, they are a cut above the Indians, Chinese and Africans

academic staff comment

Providing respect to all students in an equitable manner is a principle held important by lecturers. Constant self-monitoring by the lecturer will ensure that some students are not valued more or less than others due to specific characteristics e.g. fluency in English, nationality, gender, culture, faith and so on.

Discussion held with staff and students to assist in shaping this resource suggests that students are likely to pick up on such attitudes which in turn can affect learning and student self-esteem.

If the student cohort is diverse, endeavour to find out some information about the countries, cultures and faith backgrounds students are from, particularly if these countries, cultures or faith groups are ones you are less familiar with. Remember that even if two students come from the same town or city, there should be no assumptions that there will be commonalities between these students. Factors such as age, gender, faith/belief, sexual orientation, social class, geography and ethnic grouping, as well as other characteristics, affect how students may or may not relate to each other.

Seek opportunities to ensure that all students engage in discussions; it may be appropriate and effective to consult with student groups on this issue, with emphasis being placed on what participation means and why students should contribute. It may also be prudent to identify and address any potential barriers that could prevent students contributing.

Help break down any potential awkwardness or barriers in your diverse student group by encouraging students to learn each other’s names and to get to know each other in an introductory small group discussion session (it is not that unusual for students to study alongside each other semester after semester or within tutorial groups without knowing how to correctly pronounce a fellow student’s name properly). Use students’ names when you call on them or respond to them. Be vigilant that you are not calling students who you can remember, or whose names are easier to pronounce, more frequently. (See also Within the context of race equality, how can the quality of lecturer/student relationships affect the learning environment in the class?)

Students largely do not wish to draw attention to themselves, particularly if they have concerns. Create an environment that is enabling for students to discuss different ideas and views openly and to feel able to speak to you, whether that be to seek advice, to share suggestions for enhancing the course or to share concerns. Give permission for students to seek clarification or to stay behind to speak with you. This will enable students who are shy, reticent or from backgrounds where it is not common to approach the “learned” lecturer to feel able to speak up or seek your time.

Be sensitive to the fact that those who are in the minority may be more at risk of feeling isolated, awkward, different, or undervalued, whether because of colour, ethnicity, being in a linguistic minority, or coming from groups that hold less power within UK society or whose views may receive negative attention in contemporary media/society (e.g. a faith perspective which opposes abortion). This is not to deny that students who are part of the majority group may also in reality be a minority in class — this could, for example, be the case with white male students. However, the difference is that other than in the class, such students can merge back into a majority group. Feeling isolated, alienated or clearly different can have an impact on the learning environment and on individual students’ capacity to engage and learn.

Susan Hellmundt has written a paper discussing how to better facilitiate the participation of international students while trying to internationalise curricula. The good practice suggestions have wider benefits for all students. See The internationalisation of the tertiary curriculum.

1.2Is racism within the learning environment — whether overt, covert, intended or unintended — swiftly addressed?

This was the only black minority ethnic student in the learning group — this student complained that he was being ostracised, others keeping things from him. I investigated and found out that was the case. I think tutors need to be aware that these things might be happening

academic staff comment

Comments from fellow students that demonstrate insensitivity on racial, cultural or faith matters need to be addressed swiftly but thoughtfully by the lecturer. If this is not done, such comments will appear to be legitimised.

As a lecturer, you may work quite hard to be inclusive and respectful of diversity within the student cohort. However, failure to address injurious statements or to mediate between the “freedom of speech — anything goes” position and the “politically correct — you should never say anything controversial in case it offends” can affect the hard work you have put in to ensure respect for diversity.

Lecturers engaged in courses where controversial or sensitive issues are likely to be discussed as part of course content should consider setting ground rules early on about codes for engagement and what the shared goals of learning are. These ground rules can help to enable fruitful discussion in a space where it is safe to participate, thereby taking advantage of any diversity of perspectives and experiences present.

Comments based on ignorance from fellow students provide educational opportunities to raise discussions on topics. It is important not to avoid what might be considered difficult topics to discuss, for example, sexism and the treatment of women within different cultures.

