Your sphere of influence: How to infuse cultural diversity into your psychology classes

Strategies for ensuring that diversity is an integral part of the psychology curriculum.

By Linh Nguyen Littleford, PhD, and Susan A. Nolan, PhD

For many professors, the idea of teaching about diversity is intimidating, in part because the concept of diversity is so vast and because none of us has had personal experience with the full range of diversity; moreover, many of us feel that our course content — say, research methods — is not conducive to the inclusion of diversity. Yet, no matter what our background and no matter what our course content, we will be teaching to and about people from different backgrounds of — (in alphabetical order and not necessarily inclusive) a different ability, acculturation, age, citizenship, ethnicity, gender, migration status, native language, race, religion, sexual identity, sexual orientation and/or socioeconomic status (SES). Even instructors with extensive training in diversity can be daunted by the array of ways in which the human experience can differ and can struggle to find ways to introduce diverse content; so, those of us with no particular educational background in diversity are often at a loss for where to start.

The good news is that instructors are paying attention to diversity. Thomas Nelson Laird (2011) notes that a majority of faculty members surveyed at 100 U.S. colleges and universities are including diversity in their courses in some way. Similarly, Guy Boysen (2011) finds that 87 percent of instructors of teaching of psychology courses covered diversity topics in their non-diversity specific courses. Thus, even if as individual instructors we cannot include many diversity topics in our courses, if we all do what we can, collectively, we can ensure that cultural diversity is an integral part of our curriculum.

In this article, we hope to provide a starting point for instructors who are new to the idea of explicitly addressing diversity in their courses, offer some new ideas for instructors who are steeped in diversity-infused education and start a dialog among all of us. First, we will outline some benefits associated with addressing students from cultural diverse backgrounds and covering culturally diverse content. Second, we will cover concerns many instructors have about diversity infusion. Third, we will offer some ideas for successfully and respectfully including students from diverse backgrounds in course discussions on diversity, including international students, even if you teach courses that seem less conducive to including diversity. Finally, we will provide suggestions for diversifying the content in your psychology courses, no matter what you teach.

As Joseph Trimble, Michael Stevenson and Judith Worrell (2003) state, by including people from diverse cultural backgrounds in our curriculum, we enhance the scientific rigor and validity of psychology. Our students will benefit emotionally, cognitively and psychologically (Bowman, 2010; Elicker, Snell, & O’Malley, 2010) when they are exposed to people from culturally diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives. Furthermore, learning about sociocultural diversity issues can increase students’ marketability in the global workforce (Herdman & McMillan-Capehart, 2010). Finally, Joelle Elicker and her colleagues (2010) find that the more students believed diversity issues were included in their courses, the more core course content they reported learning.

Despite the benefits associated with emphasizing diversity, many instructors are reluctant to make changes in their classrooms. Some of us worry that our competence related to diverse students and issues is not sufficient to qualify us to address diversity in our classrooms or that in trying to be inclusive, we will inadvertently offend (Sue, Torino, Capodilupo, Rivera & Lin, 2009; Sue et al., 2011). In response to the concern about a lack of competence, we note that no individual instructor can have experience and expertise related to the full range of diversity, and most of us, even diversity experts, have anxieties regarding the areas in which we are less knowledgeable. However, with an open mind and a willingness to learn more, instructors can create an inclusive classroom and become more competent related to diversity at the same time. We suggest that instructors complete Susan Brown’s (2010) Instructor Self-Assessment in Multicultural and Global Issues to identity their strengths and weaknesses and to obtain additional strategies for improving their cultural awareness and sensitivity, curriculum content, curriculum resources and instruction.

We believe that diversity inclusion can occur in classes across the psychology curriculum, including those that are less obvious. As Mary Armstrong (2011) states, “every single classroom — from Soil Science to Ethnic Studies, from First Year Writing to Physics — can function as an incubator for inclusivity, as a social experience that fosters a positive climate” (p. 52). For example, the second author frequently teaches statistics for psychology and has successfully increased diversity coverage in a number of ways, some surprising even to her — from a discussion of how our cultural background can affect what we decide to study in the first place to an explicit inclusion of cross-cultural and international studies as examples to analyze in class.

We have found the three components of multicultural competence (see Arredondo et al., 1996; Mio, Barker-Hackett, & Tumambing, 2012) to be useful guides when teaching non-diversity specific courses. We suggest that instructors ask three main questions to reflect on their own level of multicultural competence: 

  1. What are my own cultural values and biases toward students and people from diverse backgrounds (self-awareness)? 

  2. Do I know what I need to know about my students’ worldviews and experiences that may influence their learning experiences (knowledge)? 

