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Challenging the Deficit Model

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Instructors can unintentionally impose barriers to our students' success simply by virtue of our high levels of expertise in our fields.  Given the easy complexity of expert thinking, it is very common for us to assume that a student who fails in our class is just lazy, unmotivated, or woefully underprepared for college – we assume that the student is deficient in some way, and that that is why that student fails. 

Research into equity gaps challenges this "deficit model" of thinking and identifies the fundamental shift that is needed from us in order to serve students from historically underserved groups well.  Rather than assuming deficits, we can engage struggling students with the same intellectual curiosity we apply to the complex problems we ourselves study.

This section of the Instructor's Guide to IE on Equity Strategies will explore several well-researched approaches to closing these gaps, all of which have come after this critical change in how researchers approached the problem of equity gaps.  In the Strategy section below, we begin with the question, What does it feel like to be a novice learner in my discipline? 

Summary of Research

Some years ago, a mathematics graduate student at UC Berkeley, Uri Treisman, wanted to understand why African American students at Berkeley did so poorly in math. Like many instructors, he and his colleagues assumed that students who struggled were deficient in some way (e.g., that they lacked motivation or preparation or . . .).  His team rigorously examined each of the "attribution fallacies" instructors assume to be true of students who struggle; they discovered that none of those assumptions explained anything (and this research team is not alone in that discovery).  

In desperation, the team dropped their "deficit model" thinking and decided to use a field research model to help them identify behavioral patterns.  They studied a group of students who struggled with calculus, African Americans, and a group who did not, Asian Americans. The research team literally followed students around, recording what their students actually did as they studied math, did math homework, and prepared for exams.  They discovered that Asian American students tended to study collaboratively, and that they had learned effective, raise-all-boats collaborative skills for many years within their families and communities. On the other hand, African American students tended to study alone, working harder and harder, but without the help they needed to identify where their logic had gone wrong; they actually worked harder than their classmates but continued to fail. Treisman and his colleagues used what they learned to build a new kind of program that helped multiracial groups of students succeed in calculus so they could go on to further study in math and science. 

The key insight, though, was not in identifying the behavioral differences.  The key insight is this: The solution to the problem only became available to this research team once they stopped assuming that students' own deficits were the problem.  These instructors had to change themselves first.  They had to drop their own "deficit model" mindset before they were able even to see, let alone fix, the mathematics equity gap about which they all cared so deeply. 

This does not mean that you will never encounter students at UWL who are underprepared for your course or who are lazy or unmotivated. It means that deficit-model thinking by instructors about students oversimplifies the complexities of student learning and makes us, as a campus, highly unlikely to close the equity gaps we know we have. Research suggests that we could close them if we try a different approach.  


Treisman, U. (1992). Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. The College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362-372. doi:10.2307/2686410 

Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi : How stereotypes affect us and what we can do.  New York:W.W. Norton & Company. The Campus Climate office has a copy, but there are many copies floating around campus from a CATL reading program several years ago. 

Hoskins, D. (2016).  Challenging the deficit model.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from