Challenging Student Ideas about Race, Ethnicity and Identity

By Diane Hirshberg

Diane Hirshberg Poster

Context of the Inquiry

During the Fall 2009 semester, I taught Honors A292 -Honors Seminar in Social Sciences: Race, Identity and Ethnicity in the Social Sciences. The seminar is a required course for the UAA Honors College.

It's a complicated course with two primary goals:

1) Students will learn varying perspectives, definitions and understandings of the concepts of race and ethnicity across different social science disciplines, and how these have shaped contemporary society and cultures as well their own identity development, and

2) Students will develop a basic understanding of social science research methods and how to design and conduct research projects.


Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

This was the first time I taught this class, so there wasn't a specific problem or issue that arose from past practice. Rather, I wanted to see how my course content and pedagogies would shift student thinking. Specifically, I wanted to learn the following:

a)      To what extent did my course shift students' thinking about the concepts of race and ethnicity? and

b)      How did students interact with these concepts, including in particular how they respond to racism?

I also wanted to see whether a visual product would elicit different ways of thinking and reflecting among my students vis-à-vis more traditional paper assignments that I usually assign.

Course Design and Implementation

This is a seminar class, with enrollment limited to 16 students. The midterm assignment, a personal identity development project, used concepts of visual/non-verbal language, reflection and meditation on self, values and traditions, attending to relationships, and storytelling, and required students to demonstrate learning in a medium other than a paper or written exam.

Specifically, students produced a poster, scrapbook, photo collage, video or other visual/multimedia/three-dimensional piece in which they explored their racial/ethnic/cultural identity, and the factors that contributed to its development. They drew on research with family members, their own upbringing, information they could find on their personal, familial and community history from public sources, such as census records, and other resources as available. The projects were shared with the class in a poster session. Students then completed a reflection piece on the project, including what they learned, how it changed their view of themselves relative to others and their view of others relative to themselves, and finally what they saw as the usefulness of such a project.

The final course project was a research project on a topic of their choice related to race, ethnicity and identity. In groups or as individuals students developed a research question, conducted a short literature review, designed a data collection and analysis plan, collected and analyzed data, and presented their findings orally and in a written final paper.


I used two pre- and post-test surveys of attitudes as my primary measure of change, one focused on issues of pedagogy, content and diversity, and the other on attitudes about race and ethnicity.

My data shows that student attitudes and beliefs about race did change, as did their comfort level in terms of talking about Alaska Native issues. They also shifted in their views on whether faculty should connect their teaching with Alaska's people, places, or environment. 

The document titled "Results of Pre- and Post-tests" posted as a course artifact in this section presents data on the changes in student attitudes.

The slide show titled "Personal Identity Development Projects" shows photos of some of the pieces created by students in response to the personal identity development assignment.



I learned a lot teaching this class, both about working with undergraduates and with the content and pedagogies I selected. Some of the lessons I learned include the following:

·         I need to strengthen my descriptions of goals and outcomes for major assignments, and provide rubrics with the assignments

·         Undergraduate students need guidance on how to prepare for and lead class discussions

·         The content and structure of the class will work better in a twice a week format rather than a once-a-week seminar

·         Weekly written reflections due before class will encourage students to complete the readings ahead of time

I do believe, given the pre- and post-test results and student feedback on IDEA course evaluations, that I succeeded in deepening students' understanding and engagement with issues of race, identity and ethnicity. The methods I used in the class also allowed me to develop deeper relationships with some of the students. However, I am still struggling with a few issues that are related to what we addressed in this project. In particular:

·         How do I confront students who make offensive comments without shutting them down? How do I best challenge harmful attitudes, especially those that are more subtle or reflect broadly held views in our society?

·         How do I create more opportunities for my quiet students to contribute orally? If students are clearly engaged in the material and communicating with me nonverbally in class, but do not contribute to classroom discussions, how do I address class participation grades in a fair manner?

I will revisit our Alaska Native Ways of Teaching and Learning seminar materials, and the Start Talking handbook as I plan the next offering of this course to address some of the issues I have raised here.

Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Diane Hirshberg, PhD
Associate Professor of Education Policy &
Chair, Civic Engagement Certificate Program
Institute of Social and Economic Research
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, Alaska 99508
907-786-5413 phone (M,Th,F), 907-786-4087 (T, W)
907-786-7738 fax