Inclusive teaching at MIT highlighted in Festival of Learning panel

Inclusive teaching at MIT highlighted in Festival of Learning panel

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Photo by Auriane Clément of Park Güell, Barcelone, Espagne on Unsplash

As we continue to increase the diversity of our community at MIT, cultivating inclusive and equitable learning experiences becomes even more vital to supporting students’ learning and sense of belonging once they’re in the door. In a panel on Inclusive Instructional Practices at the Festival of Learning 2022, co-sponsored by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor, MIT educators shared concrete ways that they have created learning environments where all students feel welcomed, supported, and valued as they learn. 

In her remarks to introduce the Festival, Chancellor Melissa Nobles emphasized the importance of “educating the whole student” by prioritizing well-being, supporting students’ sense of belonging, celebrating diversity and different views and experiences. Each of the educators featured in the panel attend to the whole student with compassion and care for their well-being and academic belonging at MIT. Co-moderators Janet Rankin and Ruthann Thomas also noted how the diverse techniques highlighted in the panel align with research-based principles that create more inclusive and equitable learning environments:

  1. Academic Belonging involves strategies that fosters students’ sense of connection to their peers and instructor as well as to the discipline. 
  1. Transparency involves clear communication about the purpose of learning, norms, and expectations of students to make the “hidden curriculum” of academic success clear to all students.
  1. Structured Interactions include collaborative learning in well-defined activities and scaffolding content to meet students’ prior knowledge.
  1. Critical engagement with difference acknowledges and affirms students’ different identities, experiences, strengths, and needs.

Below we summarize the key inclusive instructional strategies and practices shared by each of the panelists.

Building community and belonging

Arathi Mehrotra emphasized ways  that she connects with students as individuals and communicates care in 15.280 – Communication for Leaders. Arathi began with a foundational practice to learn and correctly pronounce students’ names and pronouns. She sends an introductory preterm survey that invites students to provide the phonetic pronunciation of their names, practices learning their names using flashcards, and facilitates introductions among peers on the first day of class. Arathi also builds relationships with students through informal chats before and after class, easy scheduling of one-on-one meetings with Calendly, and direct emails to check in if she is concerned about a student’s well-being or to affirm their engagement in class. These teaching practices highlighted by Arathi align with trauma-informed practices that create psychological safety, develop a sense of connection, and create a caring and supportive learning environment.

Arathi also leverages technological tools to humanize the process of delivering feedback to students through video recording commentary on assignments in GoReact or annotating presentation slides in Voicethread. Arathi adapted many of these strategies as a way to develop a sense of presence and to communicate intention and thought processes while teaching online. She continues to apply these humanizing elements into the feedback process to build a supportive and welcoming community in-person.

Peter Dourmashkin described deliberate ways that he and his colleagues support students’ sense of belonging in 8.01 and 8.02, the introductory Physics sequence that blends online materials with active learning  in the TEAL classrooms. Peter noted the challenge of building community in a course of 500+ students that is part of the General Institute Requirements (GIRs). He highlighted a classroom-based activity implemented by his colleague, Associate Professor Kerstin Perez, that helps students to recognize that academic challenges are normal, temporary, and able to be overcome as a way to support their sense of belonging (Binning et al., 2020; Yaeger & Walton, 2011).  Moreover, the course engages a diverse community of learners who participate in cooperative peer learning with support from faculty, graduate teaching assistants, undergraduate learning assistants, as well as dedicated mentors. Together, these efforts cultivate students’ sense of belonging by creating a social context in the classroom that is supportive, student-centered, and collaborative.

Clarifying norms and expectations

Peter and Arathi also described how they were transparent with students by regularly explaining what they expect of them and where they can access resources for extra support. Peter describes the importance of sustained and regular practice as a key to success in Physics, and how the workshops are structured to support this practice and students’ successful learning. The flexibility offered with extensions due to illness are also made clear. Arathi highlighted regular repetition of what she expects of students along with clear organization on Canvas to help students access the information they need to succeed. These practices can ease student anxiety and make the “hidden curriculum” of academic success clear to all students.

