Student Diversity in Classes and Educational Outcomes: Student Perceptions

Article excerpt

How does increased diversity of backgrounds and experiences of undergraduate students affect teaching and learning activities in our classes and the educational outcomes for those students? A questionnaire about the likelihood of various teaching and learning activities and educational outcomes was completed by 117 undergraduate students (93 white, 24 minority) at a public research university. The students both white and minority perceived three educational outcomes as likely to be facilitated when there are more rather than fewer minority students in classes: cultural knowledge and awareness, recognizing the complexity of issues, and learning to work with people who are different. The students' perceptions provide evidence that traditional purposes of higher education, including general education learning goals, are facilitated for all students and not merely minority students when there is a diverse student body.

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Racial and ethnic diversity in the United States increased more in the 1980s than in any other decade. In the 1990s, people of color, women, and immigrants constituted approximately 85% of the entrants into the workforce. By the year 2020, one of every three Americans will be a person of color, and students of color will make up almost 50% of the student population. In the lifetimes of many of today's college and university students, non Hispanic whites are predicted to become less than half the population of the United States (Meacham, 1996). Frequent articles in the Wall Street Journal reveal that our nation's businesses are responding to these demographic changes with new programs for recruitment, training, and retention of a diverse workforce and with new products, services, and marketing strategies for an increasingly diverse population ("Diversity," 1996). Similarly, colleges and universities have been responding with new programs for recruitment and retention of underrepresented students and faculty and through the introduction of issues of multiculturalism and diversity into curricular requirements and course content (Crosby, Iyer, Clayton, and Downing, 2003). These programmatic changes have been supported and driven by an explosion of creative research and scholarship, as well as the introduction of improved teaching techniques, initially in women's and ethnic studies but now widespread throughout the humanities and social sciences (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1995; Meacham, 1996; Musil, 1996).

Our college and university campuses are now hosting the most diverse student population in our nation's history. The purpose of the present study was to ask how this increasing diversity of students on our campuses and in our classrooms might be affecting teaching and learning activities and educational outcomes. Thus, in contrast to other possible studies, the focus here is not upon the impact of curricular requirements and course content related to issues of multiculturalism and diversity, nor upon the effectiveness of teaching techniques intended to promote increased understanding of these issues. Instead, the focus is upon the increased diversity, per se, of students in our classrooms: Does increased racial and ethnic diversity among students lead to changes in the teaching and learning activities engaged in by faculty and students? Does increased racial and ethnic diversity among students lead to changes--enhancements or decrements in educational outcomes for our students and, if so, for what specific educational outcomes?

It's difficult to pursue such questions without first considering what is meant by educational outcomes. On most campuses these are best articulated in the context of general education programs and requirements. Schneider and Shoenberg (1998) have provided a summary of general education learning goals, which include acquiring intellectual skills or capacities; understanding multiple modes of inquiry and approaches to knowledge; developing societal, civic, and global knowledge; gaining self-knowledge and grounded values; and concentration and integration of learning. …