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Ep2: A Call for Inclusive Engagement through Collaborative Learning


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If you work on a college campus, you have likely noticed a dialog about the role and response of higher education within the area of diversity, equity and inclusion. Recent national protests to end racial violence for African Americans, outcries following incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes and a rise of hate groups on college campuses have made this dialogue that much more urgent.

But current outcries for justice (and their backlash) are not the only recent events driving these conversations. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed numerous inequities across education, public health and beyond. The dual impact of COVID-19 and racism has been called a “syndemic” or the aggregation of concurrent epidemics that intensify the negative impact on people and communities.  

This syndemic raises a very challenging question: how do we design our student engagement efforts to impact students’ understanding, awareness and competence related to diversity, equity and inclusion?   

One answer begins with how we develop, design and deliver inclusive engagement that takes place both inside and outside of the classroom.  To better understand the power of inclusive engagement as a key driver of student success, we should focus on how to better utilize a powerful set of tools known as collaborative learning. 

What is Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative learning is a process of actively engaging students, helping them develop a deeper understanding of a subject matter’s content, its significance and its application.  Collaborative learning includes tools for experiential learning that engage students in collaborative activities designed to pair them with students from different backgrounds, perspectives and cultures than their own.  In some of my own work, we facilitate inclusive student engagement using service-learning projects and participatory action research that focus on diversity-related issues as a way to developing ethical leadership among undergraduate students.

Collaborative learning can help students become more actively engaged in and take ownership for their own learning processes and outcomes.  This approach is not just another way of doing “teamwork” or “group projects”. Rather, collaborative learning uses a series of research-supported tools and strategies that engage groups of students together with faculty and partners in the understanding, application and reflection of classroom material as it relates to solving real problems.

Key Priorities For Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs

Research outlines several important ways that collaborative learning directly improves outcomes in diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Here are just a few ways you can improve your DEI programs.

  1. Intertwine Incentives 

    We know from decades of research that “mere contact” with people who are different from us is insufficient to produce real change in attitudes, feelings and behaviors. So it is important for students to not only be exposed to individuals who share different backgrounds, identities and experiences, but to actively engage with them where their outcomes are interdependent--where they are relying on one another to be successful.

  2. Make It Active 

    Active learning–the process of creating something or tackling a problem in collaboration with your instructor and classmates–across differences is preferred because it creates what some have called “cognitive disequilibrium” and as “transformation triggers.”  These triggers disrupt hidden assumptions, highlight implicit and unconscious biases and provide insight as to how embedded structures, systems or historical inequities can have a real impact on the lives of others across various dimensions of diversity. These activities help students examine their own beliefs, values and biases.  In other words, collaborative learning not only engages students in learning the subject matter, but also triggers a process of self-awareness and self-discovery due to these collaborations across difference, or what some call “interactional diversity experiences.”  Since learning is “collaborative”, this approach engages students, instructors and other partners or stakeholders as co-creators in a shared experience rather than focusing solely on the student as in need of remediation, intervention or change. 

  3. Include Classroom and Co-Curricular Activities

    To be effective in impacting outcomes of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, collaborative learning must involve substantive interactions where students, instructors and partners learn from each other by gathering and sharing lived experiences and knowledge focused on meaningful solutions.  This can include inside-the-classroom projects like group work and student research, but it can also include outside-the-classroom projects like service-learning projects and group challenge games. Encouraging not only outside-the-classroom learning but also a little healthy competition have been shown to increase engagement even among a school’s lease-engaged populations. Platforms like Suitable use gamification elements like digital badges, levels, checkpoints and other markers of progress. Increasing opportunities for collaboration across differences toward a common goal triggers self-examination of beliefs, ways of thinking, and examination of systems, structures and history that produce diverse experiences.  Each of these tools and techniques are known building blocks for the development of diversity awareness, sensitivity and insight.

  4. Tie Activities To A Proven Competency Framework 

    Research tells us that collaborative learning involves both inclusive and active engagement, learning outcomes do not end with mere exposure or awareness.  Collaborative learning rests on developing competencies that are transferable to contexts outside of the specific learning environment in which they are developed.  This means developing competencies such as interpersonal communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, reflective listening, psychological adjustment, self and collective efficacy.  Many of these competencies overlap with established building blocks for diversity or cultural competence.  Development of these core competencies have been linked to the development of both self-efficacy and collective efficacy, which are essential for helping students overcome obstacles via learned persistence toward the attainment of educational, career and personal goals.

Clearly, emerging research and practice points to collaborative learning as a powerful tool for enhancing students’ openness to diversity and developing diversity and cultural competence.  Some evidence also finds that collaborative learning has benefits that are stronger for under-represented, minority and female students in non-traditional areas compared to learning approaches.  The need to provide learning environments that provide social, psychological and personal safety must continue to be paramount on our campuses.  Our goal should be to reduce feelings of exclusion, reduce negative intergroup conflicts and eliminate toxic environments. This means an explicit and long-lasting commitment to the development of diversity and cultural competence on our campuses, strengthening our collective capacity to create and deliver effective collaborative learning as an approach that facilitates inclusive engagement toward student success

As we re-envision what student engagement and student development look like on our post-pandemic campuses, let’s also focus on inclusive engagement through collaborative learning as we strive toward greater impact on the essential elements of diversity, equity and inclusion as a key element of student engagement and success.

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Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Professor of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh