Appreciating diversity in classrooms help students increase
their knowledge and stretch their thinking; once students
are capable of interpreting events through different perspectives,
they will be able to think critically and adapt quickly to
a variety of situations.
This article will address issues raised by some students
(in my personal interviews with them) and provide some strategies
to cope with a diverse student body. I believe that the students’
feedback on their experiences and perspectives on diversity
can help educators to evaluate the impact of educational strategies
and develop measures to meet the needs of a diverse student
body. However, implementing techniques to include diversity
in classrooms presents its own challenges—the education
of a diverse student population requires self-reflection,
evaluation, patience and commitment.
Diversity and Inclusion
Dimensions of diversity are not always easily defined. Either
hidden or visible, the dimensions may refer to our individual
and/or collective differences such as race, gender, ethnicity,
age, personal background, education, job function/position,
geographic origin and lifestyle. An individual’s values
determine a person’s attitudes and how he/she communicates
across different cultures.
When people find commonalities or honour diversity, it allows
them to function together with one another in different situations
including classroom settings (McArthur-Blair, 1995), creating
one of the foundations of inclusion. Thus, it is important
to promote diversity in teaching and learning to create an
inclusive community of critical, independent learners. Addressing
diversity can also help alleviate anxiety in courses with
complex subject matter such as introductory statistics courses.
A foreign student indicates, “I prefer instructors and
students to acknowledge my culture, recognise that English
is not my first language, allow and encourage me to speak
Diversity Issues and Assumptions
Instructors commonly assume that students share the same
perspectives and life experiences and will therefore learn
about diversity on their own. However, students can easily
misinterpret that honouring diversity is not essential for
them to succeed either in their education or future career.
Thus, to help individual students to succeed, instructors
need to balance between holding high expectations for all
the students regardless of who they are as well as use different
techniques to teach each individual effectively (Bucher, 2000).
The interviewees raised three main issues on diversity in
the classroom: cultural, age and gender differences. Another
type of diversity that I often deal with is the differences
in learning styles.
One student interviewee said, “My classmate who did
not like me to compare between the Canadian society and my
country, gave me mean comments when I did so. Most of my instructors
neither acknowledged my cultural experiences and ideas nor
allowed me to share my ideas freely.” Instructors need
to recognise that acknowledging the differences between cultures
and letting students articulate their different experiences
is important in making students feel part of the learning
community. Quoting the student, “it will enable me to
blend into their circle so we can learn from each other’s
My interviews indicate that many students are returning
to the university to acquire the necessary knowledge for career
change and/or career advancement. One of the two single mothers
I interviewed said she “found it difficult to find a
job with only homemaker skills”, while the other wanted
to “upgrade my qualifications so that I can work as
a resident care assistant in hospitals.” They are both
mature students, there is an obvious age gap between them
and fresh high school graduates. The two interviewees gave
similar responses on their expectations of their instructors
and fellow students:
- “I prefer instructors to be approachable, and not
put students down because of age differences.”
- “Instructors need not give me special treatment,
but at least consider me the same as the rest of the class
and don’t put me down. I would also prefer classmates
to better understand and respect my reasons for returning
Various literature assert the difference in learning context
between males and females (especially in mathematics and science).
Although rapid technological advancement might affect men
to some extent, it is a hurdle for some women. “I feel
totally uncomfortable with high technology equipment like
computers; I get nervous whenever I have to sit in front of
the computer to type my essays,” said a female student
returning to school after 19 years as a homemaker. Instructors
need to be aware of the gendered context of previous learning
that might become an obstacle in the current learning (Hartman,
Both Kolb (1976) and Tobias (1990) have detailed discussions
on different learning styles. However, many instructors do
not take into consideration the diversity of learning styles
and their implications to the success of learning. I have
previously discussed how an instructor can get students to
focus on the material by accommodating different learning
styles, thereby helping students who are learning complex
subjects such as statistics to feel less anxious (Chan, 2002).
Formation of discussion groups and open-ended questions can
be one of the ways to create a comfortable atmosphere where
students can ask questions and think critically (Chan, 2002).
