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Tutor Training: Module 6: Working with a Diverse Student Population

Working with a Diverse Student Population


A diverse and inclusive campus is a healthy campus. The benefits of diversity include a broader range of talents, skills, and experiences; strengthened innovation; and an improved overall atmosphere for all of us. In a study of 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies, and many focus groups and interviews, diverse groups of people are known to be more productive, creative and innovative than teams with everyone from similar demographics (Harvard Business Review, 2013).

While the University of Saskatchewan hasn't reached its diversity goals, students, staff, and professors at the U Sask are from all walks of life. All of us working, visiting, and studying here deserve respect and the right to learn in a positive environment.

For many students, university is the first time they encounter such diversity and understanding how to interact with people who differ greatly from themselves and while new interactions and relationships are enriching, they can take time and may be challenging.

It is important to remember that all U Sask students have met all the criteria to attend university, are capable of learning, and bring with them their beliefs about education, their talents, cultural backgrounds, personality quirks, experiences, hopes, and dreams. Moreover, they contribute to a stronger and healthier community.

Module 6.1. - Students with Disabilities

Students with Disabilities

Improvements in technology, learning assistance, and medications have made it possible for increasing numbers of people with disabilities to access university education. The majority of students registered with Access and Equity Services (AES), formerly known as Disability Services for Students (DSS), have ‘invisible’ disabilities, including mental health issues, neurological diversity (such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder), communication disabilities, learning disabilities (LD), and some types of medical disabilities. 

At the U Sask, there are currently 1,162 undergraduate students registered with AES, of which over 800 students actively use the services provided and approximately 50% are enrolled in the College of Arts and Science.

Watch the following video, which explains the profile of students at the U Sask:
Common Disabilities and how to get diagnosed

Sometimes due to societal stigmas, some students choose not to disclose their disability. For this reason, it is important for tutors to have a general understanding of the interplay between academic issues and disabilities.

A disability may impact the encoding, organization, retention, and expression of information. A student may have an average or superior intelligence that is masked by an aspect or combination of these issues and may experience challenges such as:

Uneven abilities
  • Average or excellent ability in one or two areas, but ongoing difficulties in others.

A student may excel during class but struggle with assignments and exams.
A student may struggle with writing but excel at physics or anatomy. 

Attention challenges
  • Difficulty switching between and scheduling tasks
  • Difficulty following directions (either written or verbal)
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Struggle with note taking (requires listening and writing at the same time)
  • Easily distracted by background noise or images
  • May fidget and move around, etc.
  • May interrupt frequently
  • May fatigue easily when reading or writing.
Interpersonal challenges
  • Impulsivity (difficulty thinking through actions, comments)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty understanding non-verbal cues, analogies, clichés, or idioms
  • A tendency to avoid eye contact
  • Lack of awareness of personal space, etc.
Spoken Language challenges
  • Difficulty concentrating in lectures
  • Poor vocabulary
  • May use hands a lot to gesture while speaking, etc.
Mathematical challenges

Difficulty with:

  • Reasoning
  • Setting up problems
  • Prioritizing
  • Number inversion
  • Confusing symbols
  • Multitasking, etc.
Memory/Processing challenges

Difficulty with:

  • Word or concept retrieval
  • Concentration
  • Integration of old and new information/knowledge
  • Organization of memories, meaning it takes longer to retrieve information and the student may require more time to formulate a response to questions (both verbal and written).

Alone each of these challenges can result in frustration and anxiety for the student decreasing the student’s processing ability; however, these challenges can also interact with each other and circumstances to further impact the student’s learning. Keep in mind this list of challenges is not comprehensive nor does it fully apply to each disability. Students with mental health problems are often registered with Access and Equity Service, too, and the above learning disabilities can often be comorbid with mental health issues. For example, ADHD can be comorbid with depression.
Please refer to module 4.2 for more information about helping.

When tutoring, be aware that underlying any student’s frustration, antagonistic or apathetic behaviour, or difficulty understanding the assignment or your questions, may be due to a disability. A student may report feeling as though they have “hit a wall” in their class/assignment. Possibly they did well enough in high school, yet are struggling with making the transition to university.

Environments and situations influence each student, and simply observing that a student seems to be facing one or more of these challenges during your session does not indicate that the student has a disability. Unless a student clearly discloses a disability, do not ask them whether they have considered registering with AES. And if a student discloses that they have a disability, you can always ask them how you can adapt your tutoring to their needs. Most students with disabilities can clearly name the accommodations they require.

