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I’ll never forget the time that Kelly turned to me and said, “You know, I never once raised my hand in college.” Because I had also had the same experience. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if our professors knew how engaged we were with the material given how quiet we were. It informs the way we think about inclusive teaching. Another memory I’ve had is in college I took a chemistry course and I bombed the first exam. It took me a long time to get around to the idea that I might not do well in this course and that it might change the kinds of interest that I had. And this course was structured a little the way a lot of STEM courses are structured with just a couple of exams and a final.

So I knew it was going to take a lot of work to pull up my grade. In the end I decided that chemistry wasn’t the right course for me and I think about if the course that included more assignments and quizzes if that might have helped me understand where I didn’t understand the material and how to study better. Now as an educator, I see the implications of having these kind of high stakes assessments and how they can change the way a person thinks about either their aspirations or how they are as a student. And we want to make sure that we build our courses so that students feel like they can succeed and that we’re in their corner to help them.

On the first day of class. I have students fill out an anonymous note card to tell me what they think of the course. And one of the more common sentiments that I hear from students is that they feel excited about the course, that they think it’s going to be hard, but they know support is around them in their peers and that we’ve structured the course for their success. Let’s take into that word structure a bit more. We use the word structure to talk about inclusive teaching. Some people think structure means more rigidity, but actually it’s a form of organisation. It allows students to understand how we have designed the course for their success. We want to think of it instead as a form of intentionality and conveying how we’ve designed the course for their success.

So to give you an example thinking about on my chemistry course, that’s an example of a low structure course where they’re just a couple of exams. If we were to incorporate more structure, it would include more assessments like quizzes or homeworks that would not only allow the instructor to see where I was struggling but for me to see where I was struggling and how I might be able to improve my study skills.

We use the word structure often when we talk about inclusive teaching. To some, the word may seem to imply a rigidity in an approach. Instead, we suggest structure is a form of organisation and a means of thinking and acting intentionally. Intentionality means we don’t leave it to chance that good things happen. In a nutshell, chance won’t get us closer to our goals of equity. Structure will.

To understand the role of structure let’s examine an example of a course design with low structure: one in which there is a mid-term and a final exam/paper. In this case, there are students who know to keep up with the readings and study over time, they may self-quiz on the material, and they may take advantage of all the optional study guides available. They may have come from schools that prepared them well for learning about their own learning. In contrast, there are students who don’t know how to use effective study approaches and they may cram in the days or hours before the exam. They may have other graded work, jobs or caregiving responsibilities that make doing the optional work a reach for them. They may focus on techniques that are not as helpful, such as re-reading. Because the course design is low-structure, students are left to determine how best to prepare for graded work.

Now, imagine if we added more structure to this course design – there are weekly quizzes, and students are required to complete study guides and assignments regularly. Now with more structure, all students are spreading their learning out and engaging in potentially helpful review activities. In essence, the instructor is “baking into” the course approaches that will help students succeed and learn how to learn.

Consider a common technique used often in classroom interactions: posing an open-ended question to students in class. There are many different students who might not speak up or volunteer an answer: there are students who might feel shy, who don’t want to offer an answer that they consider wrong, students who might have an accent and feel self-conscious participating, students who prefer to listen to some responses prior to weighing in. There are many students for whom this technique feels exclusive. Does this mean we want to avoid asking questions of students? No, it doesn’t. Instead, we’d like to encourage you to think about how you can incorporate more structure so that more students feel that they can engage.


How does focusing on structure help you reach more students?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.