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Teaching and Faculty-Student Relationships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

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For decades, researchers, including Jacqueline Fleming, Walter Allen, M. Christopher Brown, and Robert Palmer have been pointing to the "nurturing environment" at the nation's black colleges and universities and its benefits. This environment, according to myriad quantitative and qualitative studies, empowers students and leads to more satisfaction with their educational experience. The latest study to shed light on the HBCU environment was presented at the 2012 American Education Research Association annual meeting by Mahauganee Shaw, Eddie Cole, Cameron Harris, and Thomas Nelson Laird. Their study, titled "Patterns in Faculty Teaching Practices on the Campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs)," sheds light on an important aspect of the HBCU environment -- teaching.

Using data from two years (2009 and 2010) of the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), Shaw and colleagues examine the difference between faculty perceptions of student engagement and faculty teaching practices at HBCUs and PWIs. I commend the researchers because they compared like institutions in the study rather than comparing HBCUs to Ivy League institutions, which is the norm (see Harvard economist Roland Fryer's work, for example).

Among Shaw and colleagues' findings are some gems that speak to the nurturing and empowering environment at HBCUs. For example, the results indicate that faculty members at HBCUs use multiple teaching strategies much more than their PWI counterparts. HBCU faculty members are more likely to use active classroom practices, to emphasize personal and social responsibility, and to emphasize reflective learning in the classroom and homework assignments. In addition, the results show that faculty-student interaction is slightly higher at HBCUs, although the quality of those relationships proved to be slightly higher at PWIs -- most likely due to the lower teaching loads at these institutions.

Also of note, Shaw and colleagues found that there is more institutional support for students at HBCUs, at least from the faculty perspective. HBCUs have many safety nets to catch students who might be heading for academic trouble.

In the conclusion of their study, Shaw and colleagues suggest that PWIs could get closer to the results of HBCUs if they hired additional black faculty members. I was particularly drawn to this concluding remark because I think there is much to be learned from HBCUs about successfully educating low-income, black students. All too often we look to majority institutions for the answers to the problems at HBCUs but we don't consider what HBCUs can teach us. As someone who spends considerable time on HBCU campuses and has been researching these institutions for almost 20 years, I know that there are many, many practices that can and should be adopted by majority campuses.

I look forward to more empirical research that demonstrates the impact of HBCUs on their students. It is wonderful to say that HBCUs are nurturing and supportive environments, but it is much more convincing to policy makers and funders to have research that backs up these assertions. Bravo to Shaw and her colleagues at Indiana University for doing this important work.