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Inclusive Teaching: Teaching First Generation Students


In the Classroom: Make expectations visible and respect difference

How does all of this research about first-generation students translate into classroom principles and practices? Unfortunately, little research exists about the most effective strategies for enhancing the learning outcomes of first-generation students. At least partially, this dearth in the research literature should be understood as an effect of the complexities of collecting reliable data from the patchwork quilt of classrooms that make up higher education. Differences between institutions (4-year vs. 2-year; public vs. private; large vs. small) and disciplines, along with demographic variation at the campus and classroom levels, make it difficult to issue generalized recommendations on how to improve academic achievement and increase learning among first-generation students. Lastly, as mentioned in the introduction to this guide, interventions for first-generation students at the institutional level may yield the most significant positive results, given that students will take many courses from many different instructors during their path to an undergraduate degree.

This is not to say, however, that classroom instructors are powerless in the effort to help first-generation students be successful. The following list comprises the most impactful recommendations for teaching first-generation college students.

Transparency: Although it may come with great individual freedom, college also comes with a number of unwritten rules, both cultural and academic. These rules may seem, after years in the academy or growing up in a family of college-educated people, completely commonsense. Yet, to first-generation students, they are anything but. To help students familiarize themselves with both the cultural and academic rules of college, instructors should be as transparent as possible about their expectations in every activity and assignment. In a pilot study of 1180 students, McNair, Finley, Winkelmes and colleagues (2016) found that greater instructor transparency increased students’ academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value in new employees. Gains were seen in all students as a result of increased transparency. The effect, however, was much more significant for first-generation and low-income students. To make assignments more transparent, instructors should ask themselves and then report to students their answers to the following three questions:

  • Task: What do I want students to do?
  • Purpose: Why am I asking students to do this?
  • Criteria: How will I evaluate their work?

Ultimately, this transparency promotes equity in the classroom by allowing all students in on what Winkelmes calls the “secret, unwritten rules of college”(Berrett, 2015).

Teach study skills: The rigor of most college coursework requires the development of effective study skills. Instructors should not assume, especially in lower-level courses, that all students have the necessary study skills to succeed. Instead, instructors should be explicit in the classroom about how to best study for particular assignments and types of content (Hodges & White, 2001).

Organize study groups: Because first-generation students are more likely to isolate themselves academically and socially, they often miss out on the benefits of group study. To prevent this, instructors should organize formal study groups that incorporate all students. The level of supervision given to these groups may range. Instructors may choose to have a student who successfully passed the class previously or a graduate student participate in student study groups to provide information or record attendance. It may be suitable to include study group attendance and participation as part of a course participation grade. Particularly positive results have been observed when faculty show an active interest in such groups.

Use rubrics: Grading rubrics make explicit the criteria by which complex assignments are evaluated. Using rubrics to assess student performance promotes equity in grading, expedites necessary communication with support services, and helps students pinpoint learning deficiencies to allow for more targeted improvement efforts (Stevens & Levi, 2005). Rubrics can also serve as formative assessments, which allow instructors track student progress and adapt learning activities to meet students’ content or skill deficits. Lastly, when given in advance of an assignment, rubrics assist students in focusing their efforts for an assignment (Stevens & Levi, 2005). This makes rubrics particularly useful for first-generation students.

Model discussion: First-generation students may not be familiar with the procedures of discussion in academia. Instructors should take opportunities throughout the semester to model an ideal discussion. Indeed, because discussion may vary across disciplines making your expectations about in-class discussion transparent will be beneficial to all students. Along with modeling, instructors may take the opportunity to have a “meta-discussion” with students where, all together, students analyze a recent in-class discussion in order to reflect on speaking time, turn-taking, and evolving perspectives. For more on leading productive classroom discussions, see the following guide to discussions from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Incorporate first-generation experiences: Given the “invisibility” of first-generation status, these students often lack role models. Instructors must incorporate first-generation experiences into the curriculum in the same way that we attend to other forms of diversity. In disciplines where reading and discussion take up most of class time, texts by first-generation authors should be assigned, and discussions should, where possible, center the experiences of first-generation students. In all disciplines, instructors should be explicit about available accommodations or support services available to first-generation students.

       The problem of educational retention and attrition among first-generation students persists even after these students receive their undergraduate degrees, which explains why first-generation students are less likely to enter doctoral programs than their peers (Choy, 2001; Hoffer et al., 2003). This, in turn, creates a pipeline issue for first-generation college faculty, given that terminal degrees are a pre-requisite for most faculty positions. In other words, first-generation college students have difficulty locating a first-generation role model on the faculty, which in turn makes it harder to recruit and train first-generation faculty. Whenever possible, then, professors who identify as first-generation students should make their first-generation status explicit.