The following video explains what AES can offer, including adaptive technology, note taking, and examination accommodations: Types of services offered to students registered with Disability Services for Students

(Note: Name has been changed to Access and Equity Services)

Many students with disabilities can benefit from the use of assistive technology, such as text-to-voice software, voice-to-text software, screen readers, paper-based computer pens, and idea-mapping software. If you know what’s available, and how students can access it, you can make some very helpful referrals. Skim over and then bookmark this page which lists adaptive technologies available at the U Sask, and how and where to access them:
Please see Module 7: Ending a Session for complete referral information.

Read the following article, and then answer the questions in the quiz at the end of the module.

Teaching Mathematics to College Students with Mathematics-Related Learning Disabilities: Report from the Classroom

Module 6.2. - Indigenous Students

Indigenous Students

In the 2019 academic year, 2,900 undergraduate students self-declared as Indigenous, which can include First Nations, Inuit, or Metis students.

Some Indigenous students face feeling disconnected from the campus environment. While physical changes to campus may help, it is also important that key people students interact with (such as tutors) are aware of the extra challenges and barriers that some Indigenous students may face, such as

  • Cultural differences in approaches to learning – spiritual, holistic, experiential/subjective, or transformative ways of knowing compared to secular, fragmented, neutral/objective, or linear, black-and-white ways of knowing
  • Culture shock – possibly moving from a small remote town to a large city
  • Inherent mistrust of the education system due to the legacy of residential schools
  • A lack of academic preparedness, such as difficulty with math, science, or writing due to systematic differences in funding allocations for schools
  • Loss of culture and language
  • A lack of family role models or support – the student may be the first in her family to attend university. This may cause financial or emotional stress
  • A potential lack of peer support
  • Oppression, racism, and other systematic social issues
  • Potentially being an older student or raising a young family, possibly as a single parent
  • Discrimination – both external and internalized
  • Subtle biases or overt prejudices are stereotypes that each and every person has. They are outside of our awareness, yet impact how we interact with others, such as holding certain students to a higher or lower standard than others.

These challenges and barriers are not unique to Indigenous students, nor will all Indigenous students experience them. These are barriers to be aware of and to keep in mind. Additionally, these barriers and challenges in no way indicate a student’s potential, ability, or desire to achieve.

Note that the Writing Centre offers on-site writing help at the Aboriginal Students’ Centre (ASC) twice a week in the fall and winter (COVID-19 update: hours will be via WebEx appointment by emailing Appointment times are with tutor Krystl Raven on Tuesday from 1-4 and Thursday from 9:30-12:30). Check the website for hours between September and March as well as the programs and services that are offered. 

Read the sections (Introduction p. 304; Teachers’ Expectations p. 304-306; Aboriginal Students: Exceeding Teacher’s Expectations p. 312-315; Mistaken Attributions Leading to Stereotypes p. 315-316) of the following article and then answer the questions in the quiz at the end of the module.

Self-fulfilling prophecy: how teachers' attributions, expectations, and stereotypes influence the learning opportunities afforded Aboriginal students pages 304- 308 

Module 6.3 - International and ESL Students

International Students

In the 2013/2014 academic year, there were 2,857 international students at the U Sask – up from 2,184 in 2010/2011, and that number will increase. While international students make up a small portion of the 17,288 students at the U Sask, a higher proportion of international students, versus domestic students, take advantage of academic support services.

Some of the challenges facing international students often include:

  • Immigration – Studying or relocation abroad includes a lot of paperwork and red tape and can be quite stressful.
  • Culture shock – It’s not just the snow and cold. Relocating to a new country means almost everything has a new or slightly different way of being done. Consider the everyday aspects of life such as banking, shopping, driving, going to a restaurant, getting a job, renting an apartment, and so on. Even slight differences mean having to be more mentally aware on a daily basis.
  • Canadian customs – Navigating social situations such as knowing how to address people and understanding how to be friendly without being disrespectful or intrusive.
  • Homesickness – Just because it is predictable, doesn’t make it any easier.
  • Lack of support systems – Many international students have left behind all their support systems and arrive in Canada with few or no connections to the community or university.
  • Feeling disconnected – Many students find it challenging to connect with campus life. An added difficulty for ESL students is that continuous mental translation can be tiring in a day, making events or evenings out less attractive.
  • Financial stress – International students pay a much higher tuition than Canadian students and may have family members at home working to support their Canadian education.
  • Discrimination, racism, and subtle biases – International students encounter positive and negative expectations and situations based on their race, culture, language, or status as an international student.