  3. Am I using teaching strategies that are inclusive of students from culturally diverse backgrounds (skills)?

To enhance your cultural self-awareness, we believe that as instructors, you should complete many of the student-related activities and assignments we refer to in the next section because the activities were designed to increase everyone’s multicultural competence. To specifically increase your cultural knowledge, we suggest that you review Susan Brown’s (2010) detailed descriptions and teaching recommendations relevant to how students’ age, race, gender, social class, language, sexual orientation, dis(ability) and regionality and nationality influence students’ learning.

With respect to cultural skills, we encourage you to maintain high expectations and standards for all your students and to use assessment criteria that are equally challenging for both domestic and international students. As Judith Carroll and Janette Ryan (2005) suggest, be sure that your assessment criteria match your objectives and goals. In addition, you should offer a range of assessment tasks so students can demonstrate in different ways that they have met your criteria. For example, do all assignments need to be written in paragraph form? In other words, can graphic, theatrical or artistic presentations be substituted for written explanations? Finally, it is important to remember that treating all students the same could actually result in unfair treatment. For example, some instructors in the U.S. assess mastery of course content but do not examine how much of it is dependent on students’ exposure to the American educational system or prior knowledge.

As we formulate our teaching objectives and design our courses to be more culturally inclusive, the following questions and relevant activities and assignments may be helpful:

1) What are curriculum-related activities that can help my students become more aware of their own cultural backgrounds and attitudes toward people who are different?

Ask students to imagine a United States in which the following were all true: only women have served as president; up until the past century, men could not vote; nearly all public officials and corporate executives are lesbian or gay; television images, movies and glamour magazines promote the elderly as role models; and Buddhism is the predominant religion (Smith, Richards, Granley & Obiakor, 2004). Then, have students reflect on how their lives might be different, as individuals, as college students, as whatever gender they identify with and as critical learners of psychological theories and research. The main message is that it is important to study culture because we are often unaware of it. So, until we examine its contrast, we might not notice the influence our culture has on every aspect of our lives.

Another activity that makes the influence of culture more explicit is to download the Jailbreak the Patriarchy application on one’s computer. With a click of a button, the gender in all websites viewed (including news stories and social media content) will switch (e.g., "woman" will be replaced with "man," "he" with "she," "Ms." with "Mr.," etc.), showing more explicitly (and also, often, humorously) how gender bias is still pervasive and yet often unquestioned.

To encourage students to question their assumption that their experiences, views and behaviors are typical, students should examine their own cultural group’s behaviors and values from an outsider’s perspective. For example, have students read Horace Miner’s (1956) anthropological analysis of the behaviors engaged in by the Nacirema people (American spelled backward). Similarly, students are often surprised to learn that according to the World Health Organization (2007), the prevalence rate of male circumcision worldwide is only 33 percent even though the majority of males in the U.S. are circumcised.

Encourage students to learn about their own cultural heritage and traditions and to explore possible origins of their values, worldviews and behaviors. The first author asks students to complete a cultural genogram in which students describe their family members’ race and ethnicity, sex and gender, sexual identity, SES, disability, age and religion and spirituality. Students then reflect on the messages they have learned, implicitly and explicitly, about people from culturally diverse backgrounds. They discuss what they are most proud of about their cultural heritage. They also compare and contrast their own family’s values, worldviews and practices with those of some of the families described in Monica McGoldrick, Joe Giordano and Nydia Garcia-Preto’s (2005) book Ethnicity & Family Therapy. Students are often amazed that some of the dynamics and values they thought were odd and unique to their own families are often shared by families whose ethnicities differed from their own.

To encourage students to think of cultural diversity from a more global perspective, show students “Miniature Earth,” a brief video citing the world’s representation with respect to gender, SES, sexual orientation, religion and other cultural dimensions. It also highlights inequitable distributions of resources.

To encourage students to become more aware of their automatic thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward people from diverse cultures, have them complete Pamela Gibson’s (2011) Diversity Watch activity. Each week, students record two automatic thoughts they have when they encounter people who differ from them on some cultural dimension. They then reflect on the origins of these thoughts, how it might feel to be the people toward whom they had the reactions and how the interactions might be different if students had the opposite reactions.

2) What empirically based literature should my students become more familiar with so they can be more knowledgeable of people from culturally diverse backgrounds?

