How Diversity Affects
Teaching and Learning
Climate of inclusion has a positive
effect on learning outcomes.
by Sylvia Hurtado
Colleges and universities that have
adopted a proactive commitment to student
diversity have done so because they
understand how their central mission
is linked with the future of a diverse
society. They are aware that, by the
year 2000, most new jobs in the economy
will require a postsecondary education,
and women and racial/ethnic minorities
will compose a majority of the workforce.
One result of this awareness is a transformation
taking place at many institutions that
links diversity in the student body
with the development of new teaching
and learning practices.
Changes to higher education practices
and curricula began nearly 30 years
ago, when institutions first opened
their doors to groups that previously
had been excluded from higher education.
When the "experiment" began, many campuses
were not prepared for the changes they
would undergo as a result of including
more adult students, women, and racial/ethnic
minorities in their student bodies.
These changes in student enrollments
were connected with major intellectual
and social movements that raised important
questions about the production and transmission
of knowledge, as well as access to education.
Diverse student enrollments resulted
in pressures that led to the development
of new academic support programs and
student organizations, diversification
of faculty and staff, the establishment
of ethnic and women's studies programs,
and the revision of educational policies
and curricula to reflect the diversity
of human experience and perspectives.
Because these issues often required
fundamental changes in premises and
practices at many levels, few of these
changes occurred without institutional
or individual resistance, and many institutions
continue to confront conflicts over
diversity issues today.
Undoubtedly, increasingly diverse
student enrollments have presented challenges
on campus and in the classroom. However,
many of these challenges are at the
core of institutional improvements that
enhance student learning and involve
faculty development. For example, the
emergence of research on diverse learning
styles can be attributed in part to
increased diversity in the classroom.
The research suggests that no single
instructional method may be effective
in the multicultural classroom1. Therefore,
institutions interested in improving
student learning outcomes are devoting
greater attention to helping faculty
and teaching assistants develop a repertoire
of instructional methods that foster
respect for cultural differences and
address variant learning styles.
Other examples of how student diversity
is linked with the teaching and learning
mission of higher education abound.
Goals for enhancing student learning
and development remain uppermost in
the minds of administrators and faculty
as they seek ways to reaffirm their
commitment to diversity and the improvement
of undergraduate education. Some of
the most exciting developments address
difficult educational and social problems.
These developments include the following:
-- Through reforms in undergraduate
teaching of science and mathematics,
institutions are developing ways to
increase the scientific and quantitative
literacy of undergraduates who begin
college with broad differences in ability2.
This represents a major shift in thinking
about who can acquire skills for success
in an increasingly technological society.
Instead of "weeding out" less-prepared
students, these reforms begin with the
clear goal of providing access to science,
mathematics, engineering and technology
to all students.
--Recognizing that the key to parity
in educational attainment lies at various
points in the educational pipeline,
higher education institutions are collaborating
with K-12 institutions and community-based
organizations to develop a comprehensive
approach toward education in low income
and racially diverse areas of the country.
Initiatives involve links across sectors
in efforts to strategically improve
--Scholars are engaged in conversation
with institutions about developing models
for new cognitive outcomes that reflect
students' abilities to comprehend multiple
perspectives on an issue and ultimately
arrive at decisions that are just and
equitable3. Campuses also are exploring
ways to assist students in learning
conflict management and human relations
skills for better cross-cultural interaction.
--While some conflict inevitably occurs
in diverse communities, research shows
that students tend to perceive relatively
lower racial or ethnic tension on campuses
that can be characterized as "student-centered,"
where faculty take an interest in the
students' personal and academic development.
More importantly, research indicates
that emphasizing diversity on college
campuses tends to have consistently
positive effects on students undergraduate
experiences and on their educational
outcomes4. These findings indicate that
valuing students as learners creates
a more harmonious campus community,
and that an emphasis on diversity in
the curriculum and in institutional
priorities often leads to improvements
in the learning environment for students.
These examples illustrate how key
transformations in the teaching and
learning activity of institutions are
linked with understanding and serving
a diverse student body. Each requires
major changes in our thinking about
institutional practices that, while
effective with a more homogeneous population,
may no longer be useful today. However,
at the same time that institutions and
individuals are engaged in conversations
about the future and their role in educating
a diverse citizenry, practices to promote
diverse student enrollments are being
called into question. This seemingly
contradictory state is not inconsistent
with our history on diversity issues
Both resistance and change are inevitable
parts of the major transformation that
is underway in the mission of postsecondary
institutions-a mission that includes
diversity as a key component.
1. Irvine, J.J. and D.E. York. Learning
Styles and Culturally Diverse Students:
A Literature Review, in Handbook
of Research on Multicultural Education,
edited by J.A. Banks and C.A. McGee
Banks. New York; Macmillan, 1995.
2. National Research Council. From
Analysis to Action: Undergraduate Education
in Science, Mathematics, Engineering,
and Technology. Report of a Convocation.
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press,
3. Minnich, E.K. Liberal Learning
and the Arts of Connection for the New
Academy. Washington, D.C.: Association
of American Colleges and Universities,
4. Appel, M., D. Cartright, S.G. Smith,
and L.E. Wolf. The Impact of Diversity
on Students: A Preliminary View of the
Research Literature. Washington,
D.C.: Association of American Colleges
and Universities, 1996.
Also: Hurtado, S., J.F. Milem, W.A.
Allen, and A. Clayton-Pederson. Improving
the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity
in Higher Education Institutions.
Final Report to the Lily Foundation,
Common Destiny Alliance, Nashville:
Vanderbilt University, 1996.
This article appeared in the Fall
1996 issue of the Educational Record,
and is reprinted with permission from
the American Council on Education, Washington,