Develop personal relationships: While beneficial to all students’ academic achievement and degree attainment, first-generation students in particular benefit from close interactions with faculty, both in- and outside of class (Filkins & Doyle, 2002; Smart & Umbach, 2007). Kim and Sax (2009) show that greater frequency of positive interaction between first-generation students and instructors translates into greater academic, social, and emotional gains. To achieve this, instructors might schedule one-on-one conferences with students, make office hours mandatory a certain number of times in a semester, or invite students to come early to class or stay behind to talk. If a class is too large to support these types of individualized interventions, an instructor may nonetheless promote closer relationships with students through personal surveys handed out to all students at the beginning of the semester or by sharing appropriate personal information about herself.

Interaction with faculty in a research context shows a particularly significant positive effect on college GPAs and degree aspiration for all groups (Kim & Sax, 2009). Therefore, faculty members should consider what opportunities may exist for collaborative research with undergraduates and which students take advantage of such opportunities. As Davis (2010) states, the “symbolic impact of being able to say, ‘I know Professor Smith,’ cannot be underestimated (197). Students will feel more integrated into campus life and more supported overall.

Promote grit, lessen the stereotype threat and the imposter syndrome: Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and educational researcher, finds that one of the most consistent predictors of individual success in education is the quality of perseverance, which she calls “grit” (Duckworth et al., 2007)

Watch Duckworth’s TED Talk here:

First-generation students may already be especially resilient compared to their peers (Rodríguez, 1983; Tokarczyk & Fay, 1993). As we have seen, however, they frequently internalize their educational achievement, relying heavily on a personal locus of control and self-motivation. These factors contribute to first-generation students’ high rates of anxiety and the frequent experience of the imposter syndrome and the stereotype threat phenomenon. To lessen the intensity and impact of these feelings, instructors should consciously train students to be “grittier.” One way to train this skill is by promoting intellectual curiosity in the face of failure. In research projects, students should be encouraged to think about the process of research as much as the product. Ask students to turn in multiple drafts of their research findings. Another way to train for grit is to assign challenging material—a complex novel or an innovative research article—and spend time with students picking it apart. Assign the same text twice if students struggle. In this way, we teach students that failure is a normal part of academia and of life.

Build cultural capital: When Pappano writes that first-generation students “may not have grown up with the edifying vacations, museum excursions, daily doses of NPR and prep schools that groom Ivy applicants,” she is essentially referencing the amassed cultural capital of students from families with college-educated parents. Indeed, much of what is commonly considered to be hallmark of an educated person is instead the cultural capital accrued from being a member of a privileged class, race, gender, etc. (Gardner & Holley, 2011). For Doug Lederman (2013), it is this difference in cultural capital that divides first- and continuing-generation students. In their book Rethinking College Student Persistence (2013) Braxton and colleagues show that greater levels of cultural capital translates into greater engagement and social integration. In the classroom, then, instructors should avoid assuming that students will know certain culturally-specific information, such as the albums of The Beatles, or that they will have had culturally-specific experiences, such as travel abroad, because these represent a particular social (class, race, gender, etc.) position. Rather, instructors should look to include privileged cultural elements from a variety of communities and cultures. This disrupts the sheen of universality that accompanies elite Western culture. At the same time, instructors can help students gain cultural capital that will serve them in other classes and later in life. Lederman, for instance, cites a Wofford College program, Novel Experience, that pays for students, in small groups, to eat dinner at a fancy restaurant. Joined by a professor, the students discuss a previously assigned novel while getting to know the professor, their classmates, and the ins and outs of fine dining.

Engage parents: Instructors should seek to mitigate first-generation students’ unwanted feelings of disconnection from family and childhood peers. Constructive parental engagement in college education boosts students’ educational aspirations and eases the cultural transition to college (McCarron & Inkelas, 2006). Although somewhat limited in their ability to reach out to parents, instructors may want to assign that re-connect students with their families and home communities, such as ethnographic or (auto-)biographical work. For faculty who work in an advisory capacity in addition to teaching, explicit discussion of a students’ relationship with his home can improve the quality and personalization of advising, as well as lessen feelings of “dissonance” (Somer et al., 2004: 429).

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment, protects the privacy of student records and prohibits sharing information about students, even to their parents, without express consent.


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  • Last Updated: Dec 5, 2022 2:51 PM
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