Quite frankly, and I am going to be honest, but there is nowhere to go for racial discrimination. There is not really a proper system that quickly deals with the situation … there’s so much paperwork … so people don’t really know where to go if they have issues. Most just ignore whatever is happening to them and get on with life. Students are too busy trying to get through coursework — who can be bothered with the hassle?

student comment

It should be made clear to all students that support will be available if students encounter discriminatory behaviour (including racism) within the context of learning. As part of induction, students should be informed of the mechanisms for seeking support. Students are often very reluctant to come forward as they do not wish to be perceived as complaining or having a “victim” mentality so it is important for lecturers to be proactive in this area. Where students have come forward, it is important to review and monitor their experience so that the students know that the support and advice systems work.

One of the challenges facing lecturers is the ever changing nature of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. A student who is perfectly reasonable on most issues could unexpectedly utter quite insensitive and prejudicial comments on a topic they might feel quite strongly about. It is also not uncommon to find a student who takes a strong anti-racist line being quite opinionated or prejudiced against particular cultural groups or for someone from a minority ethnic background to be racially prejudiced against another minority ethnic individual. The need for the lecturer to detect and then address a range of values and attitudes can be daunting. Some will opt to ignore the situation. Others who have more confidence will address the situation. If in doubt, seek advice from others within the campus who have expertise in these areas. Ignoring the situation is not advisable.

1.3Do other learning environments, such as the virtual learning environment, promote and assist equality and diversity?

The virtual learning environment (VLE) allows greater flexibility of access to learning materials and discussion forums. It enhances the student experience of existing teaching methods. Those who place materials onto the VLE, whether for on-line courses only or for delivering in a classroom, could be provided with brief guidance on equality and accessibility issues e.g. avoidance of unnecessary jargon and “eduspeak“.

A positive feature of the VLE is that it can afford a degree of neutrality (for example, the ethnicity or gender of a person is not an immediate visible presence and reminder), fostering open discussions and/or co-operative and collaborative study. To enable this, it is important to remind students of the principle that all communication should be respectful of other learners and, in the case of e-mails, respectful of the recipients. Moderators of the VLE, particularly those involved in discussion forums, need to ensure that prejudiced, offensive or discriminatory materials are removed immediately.

However, if you have a student cohort with different levels of academic fluency in English or students from a range of nationality and cultural backgrounds, you may wish to create opportunities or spaces within the learning package for students to develop commonalities as well as to acknowledge diverse perspectives and values.

It is unlikely that students would be openly prejudiced or offensive; however, the tone and content of responses might play on innuendos to elicit a negative effect. The skill is to be able to detect discussions which border on prejudicial attitudes through utilising rhetorical devices. For example, a discussion about unemployment statistics might lead some discussants to suggest that the statistics are not helped with the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants and cultural groups that have children at early ages. The lecturer’s task in moderating is to assist students in establishing facts and to steer discussants away from statements which can lead or confirm prejudiced ideas or opinions.

It is recommended that students be offered a short “Netiquette” guide on postings within the VLE. The sample provided can be amended to suit different course requirements1.

1.4Within the context of race equality, how can the quality of lecturer/student relationships affect the learning environment in the class?

Scottish students have an innate advantage because they have the language and culture, they can easily build a good relationship with their [Scottish] lecturer.

student comment

I would feel a lot more comfortable if my lecturer remembered my name and not just refer to me as “you over there” when I put my hand up. I think it helps good integration if lecturers make this effort.

student comment

Section 4 focuses on what the academic can do to meet the diversity within a student cohort. Visible differences such as those based on colour are easy to observe. However, there are also unseen diversity issues related to ethnicity such as nationality, culture, religion, family and tribal histories which all interplay to provide a complex group of learners. It is also important to pause to consider that members of the academic institution also contribute to diversity by their presence. How you speak, look, discuss your views and opinions, and prioritise what to teach can all have an effect on the interactions in your classroom. Being mindful of your impact on the range of your learners is important2.

It is easier to be receptive when learners have rapport with their lecturers. For students who are in the minority within the university student population — e.g. international students and minority ethnic students — the need to “belong”, or not to be viewed, per se, as problematic, may be present. How these students are received, valued, and recognised by lecturers is important for the self-esteem of the individual students and for the ethos of the course group.

In classes, where it is possible, refer to students by their names, rather than using general references, such as “the student second from the left”, or specific references to visible markers, such as “the student wearing the turban”.

