Northern Arizona University

Using Data to Overcome Equity Gaps Through Improved Pedagogy

This university digs deep into disaggregated data to identify the equity gaps in its students’ learning outcomes and uses a development program it created to help faculty members remove the pedagogical barriers to their students’ academic success.

Academic excellence, one of the longstanding strategic priorities at Northern Arizona University (NAU), is reflected in the university’s mission to advance a culture of equity-mindedness. For nearly a decade, the university in Flagstaff has offered the First Year Learning Initiative (FYLI) to build student success in their students’ early college career. This faculty credentialing process has guided participating teachers in reshaping their introductory level courses to meet the diverse needs of their first-year students.

Despite having very acceptable pass rates overall, FYLI was not achieving its intended goal. NAU pivoted from analyzing the aggregate student success data to diving into the granular of the disaggregated data of race, ethnicity, and other intersectional identities. There, the university discovered completion hurdles that were impacting its goal of closing equity gaps between what is an appropriate and meaningful metric of success for all students and whether all students get there. In addition, the university learned that because of poorly designed classes, not all students were able to access success. These insights resulted in the creation of the Equitable and Inclusive Teaching Seminar (EITS), which was piloted in the summer of 2021.

EITS is an extended faculty experience designed to be a gateway into equity and inclusion work where disaggregated data is discussed. It encourages participating faculty members to reflect on themselves not only as instructors but also as culture-bearing beings. This transformative professional learning opportunity equips faculty with tools to explore their course outcomes with an equity-minded lens; receive resources and guidance on building inclusive classroom spaces; and offer opportunities for faculty to deeply explore their teaching, course design, and relationships with students. Designed as a supportive learning community, EITS encourages professionals to collaborate in exploring course evolutions and dialogue with one another about racism and systemic injustice as they mature into equity-minded practitioners.

The most powerful aspect of EITS are the student consultants, who engage with the faculty members and offer their perspectives. The student consultants are not spokespeople for their race or ethnicity; rather, they represent themselves so that student voices are included in the discussions on equity and diversity. They share information such as their experiences and knowledge of vocabulary with the faculty members to assist with course design.

EITS encourages participating faculty members to explore this paradigm shift by adjusting their mindset and building a community with other faculty and students around advancing a culture of equity-mindedness.

The Methodology

EITS emerged from FYLI through the efforts of NAU’s Provost Office and FYLI. Referred to as the Equity Academy, EITS begins in March and ends with the conclusion of the fall semester in December. It has the following four phases:

  • Phase One: Foundations of Equity-Mindedness. Faculty complete an online course offered by the Association for College and University Educators titled “Fostering a Culture of Belonging.” This course offers key concepts, deployable tools, and pedagogical resources.
  • Phase Two: Inquiry. Participants analyze their own class-level data, making inquiries into equity gaps (or the absence of equity gaps) across multiple student identities. The data is seen as a tool and an indicator of the existence of room for progress and growth. It is used strategically to send a signal to faculty members who have an area of growth in the class. Participants are given access to institutional resources to use the data to make improvements and explore concepts, including assessment theory, inclusivity in large classes, and Universal Design for Learning. In addition, they are supported in making inquiries into their own personal and professional identities and exploring how those identities impact their teaching.
  • Phase Three: Action. Participants will meet in small groups or individually with EITS facilitators and student consultants. Faculty members explore and actualize a handful of evidence-based course evolutions guided by classroom and/or grade book level data. This phase culminates in an Equity-Minded Symposium, wherein the faculty members share their individualized course evolutions, inclusive pedagogy strategies, or other innovations in pursuit of equitable outcomes.
  • Phase Four: Monitor and Adjust. Participants meet with student consultants and facilitators throughout the fall semester to explore student experience data gathered during the semester. Faculty members also use the Ascend student experience survey to identity safety, mindset, social and community belonging, trust, and fairness throughout the semester. The results are disaggregated so participants can identify equity gaps and make evidence-based adjustments.

EITS is open to full-time faculty members.

The Impact

The impact of EITS is measured on an instructor-by-instructor basis through an understanding of the correlation between activity, engagement, and an affinity for equity/the closing of equity gaps. Faculty are encouraged to integrate this work by thinking about the following questions when reviewing their data and addressing equity gaps:

  • What is your data telling you about where your students are and need to be?
  • If you are modifying your classroom instruction, why is the change in the classroom being made and how is it addressing an issue?

Faculty members who complete EITS with an action plan for two or more areas they want to change likely see quantitative advancements in their outcomes.

NAU also decided to expand EITS to include more faculty members. The first cohort in 2021 consisted of instructors who taught introductory courses where NAU saw the most attrition. Starting in 2023, the university began accepting faculty members who teach 300- and 400-level courses for EITS. It has also engaged more tenured faculty in EITS. Many faculty members, who are eager to engage in change, are often encouraged to temper their expectations and focus on small, impactful changes that focus on their particular student needs as reflected in their course data and student evaluations. Through EITS, faculty members can help students achieve their fullest potential by recognizing and overcoming the pedagogical barriers that hinder their students’ progress.

Key Takeaways

When designing a program similar to EITS, higher education officials should consider their sphere of influence and their institutional culture. Institutional change may begin at the faculty level and work its way up. It doesn’t have to be a big idea; it can start small. Faculty and staff should consider what they can do for their students and then discuss how to scale up those ideas.

EITS is constantly evolving, but NAU doesn’t confuse making changes with making mistakes. It’s OK to make changes. Data is an effective tool, but it has its limitations, and there must be reasonable expectations for what it can provide.

Patience and compassion are fundamental to developing this type of program. Everyone is on their own journey, and the worst thing to do is to shame people who may not have the level of understanding others may be comfortable with.

Last but not least, a higher education institution’s budget reflects its values. If a college or university wants an equity and inclusion program, funding must be committed to it.

“I don’t mean to be dramatic, but the Equity Academy changed my career. Not only did it help me redevelop my course syllabi and assignments, but it also improved my teaching by showing me that to be successful, all my students needed was someone to meet them were they are. I changed one thing after the Equity Academy. I created a syllabus that was less jargon-heavy, more conversational and compassionate, with more detailed instructions. That alone resulted in an overall improvement of course grades, students feeling more comfortable when approaching me for support, and a classroom culture of grace and kindness.”

Program participant

“Anyone passionate about student success would benefit from participating in NAU’s Equity Academy. After being an educator for 14 years, the Equity Academy allowed me to examine my teaching practices and beliefs in a way I had never done before. Being a participant, the Academy pushed me to the boundaries of my comfort zone to reevaluate my own biases in my efforts to support students. Processing these sometimes uncomfortable topics in a safe, nonjudgmental space with like-minded educators allowed me to become a better student advocate myself.”

Program participant

“I applied to the Equity Academy with the hope that I would learn a few concepts and perhaps be able to shift a few things around in the classes I teach at NAU. I was mistaken. This was unlike any other professional development I have ever participated in—and its impact was tremendous. The Equity Academy is indeed a journey unique to each participant, and for me, the journey was both painful and liberating. I was forced to confront—and attempt to make sense of—the practices I put into place that led to inequitable outcomes for my students. This was painful. But I was also allowed to think and reflect and make concrete changes in everything from the syllabus to the last day of class. It is not an overstatement to say that the Equity Academy fundamentally shifted how I think about the classroom ecosystem. And, perhaps more importantly, in my first semester after the academy, I closed the equity gaps among my students. The work continues, as does my ‘journey,’ and it all began by being open to, and deeply engaging with, the work of the Equity Academy.”

Program participant

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