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Measuring the Impact of a Diversity Requirement on Students' Level of Racial Prejudice

The Impact of Diversity Courses: Research from Pennsylvania State University
Betsy Palmer, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Alabama


Contrary to what some critics allege, only a small minority (less than 1%) of students completing Pennsylvania State University's (Penn State's) required cultural diversity classes are strongly opposed to the requirement. Nearly 90% of these students indicated that they would have taken courses with diversity content even if the requirement did not exist. And a few students suggested that they would support strengthening the requirement. Penn State requires that all undergraduate students complete a minimum of one diversity-focused course as part of their general education course requirements.

With support from the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, I surveyed Penn State undergraduates in a random sample of courses meeting the requirement to examine changes in students' attitudes and content knowledge as a result of their participation. Over 1,000 students completed surveys at the beginning and end of the Spring, 1998 semester. The majority of the students surveyed were taking a diversity-focused course to fulfill the cultural diversity requirement (41%). Thirty-two percent were taking it to fulfill another general education or major requirement, and eighteen percent were taking it to fulfill multiple requirements.

Changing Attitudes About Diversity

A primary focus of the survey was to examine changes in students' diversity-related attitudes during the semester in which they were enrolled in the diversity course. Across the full sample of students, racial and gender attitudes became more tolerant during the semester. The extent of these changes, however, was influenced by both student-level and course-level variables. Overall, students of color experienced greater gains in tolerance than did white students, and women as a group experienced greater gains than men.

About half the students reported that they had previously completed a diversity course with content on race/ethnicity issues and nearly one-third of the students had previously taken a diversity course with content on gender issues, global/international issues, and other diversity content. Previous enrollment in diversity courses led to more positive attitudes at the end of the semester, suggesting that multiple courses have a cumulative positive affect on students' levels of tolerance. Participation in a racial/cultural awareness workshop or a diversity-focused student organization also positively influenced attitude change, but participation in a Greek organization negatively influenced tolerance over the semester.

In examining the characteristics of courses that positively influenced attitude change, I also found that students taking courses affiliated with women's studies and ethnic studies programs positively enhanced students' attitudes toward gender and racial differences more than courses not affiliated with those departments. Courses which utilized a discussion-based pedagogy were also more effective than lecture courses at changing students' attitudes on racial policies. Across multiple attitude measures, courses which examined issues of power and oppression were also more effective in producing more tolerant attitudes than courses which did not address these issues.

Gaining Knowledge About Diversity

The surveys also asked students to self-report gains in knowledge in five general multicultural content areas. Some courses had higher levels of knowledge gain than others. Students in courses which examined power relations among diverse groups reported greater gains than students in courses that did not address power relations. Additionally, courses that highlighted the achievements of individuals from targeted groups showed greater gains in student knowledge than courses which did not address this content area.

Impact Beyond the Classroom

Students also indicated that their experiences in diversity courses may have some influence on their perspectives and behaviors outside the classroom. Nearly 60 percent of the students suggested that their experience in a diversity course has motivated them to look at multiple perspectives in other courses and to rethink history from the perspectives of a targeted diversity group. Their experience in a diversity course had influenced a majority of the students to discuss issues of discrimination and prejudice with friends outside of class, and nearly 40% of the students suggested that their class experiences made them more aware of racial intolerance on campus. However, when it came to more active involvement in formal diversity-focused organizations, students were less likely to be motivated by their class experiences. Only ten percent of the students surveyed indicated that they had volunteered to support a community organization and only eight percent were influenced to become active in diversity-oriented campus groups.

It may be at an intellectual level and at very personal levels that diversity courses have their greatest impact on students. Over one-third of the students thought that their experiences and opinions influenced other students in their classes. Forty percent had become more aware of inequality in their personal relationships as a result of their class experiences. Perhaps most importantly, over half the students responded that they had learned about themselves through their discussions in class.

The Overall Impact of the Diversity Requirement

Penn State's diversity courses are having a positive impact on students on multiple levels. Students are gaining content knowledge, developing more tolerant attitudes, and experiencing self-exploration as a result of their experiences in diversity-focused courses. In addition, the research demonstrates that undergraduates' experiences in diversity classes are influencing not only what they do in the classroom, but how they view the campus and the world beyond the classroom.


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Across multiple attitude measures, courses which examined issues of power and oppression were...more effective in producing more tolerant attitudes that courses which did not address these issues.