How Course Titles Affect Student Interest In College Diversity Courses

Diversity courses dealing with sexuality, gender, and race offer a range of benefits to the students who take them. As a result, U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly adding such courses to their curricula, with many now requiring students to take a certain number of them in order to graduate. Requiring that students take diversity courses does not guarantee that they will benefit from them, though, because the benefits of such classes depend, to some extent, upon students’ initial attitudes toward the course. Those attitudes are crucial because they shape how students approach the material and how engaged they become with it. However, we know relatively little about the factors that shape these initial attitudes. In order to address this knowledge gap, one of my colleagues (Dr. Jennifer Spoor of LaTrobe University) and I conducted an experiment to see how the title of a diversity course dealing with women’s and gender issues affects students’ perceptions of it and their interest in taking it. We focused on course title because it is usually the very first piece of information students hear about a course and, as such, may be the point at which attitudes toward a class begin to take shape.

In this study, recently published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE and freely available in full here, we presented over 350 introductory psychology students with one of two prospective course offerings dealing with women’s and gender issues. The course descriptions were identical, emphasizing that it would be a science-based course dealing with gender, and mentioning that it would address both women and men. The only difference was the title of the course: Psychology of Women vs. Psychology of Gender. (We also manipulated the sex of the instructor teaching the class, but found that it had no effects, so I’ll just focus on course title here.)

After reading the course description, students answered questions about their general perceptions of the course (e.g., whether the workload appeared reasonable and the goals were clearly stated), the degree to which the course appeared to focus equally on women and men, the degree to which the course appeared credible, and their willingness to enroll in the course.

Before I get to the results, I should mention that some of you might assume that a course titled “Psychology of Women” would necessarily have different goals and content that a course titled “Psychology of Gender”; however, in practice, these course titles are often used interchangeably, which is why we chose to look at them. One reason they are used interchangeably is because most psychology departments do not offer separate courses on women and gender, which leads them to have a lot of overlap because they must serve more than one purpose. In addition, regardless of how a course was originally designed, it is often the case that instructors who “inherit” courses from other faculty members keep the old titles, but teach them in very different ways. As a result, whether a given course title focuses on women or gender is not necessarily indicative of a specific approach.

So what did we find? Course title did not affect general perceptions of the course; however, it did influence all of the other factors we inquired about. Specifically, students perceived the Psychology of Women course as being less credible and as providing less in the way of equal coverage compared to the identically described Psychology of Gender course. In addition, students were less interested in taking the Psychology of Women course overall. Further analyses suggested that lower perceived credibility and less even-handed coverage of course material statistically accounted for reduced interest in taking the women-titled class.

Interestingly, these results held for both male and female students—so course title wasn’t just affecting men’s perceptions, it was also affecting women’s. However, male students in general were less interested in taking either course and rated both courses as being lower in credibility than did female students.

These results reveal that the titles of diversity courses do matter. Specifically, courses that are more broadly titled (e.g., Psychology of Gender) appear to be perceived as more credible and appeal to more students than course titles that emphasize specific groups (e.g., Psychology of Women). Although further research on this topic is certainly warranted, these findings suggest that titling diversity courses in more inclusive ways could potentially help more students to enroll in them and to engage with the material.

That said, we believe that course titles should be true to the actual content of the course and we are not arguing that diversity courses should always adopt more inclusive titles. Indeed, there can be inherent value in putting underrepresented groups and their experiences front-and-center.

Developing effective diversity courses requires balancing a number of competing interests; however, our results suggest that due consideration be given to the issue of how to most effectively attract a broad range of students in a way that allows them to achieve the greatest benefit.

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To learn more about this research, see: Spoor JR, Lehmiller JJ (2014) The Impact of Course Title and Instructor Gender on Student Perceptions and Interest in a Women's and Gender Studies Course. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106286. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106286

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