The democratization of higher education means that fewer students are coming to college from socially and economically privileged backgrounds. This is important for diversifying the STEM workforce and improving access to education for all students. Yet, it means that our students vary widely in their levels of preparation for college. Poor preparation leads to failure or withdrawal, especially in introductory level science and math courses, which results in students taking longer to graduate, leaving STEM fields, and leaving college altogether. Excitingly, a growing body of research has revealed strategies for helping students who vary in their preparation to be successful. 

Strategies for promoting equity

Structure course activities to support learning. Courses characterized as "high structure" have repeatedly been shown to improve student learning and reduce achievement gaps. High structure courses involve frequent activities that count for small portions of the final grade and provide students with opportunities to apply what they are learing, track their understanding, and practice doing the kinds of thinking that will help them be successful on exams. The typical lecture with a few high-stakes exams would be considered low structure. A course that uses mostly lecture with clicker questioning and practice exams could be considered moderate structure. A high structure course would include frequent questioning to check that students are understanding the material, clicker questioning or random calling on students to promote student accountability, ungraded or low-stakes active learning exercises, regular, low-stakes practice exams, and low-stakes reading quizzes to hold students accountable for reading. To see more examples of highly structured courses and research on the effects of increasing course structure, see:

Provide multiple ways for students to engage with course content. Learning research shows that students must engage with the material to learn and remember it. Although there is no evidence demonstrating that matching teaching strategies to learning styles improves learning, students are individuals and thus engage with course materials in different ways. Consider using different approaches to drive student engagement. For example, some students may be motivated by extended work on case studies, while others prefer responding to frequent in-class questions that help them track whether they are understanding the content. Using a variety of approaches will help ensure that all students have opportunities to engage with materials in ways that work for them.

Allow students time to talk and write. Considerable research shows that the process of explaining, even to oneself, promotes learning. When students talk and write, they also have opportunities to get feedback about their ideas from peers and instructors. There are many simple, time-efficient ways to accomplish this, such as:

  • Think-pair-share: Give students 30-60 seconds to think about a question or problem, then find a partner to discuss their ideas. This strategy makes sure that everyone in the class thinks about the discusses the question or problem, not just the few students who raise their hands first. For tips about this strategy, see this brief video clip.
  • Minute-papers: Give students index cards to write on for one minute in response to some prompt. The prompt could be a question, or could ask them to reflect on what they have learned or what they are still confused about. Collect these and review them quickly to see what students are understanding or struggling to understand, and use these data to inform what you will review or what you will teach next. 
  • Peer instruction: Peer instruction is straightforward to use along with clicker questioning. Ask students to respond to a clicker question on their own. If a significant percentage of students select inaccurate responses, challenge students to discuss their responses with their peers and convince them of their response. Then give students an opportunity to respond to the clicker question again. By debating their responses, students often shift to more accurate ways of thinking, without any input from the instructor. For more on peer instruction, see this reflection from Eric Mazur and these research articles: Crouch and Mazur (2001)Fagen et al. (2002), and Smith et al. (2009)

Make key ideas and strategies transparent. Students who have more experience in science and math learning environments (e.g., opportunities to complete college-level courses in high school) or families went to college may have insider knowledge about how to be successful in college. For example, students whose parents are scientists may be encouraged to seek out research experiences in ways that other students are not. This may be perceived as lack of initiative on the students' part, when really it is a lack of awareness of what is important in the environment of a research university. Instructors can help by being explicit about how to go about being successful in their course or in college. For example, invite students to office hours, especially if they are struggling in the course. Make students aware of tutoring or other support services that might be helpful to them. Show students how to find and read primary literature so that all students have the opportunity to engage in the scholarship of their discipline, not just the few who get experience doing this through research internships. 

For more tips on promoting equity and inclusion, see: