Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Awareness of Socioeconomic Diversity

Socioeconomic status (SES) is a characterization derived from a “combination of education, income and occupation” (APA), and can seriously impact student well-being and academic performance. Low SES students (often first-generation college students) can experience difficult transitions to college, and when these students self-identify in “lower,” working-class strata, they can feel out of place and court intentions of dropping out (Langout, et. al, 2009). Such students may have a more limited repertoire of learning strategies available to them, and may approach studying differently (Yee, 2016). Additionally, high- and low-SES students have been shown to have achievement gaps in standardized testing due to stereotype threat, a phenomenon when “members of a stigmatized group perform poorly on a task because they fear confirming a negative stereotype that is associated with their ingroup” (Spencer and Castano, 2007). Unfortunately, unlike race or gender, socioeconomic diversity may be difficult for instructors to detect in their classes, as students may strive to appear middle-class in order to self-normalize.

Instructors can consider a variety of ways to structure active and inclusive teaching methods that enable multiple modes of engagement, create various pathways for achievement, and create a classroom environment of accessibility and face-to-face time with the instructor.  Instructors can also strive to create behavioral protocols in the syllabus that emphasize respect, honesty, and an open door policy for student concerns.


  • An instructor includes classroom policies in the syllabus that underscore respect, attentive listening, civil dialogue, honesty, and patience, regardless of background or appearance. The instructor addresses these policies on the first day, emphasizing that human worth informs intellectual exploration in class.
  • A mathematics instructor actively includes a diversity statement in her syllabus which acknowledges the various SES of students in class and reaffirms the value of diverse experiences for the learning environment.
  • A philosophy instructor provides pop-cultural examples and various revisions and representations to clarify sections of a dense philosophy text. 
  • Rather than hold voluntary office-hour meetings which low SES students often avoid, a biology instructor requires one-on-one meetings with each student to discuss learning progress and personalized strategies for improvement. 
  • Rather than assume students know how to succeed in the course, an art history instructor establishes clear class-participation norms, states explicit assessment expectations, and provides recommended resources/steps to improve performance. 
  • Rather than ignore SES, a psychology instructor reminds students to measure, report and control for SES in research activities related to academic achievement.
  • A sociology instructor encourages students to contribute to the body of research on the educational and societal barriers experienced by students from various SES communities and the impact of these barriers on academic achievement and psychological well-being.
  • An English instructor allows for multiple paper rewrites and resubmissions so that students can focus on developing their writing skills. 


  • Establish an Open Door Policy - Instructors can explicitly state, in class policies and in class, their willingness to support student learning outside of class. Instructors may structure out-of-class and in-class time to work with students, offer open office hours, or require students to meet at least once in office hours to make individual connections and affirm their commitment to each student’s growth.
  • Variegate Representation - For many disciplines that involve the study, thought, or expression of human beings (history, English, philosophy, anthropology), traditional or canonical bodies of text and practice can remain culturally or economically homogenous while continuing to hold sway in the discipline. Instructors can integrate diverse cultures and peoples into curriculum content, ensuring that a variety of perspectives and representations are available in readings, case studies, and class examples. This approach can help all students recognize and imagine themselves within course content.
  • Variegate Difficulty - Instructors can consider offering popular, simplified, and varied language to explain important concepts. While learning styles have been proven to be a popular myth, offering several approaches to difficult content can improve student comprehension while meeting various levels of SES and academic preparedness.
  • Clarify Grading Expectations - Instructors can make expectations for performance, grading, and assessment clear in the syllabus, on the first day of class, and throughout term, by covering the syllabus and classroom policies, providing a rubric, and mixing formative and summative assessments. Doing so can obviate usual student complaints, while illuminating academic procedure for less familiar students.
  • Clarify Classroom Expectations - In addition to covering syllabus and classroom policies (see first bullet point), instructors can emphasize respect and the value of all earnest student opinion and commentary by moderating effective class discussion. Effective expectations and moderation protect all variety of student comments, from the “simple” to the “overly complicated,” while helping all students improve their reasoning and articulation. A set of modules from Harvard’s Instructional Moves provides techniques for responding to student comments.
  • Promote Collaborative Work - Instructors can activate diverse perspectives and experiences in class by staging collaborative projects and activities that get students engaging with each other. Group work, case studies, and team-based learning all provide opportunities for students to learn from each other via the zone of proximal development, to practice communication, and to consider other perspectives from their own.
  • Protect Emotion - Instructors can consider how to incorporate students’ personal responses into course discussions. This tactic enables student honesty, reveals valuable insight, and enriches academic discussion with personal experience. Reading logs, reflective essays, careful moderation, and turn-based presentation can invite and protect individual student responses to class discussion.

Additional Resources

Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching. (2012). Effective teaching and support of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds: Practical advice for teaching staff.

Devlin M and O’Shea H. (2011). Teaching students from low socioeconomic backgrounds: A brief guide for University teaching staff. Higher Education Research Group (HERG) Deakin University.


American Psychological Association. Education and Socioeconomic Status. 

Spencer B. and Castano E. (2007). Social Class is Dead. Long Live Social Class! Stereotype Threat among Low Socioeconomic Status Individuals. Social Justice Research 20(4): 418-432. 

Stephens N., Hamedani M., and Destin M. (2014). Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition. Psychological Science.

Yee A. (2016). The Unwritten Rules Of Engagement: Social Class Differences in Undergraduates’ Academic Strategies. The Journal of Higher Education 87(6): 831-858.