Michigan State University

Biological sciences

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Databases & Terms Searched: 

A search for articles on inclusive teaching in the biological sciences used several strategies as it was difficult to find materials that directly addressed this issue. PubMed, Web of Science, and Google Scholar were searched using terms (“biology” OR “biological sciences”) AND (“teaching” OR “education”) coupled with keywords such as “inclusivity”, “diversity”, “minorities”, “minority groups”, “disadvantaged”, ”gender”. References of articles were consulted for more citations, and these keywords were also used to search specific educational journals online such as Advances in Physiological Education, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, and Science Education

Themes: 

CBE Life Sciences Evidence-Based Teaching Guides-Inclusive Teaching is an interactive guide created to help instructors develop inclusive teaching practices based on some of these findings below.

A study done at Michigan State University of student performance in 12 life sciences courses over 13 years found multiple factors influencing grades, with gender playing a statistically significant role for a majority of the courses (Creech and Sweeder, 2012). This is just one of several studies that show performance gaps in introductory biology classes for women, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and students from underrepresented minority groups. Various sources point out that inclusivity problems begin in elementary and secondary education before students enter college, and that it will be important to address issues at the lower levels in order to solve the diversity problem in science. However, there are various ways that college biology professors can make their educational environments more inclusive.

Science is often presented as a culture of meritocracy, blind to gender or race. While this may have the best intentions, it does not acknowledge that the “meritocracy” may be built on expectations of behaviors and values that may have been cultivated more in white male students. Professors need to be aware of the Pygmalion effect where they may have low expectations of certain students and stereotype threat where students perform poorly when negative stereotypes about their group are highlighted. A study of women of color in biology classes found that they were discouraged by large impersonal classes and professors who appeared uncaring. They disliked the high-stakes competitive environment of being put on the spot to ask and answer questions in front of a large group of students, drawing even more attention to themselves (Johnson, 2007). Ideas to level the playing field are to allow time to think or write before expecting an answer, posing multiple choice questions in class and having students hold up cards or use classroom response software to answer, asking open ended questions, enforcing hand-raising, encouraging answers to a question from multiple students, not judging responses, and using praise with caution. A narrow focus on decontextualized science was also discouraging to the many students who were taking biology classes in order to go into health careers or other careers focused on people. Professors are encouraged to establish rapport with all their students, learn their names, and ask students about their career goals.

Instructors may not always be aware of the social ecology of their learning environments that may result in marginalization of students from underrepresented groups. It may not be obvious in a large lecture class that students are forming study groups that help each other based on friendships with others like them, leaving students who are “different” in some way to struggle on their own. Students of color might not be chosen as laboratory partners by white students. One way to counteract this is to establish classroom or laboratory norms for behavior and to create team-based active learning environments where the instructor can influence the social dynamic, and students are required to interact with others outside of their normal social groups. Instructors can assign reporters for small groups so that dominant students are not the only ones speaking. Field work settings are another learning environment that can be unsafe and unwelcoming for women students and students with disabilities. Although instructors may have less control over these environments, particularly in international settings, they can do much to set the tone of workplace environments, set policies, and let students know the mechanisms for reporting problems.

Increasing structure in a course by including at least some active learning strategies has been shown to be more effective than lecture alone for the achievement and retention of all students in introductory biology classes, but especially students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds (Haak, et al., 2011). A high structure course includes in-class engagement of students (clicker questions, worksheets, case studies, small group discussions) and more graded assignments, either preparatory (quizzes on the reading) or review (exam question preparation). One can create a moderate structure course by incorporating some traditional lecture time with some structured aspects. One study showed that a “moderate structure” intervention worked disproportionately well for black students and first generation college students, for instance, the in-class participation of black students was significantly higher in the moderate structure class than in a low structure class (Eddy and Hogan, 2014). While many professors may be more used to the traditional environment of lectures, minimal structure outside of exams, and students expected to “speak up” if they have questions, this environment appears to favor students who come from backgrounds that have prepared them for a competitive college culture. On the other hand, a more structured environment helps the professor actively maintain high expectations for all students and encourages students to prepare for class and to view the class as a community in which they can take risks and learn from each other.      

Finally, some articles demonstrate that instructors should also consider the content of their courses. A study of recent introductory ecology textbooks showed that they still portray women as innovators and working scientists in the text and in photographs less often than their actual percentage in the field.  Using only last names to refer to scientists seems egalitarian, but in fact does not help to challenge assumptions and perceptions that most of the contributions are by men.  Instructors are encouraged to supplement textbooks with information on the contributions of women scientists and to use first and last names when talking about scientists to help make the work of women more visible. Making sure language in the classroom is gender inclusive, inclusive of differing sexual orientations, ethnicities, religions, and family structures, is also important for a welcoming environment. Furthermore, class discussion of the social and cultural context of science helps to include more diverse views. One study showed that even small changes could be incorporated into a biomedical physiology class to enhance intercultural awareness. Students reporting on disease conditions were asked to include not only the biochemistry and pathophysiology but also a global perspective on the medical condition which brought in international reporting and the impact of cultural beliefs on the study or treatment of the disease.

While biology classes, particularly large introductory biology classes are complex environments with a lot of material to cover in a short time, they are prerequisites for many majors and career paths and attract large and diverse student bodies. Implementing changes to make these classes more inclusive will have downstream effects on retention of diverse groups of students in many different STEM fields.

Relevant Journals: 

Advances in Physiology Education

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education

CBE-Life Sciences Education

Bibliography

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213-1216.

Damschen, E. I., Rosenfeld, K. M., Wyer, M., Murphy-Medley, D., Wentworth, T. R., & Haddad, N. M. (2005). Visibility matters: increasing knowledge of women's contributions to ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 3(4), 212-219.

Johnson, A. C. (2007). Unintended consequences: How science professors discourage women of color. Science Education, 91(5), 805-821.

Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. Cbe-Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322-331.

Lauer, S., Momsen, J., Offerdahl, E., Kryjevskaia, M., Christensen, W., & Montplaisir, L. (2013). Stereotyped: Investigating Gender in Introductory Science Courses. Cbe-Life Sciences Education, 12(1), 30-38.

Tanner, K., & Allen, D. (2007). Cultural competence in the college biology classroom. CBE Life Sci Educ, 6(4), 251-258

Etherington, S. J. (2014). But science is international! Finding time and space to encourage intercultural learning in a content-driven physiology unit. Adv Physiol Educ, 38(2), 145-154.

Furge, L. L. (2015). Social Ecology of the Classroom: Issues of Inclusivity. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 43(1), 1-2. doi:10.1002/bmb.20832

Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: how and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE Life Sci Educ, 13(3), 453-468. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Clancy, K. B. H., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. Plos One, 9(7), 9.

Hall, T., Healey, M., & Harrison, M. (2002). Fieldwork and disabled students: Discourses of exclusion and inclusion. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 27(2), 213-231.

Supiano, B. (2018). Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 64(33), n.p.

Dewsbury, B. & Brame, C.J.  (2019).  Inclusive Teaching.  CBE-Life Sciences Education, 18(fe2), 1-5.  doi: 10.1187/cbe.19-01-0021

Bergstrom, R.A.  (2019).  Motion sickness as metaphor: engaging with diversity in STEM.  Advances in Physiology Education 43(1): 1-6.

Contact Info

Susan Kendall
Health Sciences Coordinator, Biology Librarian
(517) 884-0902