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Episode 63

Supporting LGBTQ+ students

The Brownell Biology Education Research Group at Arizona State University is a team of dedicated biology education researchers studying ways to make undergraduate biology more inclusive.

Find out more about their research here.

In what ways are LGBTQ+ identities relevant in a STEM subject like biology?

“We’re trying to help students see themselves in a potential career.”

Interventions are often measured against producing some improvement in learning, but equally important as academic achievement is to what extent do students feel they belong in a discipline. Education is not just about grades. It is also about helping students see themselves continuing on in a particular field.

It is increasingly clear that science is not 100% objective. Who does the science has an impact on how the science is done, how things are interpreted, and the conclusions what are eventually made. Diverse teams bring more different perspectives. Diverse teams tend to produce better results because that diversity can mitigate the impact of individual biases.

Are there particular challenges for LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM subjects and in biology?

In biology, LGBTQ+ identities intersect with the content. In biology most of this is in the context of HIV and AIDS. The subject can also be taught in a very heteronormative way, ignoring the diversity in behaviour and reproductive biology in other animals.

Being out to your class and the benefits for students

Coming out to a class humanizes the instructor and improves:

  • students’ willingness to approach the instructor
  • feeling connected to the instructor
  • confidence in pursuing a science career
  • sense of belonging in the class
  • sense of belonging within the scientific community.

The duckling effect: Seeing others in the field who are able to be themselves can help LGBTQ+ young people find their way to water.

Recommendations for teaching biology in more inclusive ways

Think about the language used

Using humor

Humour based on science or the subject matter is least likely to be offensive. Also jokes based on television or food.

Jokes don’t need to be funny, or make students laugh every time, in order to be effective at humanising the instructor, improving learning, or improving the student-instructor relationship. Student’s appreciate the attempt.

Avoid using humour based on identity. Jokes are based on subverting stereotypes (if something is funny because it is not what is expected) can have the effect of reinforcing binaries. Even self-depricating humour can be counterproductive when there are students who share the same characteristics.

Be purposeful about active learning practises

Consider if all elements of group work are the best option for student learning. Sometimes instructors may tell students to work in a group purely as a time or resource saving exercise. Working through a worksheet as a group saves paper, but takes away the option of students working independently if that is what they would prefer. Offer every member of a group the sheet means they can work on their own or with the group.

“Pair-and-share” and other methods of allowing students to confer before responding to a question reduces anxiety by giving students time to think, listen to other ideas, and formulate an answer. It also takes the pressure off any individual student

Active Learning Continuum - a summary of common approaches

Active learning - Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching

Be thoughtful about forming groups

If the goal is to improve learning about content, it can be preferable to allow students to self-organise groups. Students will likely choose people they think they will be comfortable with which would reduce anxiety.

If the goal of group work is to produce a final product it may be preferable to mix groups up to encourage sharing different perspectives.

Error framing

Reframing mistakes or misconceptions as normal or useful reduces student anxiety. It also builds the relationship between the instructor and students because they feel that the instructor understands their thought process, making them more likely to continue contributing in the future.

Being transparent

Let students know why you are making certain teaching decisions. This increases student buy-in because they understand that you are making decisions to help them succeed. Letting them know that you encourage students to work in groups because listening to different perspectives can help with learning can help students contribute their own views in group discussions.

Students can assume that being called on is a punishment or embarrassment for not paying attention. If calling on students is being used to check understanding or enhance learning then it can be important to be clear about this. Otherwise students may be afraid to be called upon because they are afraid of what this means about the instructor’s opinion of them or what the rest of the class might think.

More advice on supporting LGBTQ+ students

Universal design for learning

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