Something from the New York Times for my colleagues to consider: “Does the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

The number of black engineers graduated by Florida State University has dropped by almost half over the last decade.  Other science departments are struggling with black enrollments as well.  Given this, it’s worth considering the New York Times piece from last month excerpted below.  Are we – professors and administrators – ready to make a commitment to change what we do to become a better place for black students to learn science and engineering?  That would mean learning new teaching models that would be uncomfortable for some of us, at least at first.  It would mean a new focus on undergraduate research – and not just for the most outstanding senior students.  It would mean focusing scholarship resources on science and engineering majors from disadvantaged backgrounds.  It would mean building the facilities we need to implement new teaching models and giving up other glitzy and more prestigious-looking projects, and finally saying that preparing new scientists and engineers is more important than producing graduates in fields where it is easier for students to earn a degree.

Are we at Florida State University ready to do that?

Here is some of what Annie Murphy Paul had to say in the Times last month:

Does the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?

The notion may seem absurd on its face. The lecture is an old and well-established tradition in education. To most of us, it simply is the way college courses are taught. Even online courses are largely conventional lectures uploaded to the web.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

There are several possible reasons. One is that poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge. This is a problem, since research has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.

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