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Diversity in students contributes to the cultural richness of a university and makes it a cosmopolitan community. However, educating a group of heterogeneous students requires teachers to have a clear understanding of the various dimensions of diversity in classrooms and adopt appropriate teaching approaches and materials to cope with the pedagogical challenges of a Heterogeneous Student Body.

July 2003, Vol. 6, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Empowering a Diverse Student Population
Professor Elsie Chan
School of Public Administration
University of Victoria, Canada


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 up.”

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.

Cultural Differences

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 cultures.”

Age Differences

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 to school.”

Gender Differences

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, 2000).

Learning Styles

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, 1995).

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 all students.

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 instructor.

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. (Accessed: 29 January 2003).

Critical Incidents V: Diversity and Inclusion [Video]. (2001). Victoria: University of Victoria Office of Equity Issues.

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 Corporation.


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.

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Inside this issue
Empowering a Diverse Student Population
Strategies for Achieving ‘Cultural Synergy’ in a Culturally Diverse Student Body
Coping with a Heterogeneous Student Body
Self-help Material for USP Students