Strategies to Handle a Diverse Student Population
Reaching a Consensus
Instructors can briefly explain the necessity to form ground
rules for the class, lay out the regulations, and allow sufficient
discussions on each of the tenets to ensure that every student
understands the terms used. (For example, an instructor can
ask the class what respect looks and feels like). In order
to promote a positive classroom atmosphere that allows students
to feel comfortable to take risks and make mistakes, and respect
the different dimensions of diversity, it is necessary to
have a consensus on the classroom’s ground rules (Andrzejewski,
Agreeing to Disagree
Instructors should use questioning techniques that personally
involve students, which allows them to respond in a way that
reflects their diversity and expose their fellow students
to those differences concurrently. A mature student indicated,
“I want [instructors and students] to treat me with
respect by taking all my opinions into consideration and not
just ignore them.” In a classroom setting, instructors
can honour the differences, continue the discussion, and discover
what students can learn from one another (i.e. ‘agreeing
to disagree’). As a result, diversity is embraced and
the discussions are fruitful and mutually enriching.
Empowering Prior Knowledge
Each adult learner possesses a set of previous learning
experiences and attitudes that can either block or contribute
to the learning process. For example, for mature students
who lack confidence in their return to school, I emphasise
particularly that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning,
and choose evaluation methods that provide frequent feedback
to build a sense of competence. I also use problem-based learning
assignments with real-life research examples to foster an
active and practical learning approach that is relevant to
By setting ground rules, allowing discussion of different
opinions, and empowering prior experiences, different types
of learners can be accommodated. In addition, the amount of
anxiety that students experience either in learning complex
subjects or upon returning to school after many years can
be reduced significantly.
Challenges of Implementation
It is challenging for an instructor to create a sense of
community in large classes (especially in the first few weeks
when teachers need to pay special attention and determine
the kinds of diversity that need to be addressed). Large classes
also make it difficult to come to a consensus where ground
rules are concerned; students may lose patience with the teacher
who tries to include everyone’s opinion.
Despite the difficulties, it is important for instructors
to try to deliver their lessons in a way that accounts for
the class’s diversity and various learning styles. A
female interviewee indicated that her instructor did not acknowledge
her learning style even though she had pointed it out to the
Since it is impossible for instructors
to understand all the different cultures that exist in the
world, choosing words and phrases that are acceptable to every
culture is difficult, making it easy for instructors to offend
the students unintentionally1.
It is an also a challenge to determine when to use jargon
in delivering lessons to students for whom English is not
their first language.
As educators, our goal is to embrace as many different dimensions
of diversity as possible in teaching and learning. Consequently,
educators need to be aware of the issues of a diverse student
body, incorporate strategies to handle such matters, and to
address the challenges of implementation of these strategies.
By doing so, we can help students develop skills to cope with
a diverse world.
Andrzejewski, Julie. (1995). ‘Teaching Controversial
Issues in Higher Education: Pedagogical Techniques and Analytical
Framework’. In Martin Renee J. (Ed.), Practicing
What We Teach: Confronting Diversity in Teacher Education. New York: State University of New York Press.
Bucher, Richard D. (2000). Diversity Consciousness: Opening
Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities. New
Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Chan, Elsie (2002). ‘Designing a Learning Environment
that Alleviates Anxiety’. CDTLink. Vol 6, No. 1,
pp. 4. http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/link/Mar2002/tm2.htm (Accessed: 29 January 2003).
Critical Incidents V: Diversity and Inclusion [Video].
(2001). Victoria: University of Victoria Office of Equity
Hartman, Harriet. (2000). ‘The Challenge of Diversity
in Adult Numeracy Instruction’. In Gal Iddo (Ed.), Adult
Numeracy Development: Theory, Research, Practice. New
Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.
Kolb, D.A. (1976). Learning Style Inventory: Technical
Manual. Boston: McBer.
McArthur-Blair, Joan. (1995). Gender and Diversity:
Creating Inclusion in the College Environment. Province
of British Columbia: Ministry of Skills, Labour and Training.
Tobias, Sheila. (1990). They’re Not Dumb, They’re
Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Tucson, AZ: Research
1 Critical Incidents V: Diversity
and Inclusion video produced by the University Victoria, Office
of Equity Issues has a vignette on a student who confronted
her instructor about her discomfort with one of the terms
the instructor used in a history class.