Rice University faculty members gathered Jan. 6 to celebrate new and inventive teaching methods at the fourth annual “Symposium on Teaching and Learning,” hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). This year’s symposium focused on inclusive teaching.
“Like many campuses across the country, conversations about inclusivity in our classrooms, about strategies that faculty can use to mitigate against stereotype threat and about other related issues have been happening with more frequency here at Rice, and we wanted to provide a forum for community members to discuss these topics,” said Joshua Eyler, director of the CTE.
The symposium kicked off with a welcome by Paula Sanders, vice provost for academic affairs, who introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Geoffrey Cohen, the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford University. His presentation, “Powerful but Invisible: Psychological Processes Shaping Student Success,” focused on how different psychological factors impact student outcomes — for better or for worse — and how educators can be more aware of this in their teaching approach.
“There are invisible processes that you can’t see that shape our world,” he said. “There is more than meets the eye: What is behind the eyes of students, how they are perceiving their social world, matters a lot.”
Cohen noted that these things can sometimes be hard to see. He then shared the story of two siblings, a few years apart in age. to demonstrate how their respective educational experiences shaped their lives. For all intents and purposes, Cohen said, the siblings were cognitively and economically identical. They both came from a family that tried to prepare them academically and expressed a love of learning in elementary school. However, they took very different paths. The sister recently finished a Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, and the brother recently got out of prison.
“To understand what happened, you have to go beyond the surface indicators and look at the contours of their lives,” Cohen said.
The brother suffered from epilepsy and had a seizure at school, Cohen said. Once the boy recovered from the seizure, his teachers had a negative reaction to the situation. From that point on, he felt like an outsider, and other people saw him as not fully able or engaged with school; consequently, he disengaged from his surroundings. On the other hand, Cohen said, his sister had positive experiences with her teachers, who demanded hard work, acted as mentors and assured her of her potential and belonging.
Cohen said that these two divergent experiences represent how school situations can shape the way people see school, and the way that people see school can ultimately shape their individual performance.
“The self system is a powerful tool for motivation,” he said. “Feelings of belonging and having potential lead to outcomes like better performance and motivation, and this can lead to success in school. And it’s a cycle that propels individuals forward. In addition, these outcomes interact with the social system and affect the way people are seen and related to.”
Cohen said that this way of thinking suggests that outcomes don’t come from inside the student or outside of the student but rather from the interaction between their personal psychology and their current situation.
“A student who feels like they have a sense of belonging might perform better, and performing better might lead their teachers and other individuals to feel like they belong, which can ultimately reinforce their sense of belonging and performance,” Cohen said.
He said there are many ways for educators to intervene and encourage this positive cycle: They can minimize bias, reduce prejudice and encourage a feeling of belonging.
“Success is psychology plus opportunity,” he said. “You need both to get this dance going. A student has to have a sense of psychological comfort and the environment has to respond in a way that maintains this sense of belonging and better performance over time.”
Following Cohen’s talk, CTE faculty fellows led conversations with others in their disciplines regarding the opportunities and challenges of implementing the interventions discussed by Cohen. These smaller groups then shared the results of their collaborations with the rest of the attendees.
“The ideas presented by Cohen led to enthusiastic discussions among the faculty, graduate students and staff in attendance,” Eyler said. “The group then generated pragmatic, actionable suggestions for moving forward here on campus.”
For more information on Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, visit http://cte.rice.edu/.