Although many subdisciplines within psychology address cultural diversity topics, they differ in their emphases and approaches to understanding the role of culture on behaviors. Some subdisciplines focus on how people are similar, whereas others focus on how people differ. For example, cross-cultural psychology tends to examine how people in different cultures, within and between countries, differ from one another. International psychology tends to compare and contrast people in different nations. Multicultural psychology focuses on the experiences and behaviors of people, often members of marginalized groups, within the same country rather than between countries. Diversity psychology focuses on experiences of oppression and privilege, with the goal of ensuring that everyone has equal access to social, economic and political resources (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007; Goldstein, 2008). We encourage instructors of psychology to incorporate research from multiple subdisciplines because each offers different ways of understanding psychological processes and behaviors. We have found that our students respond positively to many of the activities and assignments described by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin (2007) and by Susan Goldstein (2008). We also suggest that instructors read research and reflections on diversity and teaching published by scholars outside of psychology (e.g., sociology and social work).

In addition, we encourage instructors to review Joseph Trimble and colleagues’ (2003) electronic book in which the authors identified major findings and important issues relevant to age, race, culture, ethnicity, disability, gender, language and sexual orientation that instructors could discuss across 20 psychology content areas.

The Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s (APA, Division 2) website on diversity resources has many diversity resources for all instructors who teach psychology, from high school to postgraduate levels. Among these resources are annotated bibliographies, books, journal articles, films, websites and other media categorized by diversity topics and by areas of psychology (e.g., abnormal, developmental, physiological, personality, research methods, social and statistics).

Although we agree with Loreto Prieto (2009) that it is important that instructors create opportunities for students to learn about more uncomfortable topics such as prejudice, discrimination and minorities’ experiences with oppression, we believe that instructors can progress to these topics after they have had some experience making other diversity-related changes to their courses. When you feel ready to include these topics, see Susanne Bohmer and Joyce Briggs’ (1991) suggestions on how to effectively discuss racial/ethnic, SES and gender oppressions in your classes.

3) What skills should my students acquire in order to be culturally competent?

APA (2007) proposes that psychology students should be able to “interact effectively and sensitively with people of diverse abilities, backgrounds and cultural perspectives” (p. 20). Particularly if you have students from many cultural backgrounds, we recommend using Sue Steiner, Stephanie Brzuzy, Karen Gerdes and Donna Hurdle’s (2003) structured controversy assignment. The assignment requires that students work together to explore supporting evidence relating to diversity-related topics. After presenting supporting arguments and evidence for one position, they then switch to the opposite position and once again present persuasive arguments and evidence. Sue Steiner and her colleagues reported that over 96 percent of the students reported that they increased their cultural knowledge by completing the assignment. If your students are not from different cultural backgrounds, consider the use of technology. Christie Cathey and Alexandra Ross (2011) describe a creative way for students in the U.S. to interact with students in China by using cross-cultural online discussion boards.

We now offer several ideas to include diversity within the content of our courses, incrementally increasing the diversity of what you cover in any of your psychology classes.

4) How can I present research in my courses in a way that is inclusive and diverse?

Make a point of including studies that include participants from nonmajority groups or conducted in countries outside of North America. Assign students to read and reflect on Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan’s (2010) article on how research conducted on western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) people is being generalized to all humans. For research papers or other assignments, require that your students include a set percentage of articles by researchers at institutions outside North America. When you bring a sample data set to a class to analyze, choose data from a study that examines diversity or includes diverse participants. Some textbooks infuse diversity throughout the chapters, whereas others include it in a separate chapter or in somewhat marginalized boxes. If the textbook you choose does not infuse diversity, make a point of assigning the chapters and boxes where it is included. Inform your students that they will be tested on this material and make a point of discussing it in class.

5) How can I highlight the diversity among researchers in the field when I present the content in my courses?

Diversity among researchers and theorists in psychology is increasing along with the diversity of our students. Yet, our standard way of citing and discussing researchers — last names only — undermines students’ awareness of this diversity. When possible, include first names or photos (Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, 2012, personal communication) in your classroom presentations when you introduce researchers to highlight diversity among psychologists, including gender, race and ethnicity, culture and age. Mary Armstrong (2011) encourages instructors to learn how to pronounce names correctly — whether student names or names of researchers and theorists discussed in class — as an important part of creating a classroom climate that is welcoming of diversity; acknowledging that the pronunciation of some names can be daunting, she reminds us that “it’s not rocket science — and hey, you’re bright enough to be a rocket scientist anyway” (p. 57). In addition, instructors should use the currently preferred terminology and person-first language to model respect and acceptance. For example, state a person with a hearing disability or a person diagnosed with schizophrenia rather than a deaf person or a schizophrenic.