 Read all of the following articles and then answer the questions in the quiz at the end of the module.

“International Student’s Challenge and Adjustment to College." Education Research International. 2015.

Avoid the assumption that all international students are English as a Subsequent Language (ESL) students. For example, a Nigerian student may have an accent, but English is the official language of Nigeria. Furthermore, even if a student’s first language isn’t English, they may have excellent spoken English, and fairly poor written English, or they may understand spoken and written English well, but has problems with speaking and writing.

Remember, too, that practices vary from country to country and even students who speak fluent English may struggle with differences. The following table highlights the possible differences and struggles international students may encounter. 

Writing practices - citing, paper format, clarity, structure, purpose
  • Academic Integrity - Plagiarism, as we know it, is a Western social construct. In many cultures, sources are viewed with the same respect and authority, yet using the author’s own words (without citing) is seen as a sign of respect. Often, international students struggle with the concept of plagiarism. Moreover, ESL students have the added difficulty of trying to learn how to paraphrase using a limited English vocabulary.
  • Structure – The organization of a paper, or how you introduce your idea/topic and lead the reader to your conclusion, varies by discipline, but also by culture. Generally, in most Western cultures and disciplines the topic or claim is stated early, and supporting information follows. However, in some Eastern cultures, the supporting information is laid out first and funnels to or concludes with the claim or topic.
  • Originality/analysis – Description and explanation may have been a stronger focus than invention and originality; some students may lack experience with analysis or may come from a culture where assertive debate is not encouraged.
  • Creativity – Students may come from a background where creativity had a greater impact, or from a background that has a stronger focus on formality.
  • Sentence construction – Based on a language’s grammar, sentence construction used in a student’s home language may not have an English equivalent, resulting in grammatically incorrect English sentences, or improper syntax.
  • Time – Academic reading and writing may take longer depending on the complexity and volume of work.
  • Little things – In North America, a comma is placed within the quotation mark, but in most other places of the world, the comma is placed outside the quotation mark:

Jones found that “too many children were falling through the cracks.”
Jones found that “too many children were falling through the cracks”.

This is complicated by the fact that many professors are not from North America, and so may correct students work to fit the conventions to which they are accustomed.

  • Technical terms – Can be challenging to transfer between languages. Terms learned in students’ native languages may not transfer to English. Conversely, terms learned here may not transfer to their native language.
  • Class/Lab match – Different material may be taught in the class and the lab, compounding any language difficulties.
  • Theory/Practice – Students may come from an educational background that favoured theory or the practical application of learning in a different proportion than here. 
Math and Stats
  • Basic Math – The U Sask offers a Math Readiness Course and some students may visit the math and stats help centre for assistance with basic concepts. In other cultures, a higher level of proficiency may be expected. Tutors will likely work with all levels of ability - from basic to advanced.
  • Decimals and commas – Usage varies by country. For example, where we use a decimal, a comma is used in many European countries ($5.99 would be $5,99).
  • The language of math and stats – ESL students may understand the concepts, but struggle with the language. Prepositions are particularly challenging.
  • Cultural references – These are often used in word problems and assume a cultural understanding that is not feasible for many international students to possess.
  • Strategy issues – These may be difficult for all students, but can be even more challenging for ESL students.
Classroom Participation
  • Generally, U Sask students are expected to participate in classroom discussions, assignments, group work, and so on. Some international students may not be used to this and find it a challenge.
  • ESL students may be hesitant to speak English or struggle to find the correct wording to express their ideas in English. They may need more time to formulate an answer (which is something to be aware of in a tutoring session).
  • International students may find themselves in a role of ‘representative’ of their country or culture – not all students desire or are comfortable with this role.
  • Note-taking can be challenging, especially with quiet professors or professors who speak quickly.

Note: In tutoring sessions, keep in mind that speaking very slowly and loudly is insulting, but speaking quickly can really hamper communication. Try to enunciate a bit better, and avoid the use of idioms, such as “you should keep an eye out for that,” or “beat around the bush.”

