Classroom Dynamics

As teachers or students, we each enter the classroom with expectations and norms that have been cultivated by the communities and cultures from which we come. As in many social spaces shared by people with diverse identities and backgrounds, it takes explicit effort to ensure that equity and inclusion are truly guiding principles for interactions in the classroom. In institutions of higher education in particular it’s important to acknowledge how histories of exclusion have shaped and continue to shape classroom dynamics today. Questions to consider include: What do manifestations of power and privilege look like in learning environments? How do different identities intersect to affect teaching and learning? How might bias and stereotypes show up in the classroom, and what can we do to counter them?

  • Be aware of power attached to social roles and power attached to social identities. Unequal power manifests in the classroom, for one, due to the differing social roles of instructor and student. Instructors exercise power in designing courses, leading class discussions or activities, deciding grades, and offering mentorship and connection to resources for student support and development. Students exercise power in providing critique and feedback, shaping classroom culture via group agreements and varied forms of participation, and communicating their needs within the class and the institution. Beyond these social roles, power is also unequally attached to social identities such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and more. Inequalities present in society at large are often inherited and replicated through classroom dynamics; active work is required to not simply reproduce historical and systemic forms of oppression such as white supremacy and sexism in learning spaces. An individual might feel more or less empowered in the classroom, depending on the intersection of roles and identities salient for them at any given moment. Instructors in particular may build awareness around social inequality in the classroom by interrogating their ways of exercising power as a teacher, for instance, or by critically exploring the history and cultural context of their discipline(s). In the process of awareness building, it's important to be both critical and generous about the many ways that instructors and students exercise power in the classroom, while remaining accountable and open to evolution on a personal and structural level.
  • Acknowledge and counter bias in the classroom. 'Bias' can be defined as prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair or negative way. Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is defined as "attitudes and stereotypes that influence judgment, decision-making, and behavior in ways that are outside of conscious awareness and/or control."* In the classroom, bias shows up implicitly and explicitly by way of course materials, classroom discussions, grading, evaluations, and more. When critically examining your course or classroom for bias, you may consider:
    • What classroom norms or expectations tend to go unstated in your course? Have you clearly explained office hours, expectations for class discussions, your late work policy, etc.? Have you assumed all students enter your classroom with the same prior knowledge about how a university course works?
    • How much does it cost to take your course? Do you explicitly communicate ways that students are able to receive financial assistance if they need it, or are the costs prohibitive for some students?
    • Have you reviewed your syllabus for diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility?
    • Does your syllabus feature information about bias-related incident reporting mechanisms at the University?
    • Is participation graded? If so, are you assessing participation in a way that’s inclusive of diverse abilities and learning styles? Have you shared your expectations or a rubric?
    • Are your class policies designed to address inequities in the classroom, or might they have a disproportionately punitive impact on some students, for example, those struggling with their mental health or those who need to work full-time alongside their academics?
    • Have you let students know why instructor evaluations are important and how they can examine and counter their own biases when completing teaching evaluations? Even two or three sentences of framing can counter common racial and gender biases.
  • Recognize and counter stereotype threat and lift. A stereotype is an oversimplified generalization about a person or group. These generalizations may be about both negative and positive qualities but, regardless, they lump people together.* Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which certain groups’ academic performance is negatively impacted due to increased vigilance about possibly confirming existing stereotypes. For example, in a 2018 study by Ebony McGee, Black and Asian students were shown to experience emotional distress in the face of anti-Black and pro-Asian stereotypes about academic performance—stereotypes pervasive in the STEM fields in which they were studying. The study highlights that even "positive stereotypes," which may be intended to "lift" students, contribute to bias and a pressured learning environment in which student anxiety and imposter syndrome are exacerbated. To counter stereotype threat and lift, it's important to respect each of your students as individual learners and encourage a growth mindset in the classroom. This means normalizing mistakes and failures, emphasizing the value of challenge, and offering students a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning. You can also counter stereotypes by acknowledging and sensitively engaging where they emerge in course materials as well as canonical or core curriculum.

* Definitions taken from the Harvard DIB Glossary (May 2021).