If and when using names, it is important to remember the names of students from visible minorities, taking care with pronunciation and accuracy of address. Too often, names of minority ethnic students appear more difficult to remember, and the lecturer remembers the names of others more easily. This may cause more interaction between lecturers and those whose names they remember and find easy to pronounce — for example, the lecturers may ask those whose names they remember for views and suggestions more frequently than other students. This can give the impression that those who are referred to more often are more valued. The reverse may also occur where visible minority ethnic students are constantly asked their views as an inclusive gesture from lecturers. In such situations, the individual student might feel “placed on the spot” and other students might feel they are less valued or that there is positive discriminationn in favour of visible minorities.

Some students may be used to a learning experience where lecturers will know students’ names and will address students personally. One suggestion is for lecturers to ask students to write a short biography of themselves in the first class, or to dedicate some time in class for “introductions”. This will not only allow the lecturer to become familiar with the students and their backgrounds, but also allow students to feel that they are building a positive relationship with their lecturer, opening avenues for future development. It is appreciated that this may not be possible in lectures where hundreds of students are in attendance.

Care needs to be taken to be sensitive to terminology. For example, use of inappropriate words during lectures, such as referring to visible minorities as “coloureds” (a manner of address that has historical political connotations and is now considered outdated and inappropriate) or to “the UK and Europe” (since the UK is part of Europe) or to Southern nations consistently as “the Third World”, gives out cues of potential insensitivity to matters of race equality and to the dynamics of globalised discourses.

1.5Is there consideration of how being in a minority in a student group might impact on learning and teaching?

Visible minority ethnic students may face challenges simply as a result of “looking” different, and the classroom environment can inadvertently be discriminatory as a result.

The lecturer was talking about the first earthquake detector invented in China about 2,000 years ago. He proceeded to ask the Chinese student all about it and we were like, “oh my goodness, this is ridiculous”. If I were put on the spot like that I’d feel self-conscious.

student comment

I feel self-conscious the whole time — every single second

student comment

Visible minority ethnic students can be noticed more easily, so care should be taken to ensure that these students are not singled out by, for example, treating them as spokespeople for their ethnic, cultural or faith group.

Pose questions about particular groups to the whole class, rather than directing them to members of the group in question. Some students from a visible minority background may feel that they are getting undue attention if they are being asked to supplement knowledge/experience from the perspective of their group. For example, in a class where the topic of discussion is about women and feminism, the lecturer attempting to be inclusive may ask an Asian woman student in the class to talk about the perspective of her culture. This is likely to place that individual in a difficult position; it may make her feel unduly burdened, and can cause resentment or withdrawal from future active participation in the class or tutorial group. It would also subliminally promote the notion that Asian culture is a single entity and homogeneous.

Phrase questions in such a way that students can draw from the diverse experiences of friends and colleagues as well as their own experiences.

Avoid assumptions that all students from the same nationality, culture, or faith group share similar viewpoints. It is highly likely they do not.

Avoid any assumption that students from particular cultures or nationalities are likely to be more argumentative or more passive in their participation in class. Such stereotyped perceptions can affect lecturer/student relationships as well as participation within class.

When engaging in group work, keep an eye open for visible minority students being excluded, subtly or otherwise — e.g. not being picked for a group project, being the last to be selected into a group, not being allowed to participate fully, or having their views taken less seriously by their peers or by the lecturer. If necessary, engage the class in discussing what inclusive rules for group work might entail.

Students may face certain challenges that unfairly compromise their learning environment. For example, students may not be allowed to do assignments on certain topics because of the instructor’s assumption about the students’ biases. In one example within a particular course in the USA, women wearing Islamic headscarves were easily identified as Muslim and were not allowed to write an essay on Islam on the assumption that they would have an unfair advantage in the topic area; it was more difficult to identify students as Christian from their appearance, so they were not prevented from writing papers on Christianity.

Avoid making assumptions about students — for example, that a Muslim student wearing a hijab or jilbab will not be able to cope with certain placements or academic activity, such as researching the needs of male migrant workers. Check any concerns out with the student rather than assuming negative capacity.

1.6Managing student diversity: how can lecturers assist the management of inter-ethnic or intercultural value differences?

