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May 11, 2023+Nicole Barbaro
+Campus Climate+Teaching+Viewpoint Diversity

Self-Censorship in the Classroom Harms Student Learning. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

Speaking up in a college classroom as a student can be a nerve-racking experience for many reasons. Some students may be generally shyer than others or may have anxiety about not saying the “right” answer. But students are also reluctant to share dissenting views in the classroom, especially when it comes to “controversial” topics.

Heterodox Academy (HxA) just released their latest Campus Expression Survey report, which asked over 1,500 full-time college students from universities across the country about how reluctant they are to share their views on a variety of topics in class, and what variables are associated with students’ reluctance.

This year, over 58% of student respondents said they were reluctant to share their views on topics of politics, race, sexual orientation, gender, or religion in the classroom.

This is a real problem that should concern all educators, especially across the social sciences, biological sciences, and humanities where these topics are most likely to be central to academic research and discussions. If students are not comfortable talking about these topics in class – a space intended for exploring ideas, discussing research, and critically thinking about problems – then our universities are, in part, failing at their intended purpose.

As a psychologist and an educator, this result hits on a core philosophy of college education: class should be a space where students interact and talk with one another rather than a place of passive ingestion of content from a professor. Although there is hesitation to ideas of student-centered practices in the classroom, research clearly shows that more active teaching practices in classes lead to improved learning in general, and research also suggests that greater engagement with peers appears to help students share and learn from dissenting perspectives on contentious topics.

Some may be asking why we need dissenting voices and viewpoint diversity in the classroom on contentious topics in the first place. Well, there are numerous reasons – and they have to do with the very goals of the university.

Our universities, at their ideal, are places wherein students expand their perspectives, develop critical thinking skills, and strive for understanding the truth. Self-censorship by students and environments that foster reluctance to dissenting voices can promote narrow thinking, stifle the truth, and inhibit innovation.

Psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer outline the benefits of dissent in their recent book, The Power of Us. They explain that dissenting voices in discussions can help develop the critical thinking skills of the majority viewpoint holders. “When people are exposed to popularly held ideas, their thinking tends to be lazy and narrow,” Van Bavel and Packer write, “But when they hear a minority point of view, a rarer perspective, their thinking expands” (p. 209).

University classrooms should not be spaces where students do not have the opportunity to challenge their own thinking. By not explicitly valuing viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in our classrooms, we are doing a disservice to their learning.

Van Bavel and Packer further share (p. 211) the impact of dissent in actual classrooms where they describe an experiment done with real students working in groups across the semester to complete various problem-solving tasks. Unbeknownst to the students, researchers had implanted natural student dissenters in half of the groups. The result? Students with dissenters not only performed better at solving the problem, but their work was rated as more original, and students themselves rated their groups’ thinking patterns as more divergent. Other research with students similarly shows that dissenting views expressed by peers stimulate divergent thinking within groups.

The HxA Campus Expression Survey shows that too many students are reluctant to share their views out of fear that other students will criticize them, despite the benefits to their learning and others’ learning by voicing them. So, what is the problem? Although there is no single reason for why students are reluctant to share their views in class, data on what factors were associated with students’ reluctance to share their views on these contentious topics offer some clues.

Of greatest interest to me was the finding that showed students who reported a “high” level of interaction with other students were the least likely to self-censor in class as compared to students who reported “low” levels of interaction with other students. The impact of peer interaction was impressive. For example, 37% of students who reported “low” interaction with other students were reluctant to discuss race in class, whereas only 13% of students who reported “high” levels of interaction said they were reluctant – a more than 50% reduction.

Additionally, the data show that in 2022 three-times as many students report “high” levels of interaction with other students as compared to 2020, corresponding with a seven-times increase since 2020 in the proportion of students learning in-person as compared to online. And analyses in the report show that students who reported learning primarily in-person were significantly more likely to also report “high” amounts of interaction with their peers.

It is well known that meaningful interpersonal interactions are foundational to learning experiences across all levels of development and education. But too much of college learning is passive lecture, which minimizes peer interaction in class (not to mention lower learning as compared to active teaching). In addition, the trend of learning becoming increasingly independent and self-guided, as is prominent in online courses, further eliminates meaningful peer interaction. In this time of highly politicized and polarized campus climates we need to more than ever prioritize student interaction for the learning benefits to our students.

These data are important for not only understanding students’ reluctance to speak up on contentious topics, but also for strategizing about ways we can remedy the problem of student self-censorship. Here are three strategies for faculty to reduce self-censorship and foster healthy dissent in the classroom.

1- Setting norms of engagement

Faculty have an essential role to play for fostering viewpoint diversity in their classrooms. They are responsible for setting the course policies, norms of engagement among peers, content curation, and moderating discussion. Creating an environment where students with dissenting perspectives starts with cultivating a common goal and shared “identity” within the classroom.

By beginning each class, especially those wherein contentious topics or ideas may be most likely, with norm setting and engagement expectations can remind students that the classroom is a space to explore ideas, learn from other students, and practice critical thinking and communication skills.

2- Get students talking and working together

Many classes, especially introductory level classes, involve students passively ingesting content from a professor during a lecture and having an opportunity to speak only by asking a question in front of the entire class. Instead we need to make sure students have ample time to talk to each other, create connections, and cultivate learning environments wherein students have high quality interaction with their fellow students.

In discussion courses this is more easily done, but even in lecture-based courses peer interaction is necessary. Breaking students into small working groups several times throughout class to work through problems or concepts is a low-cost strategy with benefits to learning and to get peers talking with each other. By getting to know their peers and working in smaller groups, students are more likely to be open to expressing their perspectives more confidently.

3- Share dissenting views yourself

As a moderator of discussion in our courses, we may notice that there are no natural dissenters to a consensus viewpoint. That’s okay. As the experts in our field, we know the debates and diversity of viewpoints intimately.

We can pose these differing views directly to students and ask them to think critically about what they mean, what underpinned the perspective, and the implications of the perspective for our understanding of the topic. This not only normalizes to students that differing perspectives exist and are worthy of discussion in class, but also allows them to explore the idea and practice critically engaging with it.

It’s our job as educators to ensure classrooms are places where students can voice their perspectives, wrestle with diverse viewpoints, and practice the critical thinking skills we promise they will come away from our courses with. And to do that, we need to get students talking to each other again.


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