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Principle 1

Consider your and your students’ social identities and their implications for learning 

"Even though I come into the classroom as a professional teacher, I do not leave my social identities at the door. I need to monitor the gaps in my knowledge and sensitivity, areas in which I still have ignorance, fear, and uncertainty." - "Jerry"

The demographic makeup of US college students is shifting, with a noticeable increase in students who identify as Black or Indigenous or as people of color (BIPOC).

At Northwestern, for example, from the class of 2013 to the class of 2024, the proportion of Black students grew from 6 to 10 percent; and of Hispanic/Latinx students from 7 to 16 percent. In addition, the proportion of first-generation students increased from 9 to 13 percent; and Pell Grant–eligible students from 12 to 21 percent. These changing student demographics are a critical focal point for educators as they engage in new and innovative ways to teach.

Adapting to new realizations and expectations can be difficult for instructors, particularly if they are asked to modify their teaching techniques and classroom material to be more inclusive. It is even more difficult when the instructors have been taught, overtly and covertly, that the traditional westernized method of teaching is the best one. Weinstein and Obear contend that “expectations are increasing for instructors not only to be sensitive to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, regardless of their academic specialization, but also to treat these issues as part of their teaching responsibilities.”

Social identity refers to those aspects of people’s self-concept that derive from the social categories or groups (e.g., gender, race, ability, social class) to which they perceive they belong, with the value and emotional significance attached to those categories or group memberships. Social identities and the responses they evoke can affect student learning. For example, the existence of a negative stereotype about a group with which one identifies can result in the negative performance on a given task (e.g., an exam). This phenomenon is referred to as stereotype threat and is often reported by students who identify with marginalized and minoritized groups in educational contexts. Studies of stereotype threat in learning environments highlight the need for instructors to understand how beliefs and behavior can be interpreted and how they can influence the learning experience of all students.

It is essential that instructors educate themselves about students from different social groups. To change the classroom environment, all members of the university community must engage in understanding differences and accepting their own roles in the present campus culture. The knowledge of how identity develops for students can help further the understanding needed to help them all succeed. The knowledge of how identity is cultivated by environment can help develop successful teaching strategies for all students.

Based on the idea that people must recognize their own culture before truly understanding another person’s culture, instructors must also reflect on their own identities. Instructors are not blank slates when they enter a classroom. They have inevitably acquired biases and opinions that affect their teaching. As educators, we can have unconscious feelings toward particular students related to their identities, and “these powerful, emotional reactions to a student signal an internal conflict and a need to consider whether the problem lies in the student or in yourself.” Unintentional prejudice occurs when society’s unwritten rules about status, respect, and worth are perpetuated by even the most egalitarian educators. Instructors should continually work to address their biases and other prejudicial behaviors that can have a negative impact on student learning.

To contribute to the development and success of all students, educators must be aware of their own multiple social identities and how their corresponding lived experiences tied to those identities have implications for their teaching. By failing to acknowledge the influence of social identity and background on their pedagogy and teaching practices, instructors may unknowingly perpetuate inequities in the learning environment.

Teaching Strategies

  1. Instructors should engage in work around their personal racial, ethnic, and multicultural identity development to increase their awareness of privilege, oppression, and racial consciousness. Those in positions of power and privilege can examine how their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors may unintentionally perpetuate prejudice, discrimination, and bias in the classroom. For example, those who identify as White can learn the different ways they may unintentionally perpetuate microaggressions toward their racially/ethnically minoritized students and in turn take the necessary steps to mitigate this form of subtle racism. Instructors should engage in this ongoing work by seeking educational development workshops and other resources such as literature on social identity, equity and inclusion, and Antiracist.
  2. Instructors should reflect on how their identities impact their teaching. We all have salient identities that grant us membership into groups characterized by race, gender, class, nationality, ability, and other sociocultural distinctions. These group memberships create the lens through which we see and experience differences among members of other groups. Our beliefs, assumptions, values, and attitudes show up in the ideation of course content, student expectations, engagement, and ascriptions of intelligence (both positive and negative). Do stereotypes about race, gender, or another identity affect who you call on most frequently, for example? Do you hold all students to the same high standards for expected achievement?


Before the start of each academic term, instructors may engage in one or more activities that require them to reflect on their different social identities. For example, a queer, Latinx woman who teaches in a STEM department may consider which identities are salient to her as she develops her course content, modality of teaching, as well as how the many identities she holds may impact her interpersonal communication and relationships with her students. She may also ask herself whether her identities relate to any preconceived notions she has about teaching courses where it is likely that the majority of students will be White men? A tool that may be useful in her reflective process is the Social Identity Wheel. By engaging in the Social Identity Wheel activity, she may become more cognizant of how different identities may impact the way she sees her students as well as how her students may perceive and treat her.

Further Reading

Barnett, P. E. (2020, December 24). Unpacking teachers’ invisible knapsacks: Social identity and privilege in higher education.

Bliuc, A. M., Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., & Hendres, D. M. (2011). The role of social identification as university student in learning: Relationships between students’ social identity, approaches to learning, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology, 31(5), 559-574.

Lyons, E. M., Simms, N., Begolli, K. N., & Richland, L. E. (2018). Stereotype threat effects on learning from a cognitively demanding mathematics lesson. Cognitive Science, 42(2), 678-690.

Mavor, K. I., Platow, M. J., & Bizumic, B. (Eds.). (2017). Self and social identity in educational contexts. Taylor & Francis.

Torres, V., Howard-Hamilton, M. F., & Cooper, D. L. (2011). Identity development of diverse populations: Implications for teaching and administration in higher education: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report (Vol. 12). John Wiley & Sons.

Wilkins, S., Butt, M. M., Kratochvil, D., & Balakrishnan, M. S. (2016). The effects of social identification and organizational identification on student commitment, achievement and satisfaction in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 41(12), 2232-2252.


Bucholtz, M. & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7, 585–614.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Galvin, K. M. (1999). Classroom roles of the teacher. In A. L. Vangelisti, J. A. Daly, & G. W. Friedrich (Eds.), Teaching communication: Theory, research, and methods (2nd ed., pp. 243–255). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Helms, J. E., & Cook, D. A. (1999). Using race and culture in counseling and psychotherapy: Theory and process. Allyn & Bacon.

McKinney, C. & Norton, B. (2008). Identity in language and literacy education. In Spolsky, B. & Hult, F.: The Handbook of Educational Linguistics. Blackwell.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (2nd ed., pp. 7–24). Nelson-Hall.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Political psychology: Key readings (pp. 276-293). Psychology Press.

Weinstein, G., & Obear, K. (1992). Bias issues in the classroom: Encounters with the teaching self. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 52, 39–50.

Next → Principle 2: Establish and communicate clear course standards and expectations