A range of factors may create disagreement or conflict, for example:

Most times these situations can be managed. However, prejudice and racial discrimination are not static issues. They change according to the social, political, economic and geographical context. For example, in Scotland, the issue of anti-English prejudice and discrimination can be evidenced but may for some people be seen as less serious than prejudice and discrimination based on colour. Migration of refugees and asylum seekers as well as the presence of migrant workers creates different dynamics and levels of prejudice. For example, settled minority ethnic populations may resent new arrivals as they fear that their own needs will receive less attention.

Students and staff within universities are a microcosm of society at large. The issues raised in this Toolkit will affect the experience of learning and teaching in different parts of Scotland and staff will need to be able to adapt and adjust to such variations. There are also matters of jurisdiction, where issues may occur between students outwith class or campus resulting in the residue of such interactions being brought into class in an unhelpful way.

While different value bases and tensions may be present, there are conduct-related requirements stemming from equality legislation, university equality and diversitypolicies and profession-based codes which staff may draw upon.

All student cohorts should be provided at induction with information about university equality and diversity policies and anti-harassment/bullyng polices as well as equality legislation and their responsibilities as learners within the institution on these matters. For example, it would not be acceptable for male students to specify that they would only wish to be taught by male lecturers as the Sex Discrimination Act 1976 and the Gender Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2006 would prevent such situations.

Students should be clearly informed that they have a contract with their university which includes having due regard to university policies. It may therefore be helpful to state explicitly what is expected in terms of respect within a learning and teaching environment. These are matters that could usefully be included in a course handbook.

Opportunities should be provided for students to discuss issues of diversity e.g. during induction, specific “culturefest” events and bonding sessions geared towards giving students an idea of how diversity can impact on their lives as well as on their current and/or future professional lives. Being comfortable with diversity is a disposition befitting the twenty-first-century graduate.

Opportunities should be provided for students to discuss pertinent issues that reflect contemporary global issues e.g. inter-ethnic conflicts, race relations, commonalities and differences.

Support should be provided for students who are facing stresses as a result of global tensions e.g. war in their home country.

Students should be assisted to engage in ways of thinking and behaving that do not pre- judge their fellow students; they should be helped not to draw rash conclusions from, for example, ethnic background, name, accent, fluency in English, faith or belief.

Prejudices and discrimination do exist between minority groups. Staff need to be confident about university policies on harassment, bullying and racism. Dealing with racism and racial discrimination/harassment between minority groups is essentially no different from dealing with racism and racial discrimination/harassment between majority and minority groups. Racial discrimination/harassment, where it happens, should be dealt with. Fear of getting things wrong may delay action. In such circumstances, staff should know where and who to go to for advice in order to take the next step. Ignoring or being seen to condone the issue will not inspire confidence about the student body and may lead to a repeat of the disagreements. For example, if a student from one ethnic or faith group refuses to be part of a group with a student from another ethnic or faith group, this would not be acceptable as part of university equality policies and would also be contravening aspects of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and which requires public bodies to promote good relations between people of different racial groups. It is anticipated that these aspects will form part of the forthcoming Single Equality Act.

The following comment comes from an academic who was sent abroad by their university to teach.

The students came from all over the Middle East and there were cultural issues I could not grasp. When I tried to organise group work, many appeared uneasy talking to the opposite sex and they kept changing my open classroom layout into traditional rows, sitting behind the desks.

The next year, I began by “problematising” the issue of culture and course methodology. I explained how I thought the class should run (which included mixed group discussions) but gave students the responsibility of alerting me to any relevant cultural issues. Working in groups, they wrote any anxieties they had about the course on “post-its”, classified these into columns and put them up on the wall for everyone to see. It provoked much fascinating discussion and heated debate among the students — over Islam and the role of women, for example — and made it easier for me to negotiate the cultural minefield and proceed to the next stage. As the classes developed, the students (male and female) began to integrate into a large group anyway, culture never being static, always negotiable.

I think it is helpful for lecturers to:

academic staff comment
  1. For further consideration of diversity matters in on-line learning, see Hughes, G. (2007) “Diversity, identity and belonging in e-learning communities: some theories and paradoxes”, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 12, pp. 709–20.
  2. Chapter 2 (pages 16–36) of Teaching for Inclusion: Diversity in the College Classroom (University of North Carolina, 1997) is worth a read. Despite the text being over a decade old, the issues are still relevant for today’s lecturers.