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Diversity in the classroom

UTS has a diverse student and staff community which reflects the diversity of Australian society and brings with it valuable opportunities for understandings of different cultures and perspectives.  Benefits of these diverse intercultural perspectives are outlined in the UTS Internationalisation strategy. While classes include students from differing cultural and language backgrounds, we should also consider many other forms of diversity such as age, gender, socio-economic background and physical capability.  Every class of UTS students could be considered diverse. 

Sensitivity to this diversity is a first step.  All academics are expected to abide by the university policies on equity and diversity, and comply with national and state legislation. The UTS Equal Opportunity and Diversity Policy is summarised below:

“Equal opportunity at UTS refers to the right of all staff and students to work, study and access services in a university environment which is safe, equitable, free from discrimination and harassment, and in which everybody is respected and treated fairly.”

In some cases, where students may be considered to experience an acknowledged disadvantage, there may be special provisions available. 

With these principles of equal opportunity in mind, here are some suggestions for activities and teaching practices which will foster inclusive practices within the various teaching contexts at UTS. 

Teaching in diverse classes - actively planning for inclusion and communication

In addition to providing a context for learning disciplinary content and skills, lectures, tutorials, labs provide opportunities for students to develop relationships which may be useful for peer support during their university study, to determine who they would like to work with on group assessment tasks, and to find other students who have common non-academic interests. The relationships students develop in their classes may also result in long-lasting friendships and professional relationships, which may extend across the world. On the other hand, isolation, or lack of "belongingness" is often cited as a contributing factor to student attrition, particularly in the first year of university study.  

Some forms of university teaching, may appear to provide little opportunity for inclusive student  interaction, particularly those forms of teaching where interaction is between the lecturer/tutor and the whole class. For example, when a lecturer poses a question to the class, often only a few will put their hand up to respond, even though many may know the answer. Students may have limited confidence because they are learning in a second language, but also for many other reasons.  A woman may feel intimidated in a predominantly male class; a mature age student may feel that they do not fit in with a younger student cohort; a student who comes from a background where very few of their local community have ever attended university, may feel that they do not “belong”. Some students simply need more time than others to process the question and come up with a response. Some feel that there is a risk in asking  or answering a question, as they may look foolish. 

With these considerations, we can modify our teaching practice so that we provide opportunities and classroom guidelines which encourage participation. As a lecturer/tutor in these situation there are a number of activities you may facilitate which will foster interaction among the students within your class, and increase inclusion in diverse classes.  

Planning for interaction in large lectures

While large lectures may seem a challenging context for developing interaction, there are some simple practical activities which work well, and provide opportunities for you to make the lecture more engaging for students

  • Ask students to introduce themselves to the people sitting near them.  You may wish to set two or three questions for the students to ask each other.
  • Pose questions to the class which result in discussion in twos and threes.  Questions which have no single correct answer work well.  Students may then "vote" on an issue with a show of hands, or feel more confident about sharing their response with a large group. 
  • Set examples which require students to work with the person beside them in a lecture. This is sometimes referred to as "Peer Instruction"

Planning for interaction in Tutorials /Workshops

Smaller class sizes for tutorials and workshops allow for a great deal of interaction, and movement within a room. 

Plan an “icebreaker” activity for  the first tutorial workshop in a subject – this could involve moving around the room.

Icebreaker Activity - "Where do you live in Sydney?"

"Where do you live in Sydney?"is an icebreaker activity which allows students to meet others who live in the same locality. Simply establish a line in the room for the harbour, indicate north and south and allow students to move to the relative location of their home address. Students then find out something about the people who live in the same locality, and may find someone who might join them on their commute to UTS. 

Discussions, problems in table groupings

Activities which are based around table groupings work well in tutorials and workshops. For most people, contributing to a table discussion is far less intimidating than contributing to a whole class discussion. It is useful to provide guidelines to ensure that everyone at the table has the chance to contribute to discussion.  

Providing butchers paper, or an OHP slide for presentations of group discussions

Providing butchers paper, or an OHP slide and some texta pens, or crayons to record table group discussion offers a number of benefits.  Students have the opportunity to both hear speech and to read the text recorded on paper, whether it is as notes, diagram, annotated drawings or any other form.   If students are asked to share the results of their discussion with the rest of the class, the hard copy record is both a prompt for the presenting students to present from, and also a visual representation of the presentation for students who have difficulty following the oral presentation. Further suggestions for inclusive activities.

A strategy for using student names

It is helpful to develop a strategy for using students’ names.  You may then call upon all students to contribute to class interaction over the period of a semester.   Using names also allows you to politely request students to pay attention if they are speaking at inappropriate times. Some academics use a class roll, and pose questions to students in alphabetical order. Students know that they are next on the list and are prepared for a question.  

A respectful approach to names 

Some names from other languages are difficult for teachers to read and pronounce. Some languages place the family name first, followed by the first name.   Some students choose to use a “nickname” when studying in a different country.  It is a respectful practice to ask students if you have pronounced their name correctly, or if the name you used, is the name they wish to be called. We may still make mistakes, but students tend to appreciate the intention.

