Interactive Classrooms May Push LGBT Students to "Come Out" Before They Are Ready

Active learning classrooms, which require more group work than traditional lecture courses, may create an uneasy atmosphere for new college freshmen who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual (LGBTQIA), according to a new study by researchers at Arizona State University.

The findings show that although these interactive classrooms offer many learning and social benefits — including keeping students engaged with challenging science and technology subjects — the enhanced interaction may push LGBTQIA students to “come out” before they are ready.

“In a traditional lecture course, students can sit in the back of the group and be somewhat invisible,” said Sara Brownell, assistant professor with the School of Life Sciences and senior author of the study.

“But in the interactive class, we ask them to engage with others. This is extending into conversations they don’t want to have. They have to decide, ‘Do I come out to this person I don’t know? Do I lie? Do I change the conversation?'”

The researchers recommend that instructors think very carefully about how they structure group work in an effort to create safe spaces for students to feel comfortable sharing their identities.

“In an active learning classroom, students are asked to interact a lot with each other and the instructor,” said Katelyn Cooper, doctoral student and lead author of the study. “The students’ LGBTQIA identities are more relevant in an active learning course, particularly for transgender students who may be transitioning during the semester.”

In the U.S., 3.6 percent of people identify as LGBTQIA. For this study, seven students were interviewed from a 180-person classroom, a similar rate to the national average.

“Our goal in classrooms at Arizona State University is to be inclusive to every student, regardless of their LGBTQIA identity or any other social identity,” said Brownell.

“The national conversation right now is to move more science classrooms into the active learning model. But as we do this, we need to be cautious how these student interactions are playing out in class. These interactions among students may impact how well these LGBTQIA students are doing in the class. This study is the first to illuminate potential challenges for these students in active learning spaces.”

The findings show that all of the students who identified as LGBTQIA struggled in some way with group work. As the students were placed in close groups with their peers, they experienced more opportunities to have to self-identify.

The researchers say this is significant because students often come out during their college years, but are hesitant to do so before they’re fully ready to announce their LGBTQIA identity to the outside world.

Brownell’s research looks at how students learn biology in the classroom. In particular, she and her research team investigate the experiences of students with potentially underrepresented or stigmatized social identities in the classroom, including gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and LGBTQIA identity.

“It has been shown that more diverse groups of people lead to better science. It’s important to make sure that our next generation of scientists is diverse and this starts in the undergraduate classroom. Students with LGBTQIA identities can offer unique and important perspectives,” added Cooper.

The next step for the researchers is exploring this topic at a national level and in different geographic locations to see whether students in other parts of the country have similar experiences in the active learning setting.

The research is published in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education.

Source: Arizona State University