Adaptive Equity-Oriented Pedagogy: Equipping Educators to Overcome Barriers to Learning in STEM

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Andrew Estrada Phuong, Education

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

A key national and campuswide issue is low persistence and retention rates for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines. Serving as Head Graduate Student Instructor for Computer Science (CS) 370 and 375 pedagogy courses with faculty members Christopher Hunn and Dan Garcia, respectively, I co-developed and implemented an Adaptive Equity-Oriented Pedagogy (AEP) framework to address this problem. Over multiple semesters, I equipped over 300 first-time STEM student-instructors (e.g., graduate student instructors, teaching assistants, tutors) with practical strategies to become more effective and inclusive educators. 

Problem: A pervasive challenge in training STEM student-instructors is addressing their skepticism of equity barriers and achieving their buy-in for pedagogical approaches to mitigate these barriers. Student-instructors’ skepticism of equity barriers can undermine their instructional effectiveness and can contribute to their students’ persistence and retention issues, especially for underrepresented students (Martin et al., 2017; Hunn, 2021). Due to their personal beliefs, limited experiences with equity issues, or skepticism of education research methods, many student-instructors were dismissive of barriers to learning presented in the Online GSI Ethics Course, such as stereotype threat, discrimination, and microaggressions. My challenge was to find a way for them to be attentive to equity issues, because they represent the future educators for our diverse undergraduate and graduate STEM student populations.

Strategy: To address the lack of buy-in, I used AEP to engage the instructors with equity topics, thereby modeling the pedagogical approach that I was teaching them to use in their own classes. AEP prepares instructors to meet the needs of their diverse students by: 

1) Clarifying learning outcomes 

2) Aligning formative assessments with outcomes 

3) Identifying students’ competencies, needs, and equity barriers to meeting outcomes 

4) Adapting teaching practices based on these needs and barriers 

5) Iterating: Reflecting upon pedagogy to support continuous learning and growth

Research has shown that AEP improves student learning by over a letter grade (Phuong, Nguyen, & Marie, 2017). 

To model how AEP elements can be applied, I provided reflection activities that enabled me to identify the student-instructors’ learning competencies, needs, and barriers to becoming effective and inclusive educators. Through these reflection activities, I sought to understand 1) their pedagogical perspectives and 2) how they made sense of their experiences and their students’ learning experiences.  

By reviewing weekly reflection assignments, I discovered that student-instructors valued data and evidence-based practices to make pedagogical decisions. Therefore, I provided assignments to help them collect and use data to identify their students’ needs. For example, I asked student-instructors to collect survey data on equity barriers so they could see how these issues affect their students’ learning. One open-ended question asked: “What factors, if any, outside of the classroom impact your success inside the classroom? Please only discuss what you feel comfortable sharing.” Student-instructors then synthesized student data and were able to see that learning was indeed negatively impacted by equity issues, such as stereotype threat and microaggressions. One student-instructor wrote: “Some key barriers mentioned in my student learning survey responses and from my own observations include stereotype biases, imposter syndrome, lack of resources, and intense academic competition.” I then created assignments to help student-instructors adapt their teaching based on their students’ survey results. Drawing on Richard McCallum’s Instruction-Assessment Framework, I also modeled and helped student-instructors implement ongoing pre- and post-formative assessments of student learning, a hallmark of AEP. Based on these data, student-instructors felt more motivated to apply AEP strategies because they saw increased student learning, engagement, and belonging. 

Assessment: I collected quantitative and qualitative evidence that confirms shifts in student-instructors’ mindsets and pedagogical approaches to address equity barriers by administering validated baseline, midterm, and final AEP competency assessments. I observed significant growth in instructors’ AEP competency and buy-in from pre- to post-semester, even among those who had initially expressed skepticism. At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, about 20% of 68 student-instructors expressed deficit thinking and resistance to equity barriers in their reflections or in class discussions. By the end of the semester, 0% expressed these views. The improvement is consistent with results from other semesters. Qualitative feedback from student-instructors also revealed these changes as they attained higher AEP competency. 

One student-instructor wrote: “I used to not pay enough attention to the issue of equity. I sometimes talked to students who had mastered the content and worked with them on hard problems/projects, and ignored some of the other students. However, I now value equity, sense of belonging… much more and I would never ever condescend to or ignore my students. […] I don’t think I would have paid enough attention to the issues of equity, stereotype threat, etc. and all these concepts that CS 370 talked about, because I wouldn’t have learned the data, theories, and psychological evidence behind teaching. I would have improved much slower.”

In Fall 2019, reflections also revealed the benefits of learning AEP from student-instructors who already valued equity: “I relied heavily on the AEP methods because many of the principles of AEP agreed with my own teaching philosophy and I had found that based on my experiences with the students the AEP methods were the most effective.”