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Didactic Principles

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Metal and glass framework of a roof with blue sky in the background.
Image Credit: CC0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/mhaderer/15493585779/

Gender- and diversity-conscious teaching is all about improving teaching. It’s not about casting aside existing criteria for good teaching or reinventing them altogether; instead, it aims to add to and refine existing criteria by raising specific considerations. More under Skills for Teaching.

Two didactic principles are especially helpful for paying attention to gender and diversity in teaching: a variety of methods and engaging students. More on implementation under From Planning to Completion.

Variety of Methods

Variety of methods entails not designing every session of a course identically, but instead using various methods. You can alternate between segments of frontal teaching, such as lectures, with segments that actively engage the students. Content input and direct teaching sessions are important, but students can also acquire new areas of knowledge in other ways. Therefore, you should also make deliberate use of interactive and cooperative teaching methods. Aside from the standard practice of full-class discussion, it is also worthwhile to consider varying the setting and schedule periods of small-group work and solo work (which is best kept short during class time).
Aim for a varied use of media and assorted stimuli. Shift between relatively cognitive and relatively practical approaches so that students can try out, criticize, and interconnect what they have learned. Whenever possible, try to have the object of investigation physically present – if necessary, in digital form. Allow for a multi-layered approach to a topic (media-based, experiential, associative, etc.) and propose different ways to tackle it (experimentally, analytically, historically, empirically, and so forth). During periods of individual or group (project) work, you can usually either give all the students the same material or the same assignment, or you can offer them different learning opportunities in parallel, then bring together and evaluate the different perspectives.

You should consider using a variety of methods, such as by alternating input and output, both within each given class session and across all classes in the semester.

  • Monotony is boring and tedious. Using a variety of methods makes it easier for students to concentrate during the entire class session because there aren’t any long, uninterrupted stretches of only listening. Experience has shown that students generally appreciate the use of a variety of methods.
  • Not all students do well with the same learning methods. By using a variety of methods, it is more likely that everyone will find their own way to make decent progress. Carefully individualized learning strategies allow students with a range of background knowledge to build up their knowledge and skills.
  • Certain methods may pose specific barriers or opportunities for certain students. For very reserved students or those with speech impairments, being asked to speak in front of the entire group can be very unpleasant. That might give you the impression, as the lecturer, that they are unprepared or performing poorly even though the same students could have made strong contributions to a smaller collaborative group. Others might have a very hard time spontaneously collaborating with classmates they do not know and would learn more by tackling the subject individually during or after the seminar. By using diverse methods, you will be helping improve equal opportunity.
  • A variety of methods also enables you to be creative, to try out new things, and to take conscious advantage of the results of various methods (such as highly focused silence or a lively atmosphere of discussion) in order to maintain suspense and interest throughout the semester. Your teaching and facilitation skills will improve as you learn from your experiences and expand your repertoire. You will add to your routine and be able to prepare for classes in less time. You will also discover what you are very good at and not as good at as a lecturer, which areas you might want to pursue in further training, and where your personal strengths lie.

Take a look at our Advice for Different Stages of a Class, learn new methods from our Pool of Methods, or browse our Selection of Subject-Specific Teaching Examples.

When employing new methods, it is important to start by explaining the process clearly and announcing the objective transparently. For example, if you ask students to work on a task alone or in groups, be sure to explain what the results are going to be used for. Will individuals volunteer to present something? Will each group report back? Will you be collecting everyone’s work? If you are collecting the work, will this be done anonymously or are the results attributable to individual students? Do you plan to grade them, or just to get a sense of the students’ knowledge and their questions? Explaining this in advance gives the students a sense of security and is important for many methods’ success.

Engaging Students

These scenarios might sound familiar: you read an article or attend a lecture on a topic, and the argument and content make sense to you until you start writing about it or draft a presentation and suddenly one aspect sticks out. You notice contradictions that were not so obvious at first. You think of a better example than the ones listed in the literature or you start thinking about a specific application to another topic or another field. You might also simply look up a term and discover an interesting connection.

Engaging students is about fostering such encounters with content and deepening them. That might mean them developing their own questions about the issue, thinking about the applications of theories or models, discussing them, or formulating arguments. Universities are still dominated by methods in which most students only receive information and remain mostly passive listeners and readers. During discussions and when there are opportunities to ask questions, few students speak up, usually the same ones. That is why a diversity of methods often goes hand in hand with engaging students.

