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Diversity, Inclusion, Candid Feedback, and Climate

Lesson Overview

Students and professionals alike in computer science point to climate as a major factor that influences their persistence or departure. Climate refers to the reputation and the norms of a particular organization (organizational climate) or department (departmental climate).  Within the research literature and popular literature alike, numerous examples have been provided where the climate in many STEM-related disciplines is considered “chilly” or “hostile” for women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups (see, for example, Johnson, 2012).

Learning more about inclusive pedagogy is considered a way to promote a positive climate, at least within academic realms. Teaching inclusively means you teach in a way that is open, inviting, and encourages participation from a wide range of people (see for example, UNC Chapter). Intentionality needs to be provided to inviting students who may look different from the teacher/peer mentor or from a “prototypical” successful student, and may approach problem-solving or view the world differently from the normative profile (i.e., currently a white male prototype; for more about the prototypes in computer science see Cheryan et al., 2013). Teaching inclusively does not have to exist separately from teaching with rigor, as indicated by the movement toward “inclusive excellence” (see

Because peer mentors are on the front lines of feedback and may be viewed as ambassadors of the department, their preparation needs to include a focus on inclusive pedagogy as well as an awareness of how climate affects learning.

Overall Motivations and Objectives

The objectives for the students:

  1. To continue to gain competence and confidence in practical code review skills
  2. To reflect on their own assumptions and biases
  3. To reflect and understand the complexities of diversity, inclusion, and climate it a technical setting and to be able to apply this when interacting with students and providing feedback

Prerequisite Knowledge

To use this module, the following readings, activities, and reflections should be completed:


Preliminary Activities

Instructor Reflections

Due to its particular to the focus on inclusion and climate, this session is an excellent time for the instructor(s) to take time to reflect on the climate they create in the classroom. In order to create an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for a discussion of diversity, it is important to consider how much space you as the instructor take up in the room. 
  • What is my definition of "diversity"?
  • What cultural groups do I identify with?
  • How do my experiences working, living, or studying within different cultures affect my practices in the learning context?

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Lesson Plan


Activity 1: Compare Code Review


In pairs, students use this time to discuss their code reviews. They should be instructed to discuss both the technical portion of code review, as well as the process of reviewing code in general.

Some prompt questions for them to consider: 
  1. Did they find something that their partner missed, or vice versa? 
  2. Did they find the same error, but respond to it in different ways?


The code used in this Practice Code Review.

Objective and Motivation

In doing written code reviews before class and discussing the code review process, students are working on the core technical competencies required to be an effective peer mentor.

Discussion: Code Review Experience


As a whole class, allow groups to share what they discussed in pairs. Technical questions are likely to arise, so have the code ready to refer to on a projector. Draw the students attention to the ways in which they gave feedback. How might they have given feedback differently if they were meeting this student in person? What types of considerations would they need to make?

Objective and Motivation

As reviewed in previous lessons, learners are more apt to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and internalize feedback that helps them to boost their confidence and engage in strategic action when they are able to visualize and articulate the learning process and where they are within it. In a similar way, peer mentors need to have practice where they construct feedback and receive feedback, whether using scenarios or in simulation with a peer. In addition, being able to observe and critique feedback as provided by peers can also be an effective strategy.  

Rather than telling peer mentors a list of do’s and don’ts, a key strategy for the peer mentors’ learning is to also have them engage actively in seeing others and seeing themselves engage in the activity with constructive feedback. We use a think-pair-share format. They first think about and reflect in writing. Then they share within pairs and in the whole group to generate a range of strategies, as well as ask each other questions about their approaches. (For more about think-pair-share, see:

Activity 2: Assumptions Scenarios


Before beginning this activity, a brief explanation of assumptions is useful. The purpose of this exercise is not to shame people for making assumptions, but rather to examine critically the assumptions that we make and prevent them from affecting our behavior towards others.

Display a small number of assumption scenarios to the class. Each student should read them, and select one scenario. Students will the create a written reflection of the assumptions they would make in this scenario. When complete, students should reflect on this process of understanding and acknowledging their own assumptions.


Assumption scenarios can be adjusted to suit the needs of a particular course. Sample Assumption Scenarios.

