Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Exploring Interpersonal Communication Strategies

                    Contributed By: Antonia Cartwright & Marc Pollack

Active learning can constitute a valuable part of the student experience. However, to gain maximal benefit from these classroom strategies, learners require a strong foundation of interpersonal skills. Communicating well with peers and teachers can help students to thrive in diverse environments. For example, in teamwork, expressing oneself, understanding others, and utilizing the diverse skill sets and experiences individuals bring to a group, can lead to comprehension, creativity, and solutions, surpassing outcomes that could be achieved alone. Antonia Cartwright and Marc Pollack presented the graduate teaching group with questions and activities designed to explore the importance of interpersonal communication, and how to develop these skills in a classroom setting. The activities and discussion were based on a number of journal papers and media articles about these issues.

Ice-breakers can be a useful precursor to working with others in class. The group discussed prior experience with icebreakers, and distinctions between icebreakers that elicit either shallow (e.g., what sandwich are you) or meaningful content, as well as those ranging from personal (e.g., hobbies) to those specific to class content. The group was encouraged to try an icebreaker called "Familiar and Unique," which encouraged them to find both common and individual traits in their small groups, serving as a rapid yet meaningful introduction to others that facilitated connections between members. Thinking about activities along these spectrums allows activities to be tailored to student needs. The group evaluated a number of toolbox items for using active learning to cross barriers. These included: managing learner expectations; considerations for different nationalities in group work; and the role of metacognitive awareness (i.e., teacher and student awareness of one's role in these learning processes). Key discussion points included communication preferences and the transferability of these skills. For example, cultural background or language differences may affect willingness to contribute, and expressing yourself clearly is not only useful in academia, but also in interviews and industry.

The group also discussed the role of setting clear guidelines for respectful interactions in overcoming potential barriers to effective communication. Awareness of interpersonal communication allows us to celebrate our differences, embrace our similarities, and continually develop our understanding of our subject knowledge, other people, and ourselves.

Toolbox Articles and Links:

Managing Expectations:

Nationalities in Group Work:
Taras & Rowney (2007). Effects of cultural diversity on in-class communication and studnt project team dynamics: Creating synergy in the diverse classroom.

Developing Interpersonal Skills:

Fostering Growth Mindset and Metacognitive Awareness:
Pelly (2014). Making active learning effective

Problem-based Learning:
Drake (2012). A critical analysis of active learning and an alternative pedagogical framework for introductory information systems.

Course Design for Diversity-Infused Classes

                       Contributed By: Gabriel LaHue and Rachel Welch

Diversity is often discussed in the abstract and therefore in our weekly theme of “Course-design for diversity-infused classes”, we chose to start with a discussion of different dimensions of diversity: culture and national origin, language, literacies, race, ethnicity, educational background, learning difficulties, physical disabilities, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, etc. We then broke into groups to discuss examples of potential challenges someone with one (or several) of these identities might face and how courses can be intentionally designed to address these challenges. For example, students from different cultures may have different expectations regarding the classroom environment and the directness of teacher-student interactions, as well as a differing level of familiarity with historical or cultural references and idioms. Designing for diversity-infused courses to ameliorate these issues could include making expectations regarding course format and educational style explicit in the syllabus, providing multiple means for students to communicate with the teacher and with peers, and testing assignments and exams with colleagues from different cultures and nationalities (as appropriate) prior to assigning them.

Designing courses for diverse student populations is important for several reasons, all of which are touched on in the University of California Diversity Statement: 1) To create an inclusive environment for all identities, 2) To increase student awareness and understanding of multiple perspectives, and 3) To motivate students and improve course outcomes. Regarding this last point, there is a significant body of research that classroom diversity improves learning outcomes and student performance. For example, a report from The Century Foundation found that diverse classrooms led to “improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving” [1]. This is in line with the idea of Diversity 3.0, articulated by Marc Nivet for the Association of American Medical Colleges [2]; instead of the view that diversity is at odds with academic excellence or important but separate from the institution’s mission, diversity is viewed as fundamental to the university’s mission and inextricably linked with student learning and academic performance. Diversity is seen not as an end goal but as an integral part of the university’s ability to achieve its mission.