  • Activate your students’ prior knowledge and awake their curiosity about subsequent topics.
  • At the beginning of a course, a class, or a thematic unit, you can give a quiz or have people solve assignments. Be sure to explain that this is notan exam, that you will not be grading the results or comparing students’ performance, or else the method will not fulfill the objective stated here. The questions or tasks can be completed individually or in groups. Plan the quiz so that it gives students an experience of success but also exposes their unresolved questions, different perspectives, and knowledge gaps. After revealing the answers, you can explain when and how the course will resolve those questions, incorrect answers, or contentious solutions. Later in the course, you might want to return to the quiz in order to reveal the students’ learning progress and show which questions still have not been resolved.
  •  Ask your students to identify their own questions and learning objectives and write them down. Clarifying what precisely they want to learn from a specific class or text creates a tie-in to their own knowledge levels and interests, increases their alertness, and improves learning outcomes. You can also return to this method to cement the results or to reflect on why certain questions were never in fact answered.

  • Encourage students to develop their own perspectives on the subject they are learning while referencing and coming to terms with existing theories. As you do so, incorporate questions related to gender and diversity.
    • Ask students to brainstorm briefly about one of the following questions: What are your associations with this term or concept? In which fields of action is the topic important? How does the topic relate to your everyday life?
      Students can complete this exercise alone or with the people sitting next to them. It is best to do this in writing, whether as a list, a mind map, or on index cards or Metaplan cards. If they will be presenting their results or if you want to collect them, always announce this at the beginning.
    • Keeping a learning journal can be an optional or required assignment in which students reflect on both a course’s content and their own learning processes. The use of learning journals requires a thorough introduction for the students as well as feedback from the lecturer. In addition, a process can be set up using digital teaching/learning platforms in which students give each other feedback on their learning journals.

  • Take breaks from frontal teaching by adding in periods of group work. The scope of these can range from brief whisper sessions (link, p. 55, in German) that you can also use in large lectures to group projects lasting a semester or longer. A smaller group setting calls on everyone to think for themselves and personally contribute. Gender- and diversity-conscious methods for forming groups are one example that clearly shows how changing the smallest details of teaching methods can produce different effects, making such details significant – for example, when it comes to avoiding or reproducing stereotypes. It is also clear that there is no single correct solution and that you should be familiar with and use different group-forming methods depending on context. (Link)

  • Select formats for your course that inherently encourage intense student engagement and participation, such as research-based learning (link) and problem-based learning (PBL). (Link)

  • Allow your students to experience knowledge production and knowledge transfer as social processes that actively involve lecturers and students. Take students’ contributions seriously. Pursue exciting questions further and transparently raise other considerations or methodological consequences these might implicate.

  • Publication and presentation: Give your students opportunities to present what they have learned or prepared in a forum beyond yourself and their fellow students. Recommend that they write short articles in appropriate publications at your institute or in your subject. Invite students to give poster presentations at conferences. Organize an institute-wide colloquium or put on a science slam. However, make sure not to favor certain students subconsciously. Be aware of gender and diversity as you decide whom to approach.
  • In the context of the Diversity Management course for General Professional Skills (ABV) in the Winter Semester 2016/17, students filmed videos at Freie Universität Berlin on the theme of Diversity and submitted them to the short film competition “Diversity at Freie Universität”. The short film „Vielfalt und deren Wahrnehmung an der FU“ (Diversity and its perception at Freie Universität) by Philip Maciejewski, Lukas Franz Lönnendonker, Antonia Middeldorf, Suzanne Linehan Winter, Carolina Fernandez Arancibia und Christian Joswig won the audience award. You can find more out about the other videos here.

  • Academic work and critical thinking take practice. In many cases, the lecturer can give an introduction, which is then followed up in small portions. You can use these introductions deliberately – to point out gender- and diversity-conscious aspects or questions, for instance.
  • When students are engaged and asked to contribute their knowledge, their experience, and their ideas, their motivation and commitment rises.
  • Actively tackling learning material facilitates better learning outcomes than purely consuming the lecturer’s statements.
  • When students participate more actively, you get better feedback about their knowledge level – concerning gender and diversity as well. What concepts or theories are still unclear? Are there any misunderstandings or prejudices that need to be addressed? What do the students already understand well? In what areas is there criticism or a need for discussion?
  • The students also grow more aware of their rising knowledge levels. Progress is made visible, encouraging further progress. Any gaps that appear can be filled through personalized independent study or coursework planning.


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Version April 2017. Unless otherwise stated, this content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence