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The perception that promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields necessitates a compromise on academic standards is a widespread myth. However, a recent study spearheaded by Cassandra Paul of San José State University and David Webb of the University of California, Davis, counters this belief.
- Slight changes to the structure of STEM courses can eliminate equity gaps without lowering academic standards.
- The equity gaps can be attributed more to the course structure than the students’ abilities.
- Two distinct course modifications—altering the content order and changing test frequency—successfully closed the grade gap for specific minority groups.
“There’s a predominant myth that you need to lower the intellectual level of a course in order to accommodate diversity and inclusion.”
Their research, carried out on introductory physics courses, reveals that course structure adjustments can help bridge historic grade gaps for various minority groups.
Altering Order and Assessment
Two distinct course modifications were the subject of the report. In the first experiment, a “concepts first” model was implemented. Before introducing complex calculations, students were first acquainted with core principles. They were evaluated based on their ability to use words, diagrams, and simple equations to explain physical relationships.
The second study, which took place six years prior, shifted from weekly tests to biweekly ones, granting students the chance to retake and use the higher score for their final grade. While both adjustments improved the grade gap for at least one minority group, their effects differed. The content order alteration successfully closed the gap between racial minorities and white students, whereas the change in testing schedule benefited women more.
While these outcomes lead to many questions, Paul stresses:
“we think the emphasis really should be on the fact that this is possible.”
The findings of Paul and Webb’s research are not unique. Studies, including those by experts like Andrew Heckler from Ohio State University, have consistently shown that tweaking assessment methods and course structures can make a significant difference in bridging the equity gap. Heckler emphasizes:
“We’re coming to a point in education where the evidence is starting to become so overwhelming that it’s almost our ethical responsibility to change what we do.”
‘We Can Act’
Kelly Hogan, a biology professor at Duke University, presents an analogy relating to the study’s findings. She likens the systemic issues to the health of fish in various lakes, stressing that it’s essential to inspect the common factors affecting them all. In the realm of education, this signifies examining the shared course structures across different disciplines.
Scott Freeman from the University of Washington sees this research as a practical route to achieving equity, particularly in the STEM domain. Amidst heightened discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Freeman believes that these findings, and others like them, offer actionable insights for educators.
The Main Idea
The emphasis on the importance of course structure adjustments in achieving academic equity sends a powerful message to the education community. Rather than perceiving the students as the problem, this shift in perspective encourages educational institutions to reflect on and adapt their teaching methodologies.
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