Objective and Motivation

As discussed in the previous activity, there are a variety of ways to engage the peer mentor's. In this case, we discuss sample scenarios of typical students they may encounter (for more about case study approaches, see 

Discussion: Diversity in Computer Science


Prior to the session, students have been instructed to select, read, and reflect upon at least one of the five Diversity readings. Sample Diversity Reading Assignment.

Have students break themselves into groups based on the reading they selected. They should discuss their reflections, in particular:
  1. What were the most important points for them?
  2. Did they disagree or feel skeptical?
  3. How will this be useful or relevant to the MaGE program?
Once students have had ample opportunity to discuss in small groups (approximately 15-20 minutes), bring the entire class together for discussion. In turn, each group will tell the class what was discussed in their group. Groups should keep in mind that not everyone in the class read their reading so a brief summary may be necessary! Students from other groups are encouraged to ask questions. 


  1. How does the race of the advisor and student (and in particular when the advisor is White) contribute to a potential feeling of mistrust by the student?
  2. According to the authors, why does buffered or wise feedback contribute to motivation to revise? What element does buffered feedback contain that other forms of feedback sometimes miss?
  3. Why does it matter how an instructor delivers feedback? Isn't honest the best policy?

Objective and Motivation

Peer mentors need to be prepared for their role by talking about the process of learning for students from diverse backgrounds. 

Established within decades of learning research, we know that learners rely on feedback to change their strategies, improve their confidence, and grow in their learning (for example, Schunk, 1991). Although critical feedback on poor performance can be especially necessary for improvement, this can be the type of feedback that is most challenging to provide effectively. For one, critical feedback can sting, and students can leave feeling discouraged, deflated, or without direction; this negative impact from critical feedback is most apt to happen when the feedback is focused only on the problematic outcomes. 

In contrast, when the feedback combines specific, candid assessments of what is missing or problematic, with the reassurance that the student can meet a higher standard and strategies to move in that direction, students are more apt to be motivated to take on the challenge (see Cohen et al., 1999). 

What is especially important about this buffered approach to providing feedback (also referred to as “wise mentoring”) is that reassurance matters that the feedback provider is invested in the learner’s success is especially necessary when the feedback provider is of a different race or gender than the student, or in other circumstances where social relations may, at the surface, involve mistrust or uncertainty. Mistrust or uncertainty can arise, even when the instructor has good intentions, because we live in a racist, gendered, and classist society. In particularly negative situations, students have voiced their experience of microaggressions or discouragement from harsh feedback, stemming from being uncertain whether the instructor had their best interests and were invested in their potential, rather than stereotyping them negatively based on their social identity (see for example, Constantine & Sue, 2007). 

Rather than give critical feedback, instructors may strive instead to “gloss over” the major problems rather than be candid because they do not want to appear gender-biased or racist (see Crosby & Monin, 2007; Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012). When instructors are overly positive, particularly about simple accomplishments, a learner’s confidence can be undermined and the instructor can be viewed as patronizing. When problems are not raised, there is a delay in the negative outcome for the learner.

A key indicator of success will be whether introductory students find the peer mentors to be 1) knowledgeable (speaks to credibility of the mentor), 2), approachable (gives a sense of inclusiveness), 3) flexible in their approach (which indicates they saw the learners as individuals and were therefore more open or inclusive). We also look to see if the learners credit the peer mentors with 1) improving their confidence and 2) contributing to their learning.

Discussion: Inclusion and Climate in Educational Settings and Mentor Relationships


Preface the discussion with references to the reading on the Mentor's Dilemma.


  1. How does the race of the advisor and student (and in particular when the advisor is White) contribute to the possibility of different feedback for students based on race? Or put another way, why would an advisor hold back negative feedback from a student?
  2. What is the potential harm to students who fail to receive critical feedback (when it is warranted)?
  3. What options does an advisor have in this situation? What kinds of strategies might help both parties to contribute to a successful communication?

