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Seattle University


Understanding Undergraduates

Written by Maura Beth Pagano, '12
May 23, 2012

Whether we like it or not, we make assumptions about other people. Our brains have a tendency to quickly categorize, often leading us to draw inaccurate conclusions about someone's personality or background. This penchant for hasty judgment is particularly problematic in the classroom. When teachers develop preconceptions about their students, they risk overlooking the specific kind of support and instruction students need.  

Seattle University's own David Green, along with his co-author Celia Popovic, discuss the stereotypes harbored by university teachers in their new book, Understanding Undergraduates: Challenging Our Preconceptions of Student Success, out this month.

In 2009, Green and Popovic embarked on a complex, transatlantic research process in order to unpack teacher-held preconceptions and their relation to individual student success. At the campuses of four universities in the U.S. and the U.K., 38 teachers across 14 disciplines were interviewed and fielded questionnaire responses from 1241 students. Green and Popovic asked teachers to describe the differing characteristics between students who do well and students who do poorly in their classes. The authors' aim was to compare the teachers' responses with the data gleaned from the students' questionnaire answers and student demographic information.

The result was a list of 37 preconceptions held by three or more of the participating teachers. Each stereotype is accompanied by an indication of whether or not the teachers' assumptions correlated to students' academic success in the teachers' own classes.

One example Green shares makes clear the need for a shift in the participating teachers' classroom strategies. "We found that many of the teachers believed ESL students were more likely to fail than native English speakers," Green says. "As it turns out, there was no correlation between course failure and students who are ESL."

The biggest surprise of the research process, according to Green, came out of a medical undergraduate school in Britain. He and Popovic found that many teachers at the school were convinced British-Indian, -Bangladeshi and -Pakistani students were underperforming. Green and Popovic found no correlation between South Asian ethnicity and underperformance.

"While there was no grounding for their assumptions about South Asian students, it was true that students with a lower socioeconomic status did worse in their courses," says Green. Student demographic information showed Bangladeshi and Pakistani students tended to come from especially low-income backgrounds. "We found that yes, these South Asian students are contributing to the failure rate, but so are white low-income students," Green says.  "The connection then, wasn't about ethnicity like the teachers thought."

When asked what practical advice for avoiding stereotypes he would offer to his colleagues at Seattle University, Green admits it's a hard habit to break.

"It's tricky," he says. "But we're trying to encourage people to stop themselves from doing what their brains are hardwired to do. It's about learning not to jump to the conclusions our brain wants us to make."

In order to stop preconceptions in their tracks, Green says there are a few crucial steps teachers must follow. As Green puts it, "The key is to pause, step back, and get to know students as individuals."

David Green is the director of Seattle University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. His professional background is in faculty development and higher education research. He is available as a consultant for one-on-one or group discussions with SU faculty.