6) How can I choose and create examples in my courses to highlight diversity?

Be explicit about including diversity in your examples, both in class and on exams. One way to do this is by choosing names from a variety of ethnic, religious and international backgrounds. Drawing a blank? The “list of most popular given names” on Wikipedia is a treasure trove of common names from over 80 countries around the world, often broken down by ethnicity, region or religion within a country.

You also can broaden diversity in your examples by using photos or descriptions with diverse representations of people. Look again at the list of variables in the first paragraph and try to include diverse examples on as many of these measures as possible. But be careful to avoid using diversity only in a stereotypical context. For example, use a photo of a person with a disability outside of a discussion of disabilities, an example of a couple who is gay outside of a discussion of homosexuality, a woman outside of a gendered role such as a stay-at-home mother, a person who is older outside of a discussion of problems associated with aging or a person in traditional cultural attire outside of an explicit discussion of cross-cultural differences.

Many instructors use current events in the classroom. Focus your search on international or cross-cultural sources to increase diversity. Look at the “world” or “international” sections of newspapers such as the New York Times; visit Today’s Front Pages at the Newseum website or the list of news sources at Nations Online to get a sense of what is “news” around the world; use the APA’s resources of websites of international psychology organizations or of national psychology organizations around the world to see what is on their radar.

Finally, diversify your examples by harnessing the vast collective experience of your students. Linh Nguyen Littleford and her colleagues (2010) note the ever-increasing diversity of college students, particularly with respect to ethnic minority and older students. Littleford and colleagues encourage instructors to work toward inclusivity regardless of the apparent homogeneity of a classroom both because diversity is not always apparent and because all students can benefit from such practices. We often ask our students to share with us something that will help us remember them and their names. Among the suggested “something interesting” are the students’ culture-related experiences. Remind your students that even if they are from the majority culture, their experiences are still cultural experiences and even if they are from the country in which you are teaching, they still are part of a culture. (The second author, who teaches in the U.S., always finds it amusing when students in her international psychology class question why she includes a U.S.-based example in a class on international psychology, as if the U.S. is not part of the world.) In our classes, some of the most thought-provoking discussions were sparked when, say, the oldest person in a class talked about what she perceived during a loud video, or an exchange student from Japan opened up about the differences in personal space and privacy that he noticed upon coming to North America.

In summary, given the increasingly diverse nature of our classes and the immense diversity within the field of psychology, it is important for instructors to address both the diversity of our students and of the topics of our courses. There are many fairly easy ways to do this incrementally, even for those of us without expansive training in diversity and also for those of us who teach in courses in which it might not seem obvious to include diversity. Instructors, students and the classroom experience will be better for it.

According to the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (2007), if you were born in Northern America, you will live 11 years longer than people born in other parts of the world and 46 years longer than people born in Swaziland. What will you do with the time you have? Although alone, one person might not be able to change the world, each one of us can make a difference within our own sphere of influence.


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About the Authors

Linh Nguyen Littleford, PhDLinh Nguyen Littleford is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Ball State University. She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Miami University. She completed her internship at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services. Her research focuses on ethnic minority and multicultural issues in teaching, assessment and intervention. She has published on cultural diversity and teaching, refugee mental health, intergroup anxiety and multiple relationships ethical dilemmas in psychotherapy. Her current research projects explore factors that predict student engagement with diversity-related content and students’ evaluations of instructors who teach diversity-related courses.

In addition to teaching diversity-specific courses, she has infused diversity issues into non diversity specific courses for over a decade. She served as vice president of Diversity and International Relations for the Society for the Teaching of Psychology in 2011 and 2012. 

Susan A. Nolan, PhDSusan A. Nolan is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Seton Hall University, where she was previously director of Women’s Studies. She earned her PhD from Northwestern University. Nolan conducts research on the role of gender in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, funded in part by NSF. She is a co-editor of Are Women Achieving Equity in Chemistry?: Dissolving Disparity, Catalyzing Change, co-author of two statistics textbooks (both in their second edition), and the new co-author on Sandra and Don Hockenbury’s introduction to psychology textbooks. Nolan developed a course in international psychology at Seton Hall, and has taught gender and psychology and women, society and culture. Nolan integrates international, diversity and cultural issues in her teaching and in her writing projects — including statistics. 

Nolan is the vice president of Diversity and International Relations for the Society of the Teaching of Psychology (STP), and is an STP Master Teacher Speaker. She also is the Treasurer of Division 52 of APA (International Psychology), a representative from the APA to the United Nations and the incoming president-elect of the Eastern Psychological Association.