Objective and Motivation

One strategy that aligns with inclusive pedagogy is for instructors to think intentionally about how they provide feedback on learning. Feedback, to be effective, needs to be provided to students in ways that inspires students to undertake challenges and continue to engage in their learning. Helpful feedback is specific, informative, formative (rather than purely summative, and focused on the performance (rather than just the outcome) and timely, as well as informative and focused on the process and is future-oriented (formative and performance rather than summative) where possible (see Tanes et al., 2011). Feedback is more helpful when it is encouraging without sugarcoating the problems. Helpful feedback leaves the learner hopeful and with a direction for further action. Because one major component of the GEM peer mentor role is to provide weekly feedback in written and spoken form, the provision of effective feedback, with an awareness of teacher and student social identity/climate, is a major lesson in their preparation course.


Common Issues

When doing pair exercises such as Comparing Code Reviews, you may wish to create the pairs ahead of time for a variety of reasons. Particularly when technical competence is a factor, we found it beneficial to pair students further into the CS curriculum with the less senior students.

The discussions in the session are open ended and may run longer than expected.


This section is a placeholder for feedback and tips from current MaGE students to future students (what they wish they had known going in), as well as from current MaGE students to future instructors.

Assessment, Debrief, and Looking Ahead


For each session, two types of feedback are collected. First, anonymous feedback collected immediately at the end of the session. While this may be done in any form, we chose to use simple index cards passed out at the end of the class deposited anonymously at the classroom exit as the students left. The benefit of this form of feedback is it's immediacy - thoughts and feelings relating to the session are fresh in the students' minds. Students were instructed to write anything they felt like - or nothing at all.

The second type of feedback was an Exit Feedback Google Form which the students were asked to complete before Midnight on the day of the session. Sample Exit Feedback Form.


Drawing on the skills and discussion of this session, students should prepare for the next session with the following activities:
  • Reflection: Diversity, Inclusion, Candid Feedback, and Climate. Sample Reflection Prompts
  • Practice Code Review #2
  • Record Mock 1-on-1 Videos

Looking Ahead

In preparation for the next session on Active Learning students should read:

Supplemental Reading

  • Cheryan, S. Drury, B. J., & Vichayapai, M. (2013). Enduring influence of stereotypical computer science role models on women’s academic aspirations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(1), 72-79.  
    • Explains how stereotype activation negatively influences women’s interests in computer science.
  • Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor's dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1302–1318.
    • Explains that giving critical feedback across the racial divide can be challenging because of mistrust of the instructor’s motive. Students may wonder: is this feedback because of my work or because of my race? The researchers document the benefits of combining specific candid feedback about the work’s limitations with a reassurance of reaching a higher standard (and strategies to get there). This buffered approach to giving feedback, also called wise mentoring, may be especially important for underrepresented students.
  • Constantine M. G., & Sue, D. W. (2007). Perceptions of racial microaggressions among black supervisees in cross-racial dyads. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54(2), 142-153. 
    • Student trainees’ reports of stereotyping and microaggressions from their clinical supervisors.
  • Crosby, J.R., & Monin, B. (2007). Failure to warn: The effect of race on warnings of potential academic difficulty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 663-670.  
    • Advisors may fail to warn black advisees of a course overload for fear of looking racist.
  • Johnson, D. R. (2012). Campus racial climate perceptions and overall sense of belonging among racially diverse women in STEM majors. Journal of College Student Development, 53(2), 336-346.  
    • Discusses how the campus attitudes toward racial diversity can contribute to belongingness and persistence of diverse women in STEM.
  • Tobias, S. (1994). They’re not dumb, they’re different: Stalking the second tier. Arizona: Research Corporation.
    • This short inexpensive book documents case studies of learners who were asked to seriously audit STEM classes and explain what their experiences were. The case studies clearly illustrate why the climate of the classroom can be off-putting to students with talent to contribute when they find the environment does not motivate them or leverage their strengths. Choosing one case study (Vicky) can be helpful for peer mentors who might not identify with or empathize with students who leave STEM and may assume they leave because they cannot handle the rigor. 
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Center for Teaching and Learning. (1997). Strategies for Inclusive Teaching. (Chapter 2). From Teaching for Inclusion: Diversity in the College Classroom.
    • A very useful chapter that defines inclusive teaching and explains how to support underrepresented students without singling out or stereotyping.

Audrey St. John,
Mar 4, 2016, 12:33 PM