Photo of students walking through the University of Iowa Pentacrest.
Photo by Bill Adams/ The University of Iowa.

By Wayne Jacobson, Director, The University of Iowa Office of Assessment

The 2014 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey of all UI undergraduates provides several insights into the campus climate for diversity. Findings suggest both that students’ time at UI supports the IOWA Challenge to “Stretch” them in their understanding of diversity and also that faculty members can play a critical role in stretching students farther.

Students see UI as a place where they are growing in their understanding of diversity.  SERU asks students to rate their understanding of specific areas of diversity at the time they entered UI and at the time they took the survey.  Comparing self-assessments of these two points in time, we see gains in all areas.  Although self-reported gains don’t by themselves demonstrate learning, this consistent pattern suggests that students see themselves increasing in their overall understanding of diverse identities and perspectives while they are at UI.

When students report feeling unwelcome or excluded, it is generally not in response to faculty or staff.  On aggregate, students report a positive campus climate for diversity.  For underrepresented minority students and international students, responses to questions about interactions with faculty, engagement in class, and satisfaction with educational experience suggest that in most ways, their perceptions are not significantly different from those of majority students. 

However, in response to the question, “People of my race/ethnicity are respected on campus,” mean levels of agreement for international and underrepresented minority students are significantly below the campus average.  Responses also show that when students observe expression of negative or stereotypical views, it is primarily in interactions with other students, rarely with faculty or staff.

Greatest awareness gains happen in the classroom.  The setting where students report most often gaining a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives is in academic classes.  Other settings outside of class (such as student organizations, residence halls, and places of employment) were also identified as places for learning others’ perspectives, but at a relatively lower rate and for fewer students. 

Implications: Stretching Farther

These findings suggest that faculty play a vital role in student learning related to diversity and perspective-taking.  SERU tells us that students spend more time attending class than in any other single activity, and a wide variety of classroom experiences can help students understand perspectives other than their own.  For example,

  • In class, students are learning the subject matter and also seeing the distinct perspective that a scholar brings to analyzing problems, framing questions, and formulating arguments.
  • Classes create contexts for students to collaborate and engage with other students that they rarely interact with outside class, and to see that their own perspectives are not necessarily representative of everyone else’s.
  • By addressing widely held misconceptions in the field or contested findings in research, instructors can help students gain insight into issues by examining the perspectives of others who see issues differently.
  • Courses that explore power and privilege challenge students to examine their own perspectives and opportunities in light of the social conditions that shaped them.
  • In community-engaged projects, students can learn to see community members as partners and experts in their knowledge of the community, rather than only as recipients of volunteer service.

Through these kinds of opportunities,  instructors help students see that they can learn more by asking not only, “Why is this important?” but also “Who is this important to?” and “Why do they see it this way?”

Contact the Center for Teaching to explore strategies for explicitly teaching about other perspectives, incorporating difficult dialogues into course design, and facilitating student ability to engage with difference:  teaching@uiowa.edu.

For more information about the SERU survey and the full report on Campus Climate for Diversity, see http://www.uiowa.edu/assessment/seru.