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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.   

Much research notes that our own expertise can be a barrier to student learning. Here are some strategies to make it the asset to students that it we intend it to be.



Studies indicate that instructors may too easily assume that "everyone knows" some of the skills and information that are second nature to us, simply because we no longer think about the components of complex ideas or steps and decision trees behind complex processes.  We can therefore easily assign the kinds of assignments necessary for students to demonstrate their mastery of our course, only to discover that at least some students did not understand some fundamental assembly of knowledge or a couple of critical skills.  We can easily slip into deficit-model thinking when this happens.  But more likely, we're simply witnessing the gap between students as novices and instructors as experts (see item 5 here for a more complete explanation). For first-year students encountering your field for the first time ever, or for the first time at the exponential leap you will take from what they learned in high school, utter transparency about what you are teaching, why you are teaching it, and how it fits into a larger framework within your discipline can be critically helpful to students. 


"Scaffolding" means that you reduce the amount of new learning and provide opportunities to practice before adding complexity (or removing supports). For example, to introduce research into a first-year introductory course, the instructor might provide a data collection form that spells out very specifically what students should observe and record (with low-stakes practice sessions to get everyone on the same page) so that the learning can focus on analyzing the collected data. Try monitoring your course design for expertise-related omissions (e.g., have you combined ideas or processes that students need to learn and practice separately first? have you provided the necessary framework to facilitate students' ability to apply a concept learning in one context to an appropriate but different context?).  

Many instructors have found the "decoding the disciplines" process to be an effective way to identify better ways to structure student learning.  The process begins with identifying "bottlenecks" in student learning (see References/Resources below) -- complex ideas or processes that students have difficulty understanding well enough to apply them in other contexts. Recording student "think-alouds" and using those to identify patterns is an effective method of determining where students go wrong in their thinking about complex ideas or processes.  Other strategies of particular importance with first-year students are reducing cognitive load and addressing common misconceptions. Consistent monitoring of student understanding and effective feedback also help students succeed.  


One other place where our expertise can pose a barrier to student learning lies in how we give feedback to students.  Telling your class that some percentage of them are likely to earn a D or an F on the next exam (or on the one they just took) is unlikely to convey the message we might think it does (see expectancy). If you typically provide a statistical analysis of how your class performed on an exam, try tying that information to the preparation strategies your students actually used (see exam wrappers) so that the data you provide helps students actually to use it.

The feedback we give on written assignments can be even more baffling to students.  Not understanding what to do about a comment (e.g. "unclear" or "logic?") tends to make students attend only to the comments they do understand, which tend to be the low-level grammatical errors and typos we have marked on their papers.  Research also indicates that most students attend not at all to feedback on assignments they think of as "one-off" (usually, to students, this means no opportunity to rewrite, even though, to us, it may mean we will assign this same type of writing assignment several times in this one course or through a program).  Many instructors know the feeling of seeing a pile of term papers from the previous semester go unclaimed by their authors until we finally recycle them, despite all the hours we spent providing insightful feedback. Here are some strategies that can help you avoid wasting your time while improving the clarity of the feedback you give.  

For African American and Native American students in particular, research indicates that by the time they reach college, these students are likely to dismiss feedback from teachers altogether.  Some students have consistently been told that they "just aren't good" at something, a message that is sometimes driven by social stereotypes.  Other students have consistently received high praise from well-meaning teachers for work the student already knew was not good work perhaps in an effort to boost self-esteem or to counter social stereotypes by sending a counter-message.  The result of either of these approaches is that students doubt the usefulness of the feedback.  Instructors can address this problem by using what researchers call "wise feedback" -- using a clear, external standard, and prefacing your feedback with a growth mindset message.  This video explains more in 5 minutes, 42 seconds.

Normalize help-seeking 

Students from populations with stereotypes that stigmatize their intelligence can easily assume that asking for help will prove that they fit that stereotype; whether they believe that themselves or not, they are likely to think that you will. Studies indicate that few human beings will do anything that they believe will label them as deficient. Instructors can undermine these assumptions making help-seeking a normal activity of students in your class.  You can of course explain that you expect students to seek help and remind your class at critical times. You can talk about help-seeking as a strategy used by highly successful students, especially if you have a specific example you can share. By all means, provide students with a list of student success resources on D2L and show that list to students;  do this without targeting any particular resource, as if only students of color, say, need to know about these services.  

But even more effective are strategies through which students collaboratively identify learning they have not yet understood that you then help them work through, or structured mechanisms that assume and then teach effective help-seeking (e.g., study group assignments, supplemental instruction, or required advising appointments) (e.g., study group assignments, supplemental instruction, or required advising appointments).  Partnering with colleagues in other support offices (link) to provide advising that is coordinated, consistent, and regular can help prevent problems before they arise


Pace, D., & Middendorf, J., eds. (2004). Decoding the disciplines : Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 98.  See also Pinnow, E. (2016). Decoding the disciplines: An approach to scientific thinking. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(1), 94-101.  See also Middendorf, J., Mickutė, J., Saunders, T., Najar, J., Clark-Huckstep, A. E., Pace, D., & McGrath, with K. E. and N. (2014). What’s feeling got to do with it? Decoding emotional bottlenecks in the history classroom. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.  A 2017 edition of the Pace/Middendorf book was recently published.

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  Treisman explains the analytical process in this video:  Studying students studying calculus  For more on equity gap researchers studying the "deficit model," see 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