Emphasizing the value of diversity

Canan Dağdeviren celebrated the learning innovation fostered by diversity in an exhibition highlighting the work of her students as “the bees of science.” Students in Canan’s MAS 810 Decoders 1.2 class draw on diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds – as bees draw nectar from different types of flowers – to create different types of devices to monitor health, their “honey.” Canan also acknowledged and made space for students to process the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement by collaborating to write a diversity statement. In the process, they discovered and revised laboratory practices and design protocols to increase inclusivity and diversity with their research participants. Canan intentionally and critically engages with the diversity of students in her classes, acknowledging and celebrating their identities, experiences, strengths, and needs.

As students transitioned from class and lab to home learning environments in March 2020, Canan provided them with adaptable ways to engage different sensory modalities by sending “mini lab” kits to their homes and by structuring active learning activities that draw on visual and tactile experiences with microfabricated devices. These efforts to present material in a variety of modalities and to structure well-defined activities help create an inclusive environment where students of all identities and backgrounds can learn and grow.

Looking towards inclusion as a “new normal” in education

As the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced and amplified inequities in our society, many educators surfaced and amplified teaching practices that communicate care, cultivate belonging, and celebrate diversity. Together, the panelists illustrate how  inclusive instructional practices can be applied across disciplines and a variety of educational settings to foster equity and to support the whole student as a vital member of the MIT community. 

To consider ways to apply inclusive and equity-focused principles in your teaching, this document offers a starting point to reflect upon a range of inclusive teaching practices in order to reinforce those practices you already use—as well as to identify new ones you might explore and adopt. [Select Make a Copy.]

Panelists

Lecturer Arathi Mehrotra, 15.280 Managerial Communication

Senior Lecturer Peter Dourmashkin, 8.01 (Classical Mechanics) and 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism)

Assistant Professor Canan Dağdeviren, MAS.810 Decoders 1.2

Relevant Resources

Academic Belonging. This article describes the scholarly literature outlining the benefits of feeling a sense of academic belonging as well as specific teaching practices that support students’ sense of belonging, several of which align with the practices shared in this inclusive instructional practices panel. Examples of such practices from educators at MIT are also described.

First day of class. Arathi shared foundational practices for building community beginning on the first day of class. Several panelists emphasized the importance of transparent communication of expectations for students. This article outlines ways to structure a first day of class that creates a welcoming and supportive learning environment.

How active learning can improve inequities in STEM. Both Peter and Canan described the central role of collaborative active learning activities in their courses. This summary of a talk by Dr. Ellie Theobald highlights research findings illustrating the effectiveness of structured active learning activities across diverse contexts and for reducing inequities in STEM.

Learn student names and pronouns. Arathi emphasized the importance of learning students’ names, how to pronounce them correctly, and inviting sharing of pronouns. This brief blog post shares strategies based in memory research to learn students’ names and pronouns and identifies several technological tools where students can record and share the correct pronunciation of their names.

Trauma-Informed Teaching. This summary of a talk by Dr. Mays Imad shares concrete teaching strategies that improve learning and well-being under conditions of traumatic stress by helping students feel safe, connected, and empowered to learn. Several of the panelists shared teaching practices that align with trauma-informed teaching practices, including Arathi’s efforts to communicate care and support for students’ learning.

References

Binning, K. R., Kaufmann, N., McGreevy, E. M., Fotuhi, O., Chen, S., Marshman, E., Kalender, Z. Y., Limeri, L. B., Betancur, L., & Singh, C. (2020). Changing social contexts to foster equity in college science courses: An ecological belonging intervention. Psychological Science, 31 (9), 1059-1070. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620929984 (Supplemental resources, including the prompts for the intervention, are available here.)

Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81, 267–301. doi:10.3102/0034654311405999