A visiting professor at Lawrence University will present his research into the benefit of ethnic and racial diversity in college academic discussion groups at the Posse Foundation, 14 Wall St., New York City, December 2, 2009, at 11:30 a.m.
Robert J. Beck, visiting professor of educational psychology at Lawrence, completed analysis of 16 transcripts of academic discussions involving 61 students in the college’s Freshman Studies program. Two classes with 25 percent diverse students were compared to two non-diverse classes. Beck’s research resulted in a paper, The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Racial and Ethnic Diversity on Liberal Arts College Discussions.
“We were able to do a carefully controlled quantitative study in undergraduate classrooms where all students were reading and discussing the same works,” Beck said. “All the students took part in interpretive discussions intended to voice meanings about “Great Books” including Plato’s “Republic”, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, works by a scientist (Einstein) and a composer (Messiaen).”
Among the findings:
- Students in the diverse classes spoke nearly twice as much as students in the non-diverse classes.
- Students in the diverse classes contributed nearly 70 percent of the total number of words in the discussion, while in the non-diverse classes students spoke a little less than half the time.
- The diverse classes had a significantly larger average number of students who spoke in the development of themes of the discussions.
- About three times as many students in the diverse classes interacted with each other than in the non-diverse classes.
- Students in the non-diverse classes referred more often to the works in providing evidence and used more complex arguments, but only four students contributed one-third of all arguments.
- Students in the diverse classes expressed more opinions and referred to personal experiences in making their claims.
- Diverse class students were more responsive to other discussants’ statements: they followed up with proportionally more high-level questions, re-phrasings, and agreements and a greater number of elaborations/clarifications.
- Approximately 25 percent of the students in the diverse classes also included evidence backing their opinions, whereas less than 10 percent of the students in the non-diverse classes did so.
- There were no differences in participation between diverse and non-diverse students in the diverse classes.
“As measured by several criteria, we concluded that the diverse classes provided more value –the “greatest good to the greatest number” — to students than the non-diverse classes,” Beck said. It is more effective to facilitate wide participation and let everyone into the discussion and then support increased levels of critical thinking, rather than to let a few students dominate at a high level and pretty much freeze everyone else out. We will need to do research with larger samples to see if these patterns hold up.”
Funded by the Spencer Foundation, Chicago, the research project was organized to test Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter vs. Bollinger, 2003, that diversity contributes to the benefit of all students. The associate justice argued that diversity leads to educational benefits for all because of a “robust exchange of ideas” (U. S. 539, 17). These benefits are “important and laudable,” because “classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting” when the students have “the greatest possible variety of backgrounds” (U.S. 539, 17).