Name-plate design activity

Students may create a name-plate from folded paper, which you may collect at the end of class and re-distribute next class, or ask students to bring to each tutorial.  Designing a name-plate with a “logo” which students then explain to their group or the whole class, can be an interesting “introductions” or "icebreaker"  exercise.  This activity also allows students to advise the class of their preferred name or nickname. 

Considering English language in teaching contexts

Students at UTS differ in their facility with English language.  Overseas students may be learning in a second language, local students may speak a different language at home, and many students are unfamiliar with the conventions of academic English.

Language is often categorised as including reading, writing, listening and speaking.  Reading and writing can often be done at the students’ own pace, and allows students to revisit material which they do not understand at the first encounter, and engage with the material at their own pace.  In contrast, listening and speaking is a real-time activity, and may be challenging to students.   

Providing materials/ handouts before the lecture tutorial 

You may provide notes on UTS OnLIne which students may read before the lecture/tutorial. This allows students to focus more on explanations and discussions within a teaching session, rather than recording notes.    Some lecturers provide notes with spaces for the examples that are worked through in the lecture.  

Providing readings/ discussion material before the lecture/tutorial

Students read at different paces.  Some material may need to be read many times before it is understood - even by academics :) If discussion on a reading is the focus of the tutorial, it is important that everyone has had sufficient time to read the material before the tutorial begins. In many cases, providing readings at the beginning of a tutorial session, does not allow all students sufficient time to understand the material well enough to contribute to a discussion. 

Facing students while speaking

There is evidence that visual cues such as gesture, facial expression, and lip movement enhance comprehension.  If your subject matter requires working through examples, it is more effective to use an overhead projector or document reader.  This AV equipment allows you to face students while speaking.  In contrast, writing on a whiteboard or blackboard often involves turning your back on students.  Facing students also ensures that your voice remains audible to all students.

Explanation and pronunciation of new technical or discipline specific terms

New disciplinary vocabulary can often pose difficulties.  Some academics produce a glossary of known technical terms on UTS Online, and/or make a point of writing the new word on the while-board or document reader, and pronouncing it slowly and clearly when it is first introduced.

Providing resources on UTS OnLine which students may use in their own time

Some students simply need more time, and more repetition to fully understand subject material.  Some academics may provide podcasts of important aspects of the material, links to support materials, quizzes, discussion boards, FAQ pages on UTS Online. These materials allow all students to engage with the subject material at their own pace. 

Humour, and specific cultural references including sport and Australian celebrities/politicians 

Jokes which rely on stereotypes may cause offence.  Often the understanding of humour has a cultural aspect, and in diverse classes, may simply fall flat.  Sometimes examples which are used by academics require an understanding of the Australian context which many students do not have.  References to football, are often understood by males in a class, but not by many females. Some academics make comments about Australian celebrities or politicians which are not understood by non-Australians. While these examples may be used, academics may need to explain the background in order to ensure that the point of the example is understood by all students. 

Cultural differences in the representation of numbers

Numbers are represented differently in various cultures.  While Australia, along with many other countries uses the following divisions in 1,000’s, 1,000,000.  Other cultures do not.  In some cultures, comma dividers are used to separate pairs of numbers such as 1,00,00,00.  Some cultures conceptualise numbers such as 24, as four and twenty, so it is not uncommon to be confused between 24 and 42.  While most students at university are able to operate with numbers on paper, there may be difficulty when using numbers to communicate orally.  Large numbers such as 436,029 are often difficult to say aloud in English, if English is the student's second language.  

As many UTS graduates aspire to work in fields where competence with numbers, and communication which involves numbers is critical, it is important that this capacity is developed.  Some academics require students to read the numbers of a worked example aloud.  

Thoughtfully considering groupwork

Some students will describe groupwork as the best learning experience in the subject, while others in the same class will describe it as the worst.  Group activities and assessment tasks provide some of the best opportunities for students to benefit from the diversity of their group, however, to ensure that all students in class benefit from their groupwork experiences – not just those who had a “good group”   - requires careful planning, in group formation, the design of the group task, and in approaches to assessment.   More information on managing effective groupwork

Awareness of support services which foster equal access

There may be situations and particular students who require additional assistance beyond the lecture/classroom situation.  UTS Equity and Diversity has details of relevant policies and programs.

You may meet a student who requires some support. If you do not know the appropriate course of action, you could first discuss the enquiry with your academic supervisor, your faculty academic liaison officer, or IML. 

For example the UTS library provides an Alternative Formats Service for students with visual disabilities, HELPS provides services for students who need help with English language, UTS student health provides a counselling service

More resources

Find resources specifically related to developing relationships between local and international students in Finding Common Ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students (PDF).

Case studies of diversity in courses and subjects

Case Study 1: Inclusive Subject Design

Penny Crofts
Criminology and Women in Law, UTS Faculty of Law

The Criminology and Women and the Law courses are taught in a way which recognises and values diversity.

