STEM faculty conceptions of diversity and grading are linked to racial disparities in course grades

Stanley M. Lo
Associate Teaching Professor
University of California San Diego

Institutions have increasingly made the commitment to diversify higher education, yet racial disparities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines continue to persist. Faculty interact directly with students and have important roles in creating an inclusive classroom culture and thus reducing opportunity gaps. Our study asks two research questions: (1) How do faculty conceptualize diversity in higher education, and (2) how do related beliefs about assessment, grading, and student ability contribute to racial disparities and opportunity gaps? First, we examined the qualitatively different ways in which faculty experience and understand diversity. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with 39 faculty from two-year and four-year minority-serving institutions. Codes emerging from the data were discussed by four researchers with diverse positionalities to support validity, and transcripts were coded by two independent researchers to ensure reliability. Variations among participant experiences were organized into three distinct conceptions of diversity. In Conception I (which we termed essentialist), faculty attend to demographic features of students and view students with a fixed mindset of intelligence and as outsiders to higher education. This is aligned with equal treatments of all students and a curriculum approach that considers diversity as an impediment to learning. In Conception II (functionalist), faculty attend to different student viewpoints and consider students with a deficit mindset and as guests who transiently pass through higher education institutions. This is aligned with accommodations for student needs and a curriculum approach that supports struggling students. Conception III (existentialist) includes and expands on Conception II by attending to how lived experiences intersect with demographic features and viewpoints to shape the kinds of learners that individual students become in the classroom. Implicit power dynamics are considered, and students are viewed as rightfully present in higher education regardless of their backgrounds. Specific curriculum approaches are intentionally implemented to foster productive conversations around different student characteristics and to center social justice issues, and diversity enriches learning in the classroom. To address the second research question, 216 STEM faculty were surveyed to assess their beliefs about diversity, assessment, grading, and student ability. Survey items were developed from the qualitative study and modified from literature. Faculty survey data were linked to 31,361 unique students and their grade data from campus-level records. The results show that faculty with fixed ability beliefs endorse more traditional mindsets regarding diversity, assessment, and grading, such as following a colorblind ideology toward racism, using assessment as quality control for student work, and considering grading as a gatekeeping mechanism for the discipline. Furthermore, the endorsement of these beliefs is associated with larger opportunity gaps in course grades, indicating that faculty beliefs may be driving racial disparities in STEM disciplines. Additionally, we identify a number of faculty characteristics, including gender, position type, and discipline that predict specific beliefs. Overall, our results from these two studies indicate that while faculty acknowledge different student features and have varying understanding for what diversity means in higher education, some conceptions of diversity, assessment, grading, and student ability do not necessarily suggest an inclusive culture.


Nicole A. Suarez, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA; Elizabeth S. Park, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA; Mike Wilton, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA; Song Wang, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA; Stacey Brydges, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA; Natascha Buswell, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA; Brian K. Sato, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA