Come One, Come All: Establishing Equity through Structured Elements to Engage All Students

by Bob Kao, Assistant Professor in Biology
Heritage University, Toppenish, WA, homeland of Yakama Nation

Summary Review:

In their recently published CourseSource article Structuring Courses for Equity, Hocker and Vandergrift (2019) provide a guide describing four elements that can increase equity in an introductory non-science majors general education biology courses (100 students), as well as upper division majors human physiology (350 students). These four structured elements include:

  1. Assignments with Transparent Design. Increasing structure of in-class worksheets, student presentations, or science writing assignments helps both faculty and students to enable clear expectations and purpose of each assignment. Furthermore, assignment rubrics help to assess growth of student learning during the course and improve course retention.
  2. Class Time to Engage All Students. Inclusive teaching approaches help to engage all students and develop students’ sense of belonging and community. For example, Schinske and colleagues (2016) developed the Scientist Spotlight to incorporate the scientist’s experiences as a role model for students to enhance science identity, community, as well as equity and diversity in STEM pathways.
  3. Out-of-Class Learning. Learning experiences outside of class discussions can help cultivate collaborative learning communities to enrich through pre-class assignments and quizzes. For example, quizzes can also be used as formative feedback to allow students to practice and recall concepts in biology.
  4. Assessments and Feedback. These assessment tools help instructors to identify and clarify students’ misconceptions on biology concepts through written and verbal feedback for all students. For example, clicker questions in a large course over 100 students could be used to assess students’ grasp of biology concepts. On the other hand, summative assessments, such as cumulative exams, provide an avenue for students’ ability to make predictions, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions. Structured, formative assessments are aligned with course and lab performance goals and learning objectives, and help foster depth of learning.

Structuring Courses for Equity - Course Roadmap

Course Roadmap from “Structuring Courses for Equity”

Hocker and Vandergrift open their article with a helpful graphic that describes achieving equity through a “course road map.” Students navigate each structured element—depicted as a road sign—during the course. They also include a table that breaks down the four elements and includes key examples of how instructors can implement them in their classrooms. For example, the Figure Facts activity (Round and Campbell 2013) used during UW STEP teaching provides a structured homework assignment that helps students read figures from an original research article. In class with jigsaws, students work in groups to think more critically about the figures and then share their analysis and interpretation with the whole class. As another example, in a general biology course that includes both majors and non-majors with 25-30 undergraduates, cumulative exams have helped first-generation Native American, Latinx, and non-traditional undergraduates because it helps to integrate biology topics across the entire semester and reduces exam cramming. My students and I discuss lived experiences of Drs. Robert Ramirez, Erich Jarvis, and Lydia Villa-Komaroff from iBiology, and how their lives relate to students’ own pathways in allied health, nursing, or biology research careers in a reflection writing prompt (Kao 2018 ). To help undergraduates integrate biology topics and reduce cramming, exams provide a framework that connects aerobic cell respiration discussed earlier in the semester with the growth and function of slow skeletal muscle fiber in the later cell physiology module of the course (Kao 2018 ). Furthermore, using structured assignments and feedback aligned with daily learning outcomes and class and lab performance outcomes help students see the purpose of each assignment. An example is using a Gallery Walk in-class discussion activity (Francek 2006) to discuss responses to open-ended questions used to engage undergraduates in analyzing articles in mechanisms of wound repair. The Gallery Walk was used at the beginning and end of the UW STEP wound repair course to examine the growth and sophistication of students’ responses over the time period of the course. Another example includes the implementation of a rubric to assess how students are able to analyze and evaluate primary research article in wound repair using an in-class assignment called Figure Facts (Round and Campbell 2013).

In summary, I highly recommend all instructors to read Hocker and Vandergrift’s CourseSource article to help instructors establish equitable approaches for all students in STEM.

Additional References on Inclusion and Equity in Science Education:

Bell, P. B., Megan (2019). “Overview: How can we promote equity in science education? .” Teaching Tools for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education(November 22, 2019).

Cajete, G. A. (1999). Ingniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model. Skyand, NC, Kivai Press.

Crowe, A., C. Dirks and M. P. Wenderoth (2008). “Biology in Bloom: Implementing Bloom’s Taxonomy to enhance student learning in biology.” CBE Life Sciences Education 7: 347-430.

Dewsbury, B. and C. J. Brame (2019). “Inclusive Teaching.” CBE Life Sci Educ 18(2): fe2.

Francek, M. (2006). “Promoting Discussion in the Science Classroom Using Gallery Walks.” Journal of College Science Teaching. 36: 27-31.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York and London, Teachers College Press.

Kao, R. M. (2018 ). “Helping Students SOAR: Quizfolio Tips to Engauge First Generation Underrepresented Minority Undergraduates in Scientific Inquiry.” The American Biology Teacher 80(3): 228-234.

Kao, R. M. (2019). “The ASCB MAC’s FRED Program makes an impact at Heritage University on the homeland of the Yakama Nation.” Retrieved November 22, 2019, from

Kao, R. M. (2019). “Beyond the lab bench: Pathways in inclusion, equity, and diversity in biology education and social justice.” Dev Biol.

Ross, K. A. (2016). Breakthrough Strategies: Classroom-Based Practices to Support New Majority College Students. Cambridge, Harvard Education Press.

Round, J. E. and A. M. Campbell (2013). “Figure facts: encouraging undergraduates to take a data-centered approach to reading primary literature.” CBE Life Sci Educ 12(1): 39-46.

Schinske, J. N., H. Perkins, A. Snyder and M. Wyer (2016). “Scientist Spotlight Homework Assignments Shift Students’ Stereotypes of Scientists and Enhance Science Identity in a Diverse Introductory Science Class.” CBE Life Sci Educ 15(3).

Tanner, K. D. (2013). “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE Life Sciences Education 12: 322-331.