Black students often have to ‘work harder’ to connect with curriculum, report finds

Inclusive curriculum will create higher education system ‘fit for the 21st century’, academic says

Zoe Tidman
Friday 04 June 2021 14:48 BST
Its publication comes months after a higher education watchdog said attainment gap between black and white students ‘remains too high’
Its publication comes months after a higher education watchdog said attainment gap between black and white students ‘remains too high’ (Getty Images)

Black students often have to “work harder” than their peers to “connect” with content in assessments and curriculums, a report has suggested.

Research by the University of Leicester found a “lack of a sufficiently diverse or decolonised curriculum” made it difficult for black students to directly connect what they are studying to their own life experiences.

The report suggested this hampered students from developing a greater interest or understanding in their studies.

Researchers spoke to undergradutes and alumni to assess the relationships between race, ethnicity and assessment preference and the impact on students’ outcomes.

They found white students across all focus groups said they could “easily relate curriculum content, assessments and assessment questions to their own realities and life experiences”.

“This was said to improve their ability to revise, comprehend and conceptualise new theories and for ideas to ‘stick’,” the authors said.

“It was also claimed that it enabled them to more easily work out a question’s meaning or enabled them to use their own life experiences to better synthesise or add a critical dimension to their answers – and in turn, produce higher quality responses.”

Meanwhile, the report said: “The lack of a sufficiently diverse or decolonised curriculum and faculty meant it was often difficult for black students to be able to connect content and assessments directly to their own lived realities.

“It was argued that to do so would facilitate more interest in study and foster a deeper understanding and synthesis.”

The authors said this meant black students were “multiply disadvantaged” and “have to work harder than their peers to connect with both assessment and curriculum content”.

The report said white and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) students interviewed mentioned this disadvantage for black students and advantage for white peers.

Some black students were also concerned that in presentations "grade awards were influenced by their capacity to mask their blackness", according to the analysis of the experiences of Bame students.

The study found that South Asian students of Islamic faith often felt that they were subject to ethnic and religious-based anti-education stereotypes and biases, which negatively affected their grades.

Professor Graham Wynn, the pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Leicester, said the report’s analysis “helps to broaden our understanding of why there are outcome differences for specific assessment types for undergraduate students from different ethnic backgrounds”.

Its publication comes just months after the universities watchdog said the attainment gap between black and white students “remains too high”.

Black students were less likely to graduate with a first or upper-second-class degree than white peers at the vast majority of university and colleges looked at by the Office for Students (OfS) in data from the last academic year.

Dr Paul Campbell, lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester and an author of the new research, said an inclusive curriculum will create a higher education system that is "fit for the 21st century".

The report calls for clearer language in essay questions, clearer feedback in marked work, clearer assessment frameworks and criteria to be created and better pre-assessment and post-assessment support.

Anti-racism protests and campaigns sweeping the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death saw renewed calls to decolonise the curriculum across British schools and universities.

Earlier this year, the universities minister compared the decolonisation of courses to “censoring history” like the Soviet Union.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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