To Include is To Excel: Inclusion in the classroom
In the first two years of the To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.
Spanish faculty member Carla Manzoni developed a To Include is To Excel project with a very simple goal: to better understand the learning experiences of all students by exploring the practices of inclusion already taking place in our classrooms and assessing current approaches to teaching that work well.
Interested in what students would report as best practices for inclusion in the classroom, she created a pilot survey that the college’s Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment Office randomly sent to 500 students at the end of Interim 2019. She shared the results last summer, and is hoping they provide a starting point for understanding inclusion in the classroom.
Manzoni shares what she learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what she hopes the community takes away from it:
What led you to develop this project?
When I heard about the To Include is To Excel call for proposals to improve the St. Olaf experience for ALL students, I immediately asked myself: What is the right project for our community?
There is something about the self-sufficient nature of problem solving/thinking at St. Olaf that captivates me. I love the way St. Olaf looks at itself first in order to understand its challenges, and uses the knowledge available within the community as a first step. St. Olaf also has a spirit of innovative playfulness and a deep respect for the students. As a junior professor, I was inspired to try new things and always assess these new practices. I thought about all of these things when I conceived my To Include is To Excel project.
“There is something about the self-sufficient nature of problem solving/thinking at St. Olaf that captivates me. I love the way St. Olaf looks at itself first in order to understand its challenges, and uses the knowledge available within the community as a first step.”
I was interested in delving into the following issues:
- How can we find out what we are already doing to include ALL students? I was hoping that these best practices could be transferable knowledge and innovations that could be easily applied by others on campus.
- How can we hear directly from students?
- What tools do I have to contrast the different experiences different students have?
- Who should I reach out to in order to make this happen?
What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Very early in the process, I knew I had to team up with knowledgeable colleagues, staff, and students. Soon I realized that my community is extremely big-hearted, committed, and very respectful and responsible, and that everyone wanted to help me.
Personally, I learned a variety of new skills needed to lead a project like this in higher education. I was able to network; I reached out to and received help from fellow faculty member Ryan Sheppard, the Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment Office, and student workers. With help, I could train myself in grant writing; project development and coordination; student-worker hiring, coordination, and supervision; survey development and coordination; progress monitoring; and results dissemination via a grant report, a grant poster, presentations, and this profile feature.
What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?
First, I would like the community to see this project as the liberal arts at its best: inquiry beyond the area of expertise, guided by the heart and the mind, achieved in community. When I submitted the project, back in 2018, I was a Spanish professor teaching a Latinx Experiences in the U.S. class, and inspired by college training to revise the Multicultural Domestic general education requirement. I felt there was knowledge in the community that needed to be tapped into, so I drafted a plan, reached out to my community, and got the support and trust I needed to move forward.
“I would like the community to see this project as the liberal arts at its best: inquiry beyond the area of expertise, guided by the heart and the mind, achieved in community.”
Second, this project shows the power of human relationships. As a professor, I knew that my students — especially those who are not the traditional St. Olaf student — needed a vehicle to voice to their experiences on campus and their concerns. The majority of the students who took part in the To Include is To Excel survey self-identified with at least one of the seven marginalized traits included in the assessment (first-generation student, low-income student, person with a physical or learning disability, non-cisgender, LGBTQIA+, international student, person of color). The survey participants self-identified with a marginalized trait at the extraordinarily high rate of 63 percent. The breakdown of the participants demographics are:
- First Generation: 11.9 percent
- Low income: 32.2 percent
- Physically/Learning Disability: 15.3 percent
- Non-Cisgender: 1.7 percent
- LGBTQIA+: 13.6 percent
- International Student: 15.3 percent
- Person of Color: 22.0 percent
This representation was not only relevant for survey participation, but also for student work interest. The three students who expressed their desire to work in the To Include is To Excel project (and efficiently worked with and without pay, dedicating 50+ hours to the project) self-identified with at least one marginalized trait. This over-representation of marginalized groups in participation and work interest (which does not reflect the majority of St. Olaf students) provides insight to a population that not only needs to be heard and represented, but also to a group that is willing to do the work needed to self-advocate for a more equitable campus and community.
Third, I would like my community to be aware of the survey results. Students report that St. Olaf professors are already engaging in inclusive practices and that different students experience those practices very differently. More specifically:
- The inclusive practices reported by students vary in prevalence, and some appear to occur at a remarkably low frequency.
- Some marginalized groups show a disproportionately low rate of reporting some of the inclusive practices.
- Students who have more marginalized identities tended to report fewer inclusive practices than those with fewer marginalized identities.
The practice that the greatest portion of students reported was used at least once by their professors was “create a safe and comfortable environment by asking students to actively participate and listen to what others have to say, as well as help those who do not understand a concept” (86.4 percent). The practice that the fewest students reported was used at least once by their professors was “work together to create an agreement about group communication and rules such as a ‘team charter'” (22 percent).
Among the practices that professors could be engaging in, students suggested:
- “More professors could be looking at countries other than the U.S.”
- “Different ways of evaluating students on their knowledge of the material.”
- “Professors need to ask for pronouns.”
- “(Professors should be) including more writings/homework from marginalized perspectives.”
How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
In order to support the project, the community needs to be familiar with it. I invite everyone to read the full Data Analysis Report.
I am glad to also announce that St. Olaf is already supporting my next project, as I have been awarded a Professional Development Grant for Spring 2020 to continue developing and assessing my inclusive pedagogies.
Where does your work go from here?
The continuation of my project funded by a Professional Development Grant is a self-study of my class Spanish 232: Latinx Experiences in the U.S. I have been granted additional funds to apply the learnings of my To Include is To Excel survey. I plan to scrutinize my course goals, dynamics, and contents through an equity lens. I am scheduling conversations with (former) students, most of them Latinx, about the way the course engages with representation, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We will dissect the course so that we can better understand how the rationale is put into practice. We will be paying close attention to the 18 inclusive practices detailed in the To Include is To Excel survey, as well as other best practices reported or suggested by surveyed students.