So how do we go about designing for diversity-infused classrooms? There is no one right answer for this, but some suggestions compiled from various resources include:
  • “Critically examine your course from multiple viewpoints and include materials that represent various perspectives accurately” [3]
  • Incorporate student choice where possible and use a variety of teaching techniques (as emphasized with universal design for learning)
  • Include a meaningful diversity statement in the syllabus and consider including diversity-related learning goals in your course goals
  • Offer unit introduction materials, optional readings to get learners up to speed, and resources from prerequisite classes
  • Give formative pre-quizzes before starting a new unit to inform students about their own level of preparedness
  • Provide information about valuable on-campus resources, such as the Student Academic Success Center and study skills workshops
  • Use software platforms, such as ALEKS, that collect data about students’ learning and adjust to best meet their needs
  • Switch to a hybrid or online course model, which can allow students to communicate in their own time without face-to-face pressures, reduce test anxiety by allowing students to work in their safe spaces, and allow easier incorporation of transcripts or subtitles

Of course, it is also fundamentally important to get to know your students, understand their perspective, and become an advocate for them. There are several on-campus resources that help instructors understand the perspective that may be shared by certain identities and train educators to become allies, such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual Resource Center and the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center. A more thorough list of trainings and resources can be found here.

[1] Wells A.S., Fox L., and D. Cordova-Cobo. 2016. How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Century Foundation. Internet Resource. Available from: https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/
[2] Nivet, M. 2011. Commentary: Diversity 3.0: A Necessary Systems Upgrade. Academic Medicine. 86:1487–1489.
[3] Center for Teaching Innovation. 2012. Incorporating diversity. Cornell University. Internet Resource. Accessed April 25th, 2018. Available from: https://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/designing-your-course/incorporating-diversity.html
[4] O’Connell, A.J. 2017. Designed for Diversity: Lessons in Instructional Design at Rio Salado. Carnegie Mellon University. Internet Resource. Accessed April 25th, 2018. Available from: http://acrobatiq.com/designed-for-diversity-lessons-in-instructional-design-at-rio-salado/
[5] Narozny, E. 2010. Designing Online Courses to Meet the Needs of a Diverse Student Population. Faculty Focus. Internet Resource. Accessed April 25th, 2018. Available from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/designing-online-courses-to-meet-the-needs-of-a-diverse-student-population/

Accessibility for Low-Income Students

Contributed By: Marisella Rodriguez

The first session of the 2018 spring quarter focused on promoting accessibility for low-income undergraduate students. The objectives of this session were to better understand the barriers and challenges facing low-income students in higher education and share applied strategies to promote their success.

Gorski (2018) advances a compelling argument for instructors to differentiate the terms low-income and poverty. Gorski (2018) suggests that instructors should focus on how poverty affects their students, rather than low-income, given that poverty encompasses issues related to “basic human necessities, such as food, clothing, housing, health care, and education” (7-8). By focusing on poverty, instructors begin to acknowledge the significant barriers facing student success in the classroom.

The traditional undergraduate living on-campus and enrolled at UC Davis during the 2018-2019 year spends $33,072 on expenses (excluding health insurance costs) (see “Cost of Attendance”). We used this figure as a reference point in brainstorming and discussing potential challenges facing students in poverty that might impact academic performance. We compiled a non-exhaustive list:
  • Many high achieving students in poverty are likely unable to attend UC Davis given the high cost of tuition and living expenses.
  • Students may have difficulty regularly attending class sessions when working one or more part-time jobs.
  •           Students in poverty may feel stigmatized when having to publicly ask questions regarding campus resources and discussing needs for accommodation.
  • Students working part-time jobs will likely have difficulty attending office hours or have limited time and space to build mentorship relations.
  • Students in poverty might have limited resources to purchase textbooks, technologies, and other classroom supplies.
  • Students in poverty may have limited time, energy, and attention to participate in collaborative projects or other assignments designed to be completed outside of the regularly assigned class periods.

To mitigate these challenges, Gorski (2018) encourages instructors to practice equity literacy. Equity literacy is “the knowledge and skills educators need to become a threat to the existence of bias and inequity in our spheres of influence” (Gorski 2018, 17). In other words, instructors should educate themselves on how to create and reinforce equitable learning environments. Equity literacy requires (1) the knowledge to recognize and understand the challenges facing students in poverty, (2) the continued practice of improving the capacity to support diverse students, and (3) the lasting will to promote these practices in our respective academic spaces. We also compiled a non-exhaustive list of practical strategies that can help cultivate equity literacy (adapted from Gorski 2018):
  • Have high expectations for all students.
  • Make course material relevant to the lives of students in poverty.
  • Teach about poverty and class bias when relevant to course material.
  • Examine learning materials for the presence of class bias.
  • Work with the families of students in poverty to identify and mitigate performance barriers.
  • Educate yourself!


Gorski, Paul C. 2018. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. Second Edition. Columbia: Teachers College Press.

University of California, Davis. “Cost of Attendance.” Online: http://financialaid.ucdavis.edu/undergraduate/cost.html. Accessed April 18, 2018.