An explicit objective of the courses is to think critically about the law. A great deal of time in both courses is spent analysing legal claims of objectivity. The Women and the Law class does this from an explicitly gendered perspective, however both classes allow students to critically evaluate claims of objectivity from perspectives of class, gender, race, age, and sexuality. This critique of objectivity, and the recognition of perspectives which may be silenced or devalued by the law, results in a recognition and valuing of alternative perspectives and experiences. Class discussions promote the recognition of diversity in the classroom, as students are able to discuss their personal experiences according to variables such as race, class, age, and sexuality.

Recognition of diversity is particularly furthered in the flexible assessment regimes, consisting of any combination to the total of 80% of:

  • 3000 word essay (40%)
  • 6000 word essay (80%)
  • Community Law Centre Research Project (negotiable worth)
  • Journal (negotiable worth)
  • Catch all take home examination, for students who have not completed their assessment on time

The remaining 20% of available marks is for class participation. This was recommended by the Criminology class, in order to ensure that students prepare for classes, and to foster stronger class discussion. This component is self-assessed, and students are given guidelines as to what amounts to good class participation. This includes being a good listener and fostering class discussion. This enables students to recognise diversity within the classroom.

Such a flexible assessment scheme has had several effects on the recognition of diversity.

  1. Students pursue topics which are of interest to them. This allowed students to discuss and research issues which had personally affected them. Topics have included research on ethnicity and football hooliganism, gender and crime, representations of gender in the media, and analysis of the intersection of class and crime. Topics which were personal to the students tended to be well researched and passionately argued, allowing the student to question their own assumptions, and articulate their ideas.
  2. The Community Law and Research Centre Projects gives students the opportunity to listen to alternative perspectives. These projects are of benefit to the community, but also allow students to recognise the ways in which the law may impact upon groups in different ways. Students involved in the gambling and crime project were amazed at the ways in which race and gambling intersected, and how the sydney casino aimed advertising at specific race groups. Students involved in the Sex Workers Outreach Programme are able to analyse their own ideas about sex work and realise the ways in which legislation and regulations affect the position of sex workers.
  3. The flexible assessment regime also affects the teaching of the subject. Because the regime is so flexible, more time can be spent analysing ideas behind specific pieces of legislation, and students are able to adopt a particular perspective in class discussions. Students are provided with materials for preparation of classes, however actual class teaching is not always content driven. Students are able to discuss areas of special interest. This allows the articulation of different perspectives and backgrounds, resulting in students crystallising their own ideas, while recognising the validity of other perspectives.
  4. Students are encouraged to present the results of their research to the class, either in discussions, or during presentations. This also results in a valuation of diversity in the classroom.

In summary, these courses are based on a strong recognition of diversity in the classroom and the community. By allowing students the opportunity to critique the legal myth of objectivity, students own perspectives and ideas are valued. In the law degree this is particularly valuable, as students own reality may not concord with dominant perspectives of reality. The class discussions allow students the opportunity to hear other perspectives, and to recognise that their own ideas are not universal. Giving students reading materials means that discussions are based on strong foundations, and give students confidence to articulate their ideas. The flexible assessment regime allows students the opportunity to follow through with any ideas which the courses have given. The majority of students have wholeheartedly embraced this challenge.

Case Study 2: Enhancing staff awareness of cultural diversity

Jenny Edwards
UTS School of Computing Sciences

This is an example of a project which aims to improve teaching and learning for culturally diverse student groups through raising staff awareness.

In 1997, the University was awarded a grant from the Commonwealth Staff Development Fund for a project to enhance the teaching and learning of students from a diversity of backgrounds. The project was initiated by Jenny Edwards, Head of Computing Sciences. "Over 50% of our students come from non English speaking backgrounds and a wide variety of countries and cultures, as do about 30% of our staff", she said. "I felt we weren't adapting our teaching to this diversity as well as we could to ensure effective learning. " Susan King, a Senior Lecturer from Adult Education was seconded half time to manage and develop the project. She worked from three Schools absorbing their academic culture and setting up pilot projects.

In Computing, the emphasis was on the language of assessment. Two workshops were run for staff looking at what the objectives were for different subjects, especially in terms of communication skills and how students were expected to achieve them. These resulted in discussion of effective ways of getting the messages across to the students. This work resulted in a substantial manual on writing assessment tasks which was prepared by Terri Morley-Warner from Education.

In Mechanical Engineering, the emphasis of the pilot project led by Helen McGregor was on effective student teamwork in a multicultural environment. Again a workshop was held for staff and documentation prepared.

Incorporating an international viewpoint into all teaching is important in Leisure and Tourism. This component of the project has so far involved the development of supporting material aimed at internationalising the curriculum in a pilot subject.

An important part of this project was that Susan King actually had a room in Computing during the first half of the project. This not only enabled her to become part of the local culture but also encouraged staff to drop by for informal discussions on many aspects of concern about their teaching to the wide variety of students we have. Similarly, Susan then moved to Mechanical Engineering to absorb the atmosphere there to inform her workshops.

While the workshops so far have been for specific groups, they are intended to be made available to the wider University community. A substantial book has been written incorporating all the material and findings from the project. This will be made available outside UTS as well.