Student-Professor Power Dynamics
  • While it is common for U Sask students to address professors by either first or last name, email professors questions, speak with them after class or visit during office hours, this informal and available student/professor relationship may be quite new for international students. Some countries have a much more formal understanding of student-professor power dynamics, leading to hesitation on the part of international students to either approach professors, or suggest students approach professors.

Note: students may see you as an authority figure. Keep in mind that overly casual communication can make them uncomfortable.

Further reading for math tutors:
The English of Math- It's Not Just Numbers (Page 71-76)

The U Sask Language Centre maintains a list of TESL certified tutors and offers:

  • A library with books specific to ESL students and learning English
  • Part-time academic English classes for intermediate and advanced ESL students
  • Saturday workshops for intermediate and advanced ESL students focusing on university-related topics, such as public speaking

Note:  If a student is looking for proofreading more than editing, refer them to the coordinator, or advise them to contact the Editors Association of Canada, Saskatchewan Chapter:

Further reading for writing tutors
Writing Across Cultures and Context: International Students in the Stanford Study of Writing (Page 37-50)

Meeting the Needs of Linguistically Diverse Students at the College Level (page 18-26)

Module 6.4. - Gender and Sexually Diverse Students

Gender and Sexually Diverse Students: Creating a Positive Space

The University of Saskatchewan does not track the number of students who identify as gender or sexually diverse (GSD) or who access services for GSD students. GSD students may face a number of additional challenges both on and off-campus. Some of these challenges differ depending on the student’s experience and others are fairly constant.

Specific to each experience, students may face:

  • A lack of support or outright rejection from family or friends – 26% of GSD youth are kicked out of their homes [1]
  • Homelessness – GSD youth face an increased risk of becoming homeless [1]
  • Loss of a job or difficulty being hired for a job
  • Requests to leave sports teams or groups
  • Teasing, bullying, or harassment
  • Mental health issues – GSD people face higher rates of a variety of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, substance use, and higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide. [2] [3]

Widespread challenges for GSD students

  • A heteronormative culture in which the general assumption is that everyone you meet is heterosexual. Consider ‘getting to know you’ questions in social situations; asking a woman if she has a boyfriend assumes she is heterosexual.
  • Homonegativity (including homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia) is the negative attitudes or behaviours that are expressed towards gender and sexually diverse people.
  • Subtle biases or covert prejudices may result in the unintentional exclusion of or differing expectations for GSD students as compared to cisgender and heterosexual students.
  • Encountering confusion regarding the difference between biological sex, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as, confusion about queer terms and definitions. 

These additional challenges impact the day-to-day experiences of GSD students and may influence their interactions with peers, tutors, faculty, and staff.

Writing Help and Math and Stats Help are identified as Positive Spaces on campus and as such, tutors are expected to conduct themselves in a respectful and inclusive manner. If you have not already attended a Positive Space 101 workshop, we encourage you to consider doing so. Workshops are held monthly; inquire with the USSU Pride Centre or your supervisor about upcoming dates. These can be considered training time for your role as a drop-in centre tutor. If the times do not work out for you, please let your supervisor know as a workshop can be arranged! If you prefer to self-education on this topic, there is a wealth of information out there. For example, GLAAD has a free online guide, and although it is intended for "fair, accurate, and inclusive news media coverage," its guidelines can be helpful for you as a tutor as you are working with language every day. It covers terminology, including terms to avoid and defamatory language. For quick reference, a copy of this document will be available in the Writing Centre.


Gender-Biased Language

If you are unsure which pronoun to use when referring to someone, try to use a person's name and non-specific pronouns such as ‘they.’ A variety of gender-neutral pronouns exists; however, there sometimes isn't a consensus on which to use, and so take direction from the student themselves. This has lead to the usage of plural pronouns (they, them) in place of gender-specific singular pronouns (he, she) in spoken and conversational language.

Tip: It's helpful to identify your own pronouns as an opening to a student to feel safe in identifying their pronouns.

Language and word use can be biased toward dichotomous gender. Refer to OWL Purdue’s Stereotypes and Biased Language for general advice on avoiding gender bias in writing. Attend one of the SLS's Avoiding Gender Biased Language workshops; contact Liv Marken for more information or for a recording if you can't make it:

Suggested resource: A great website detailing in clear and accessible way the  It is "a practical resource dedicated to the empowering and inclusive use of personal pronouns in the English language. This website will help you understand why and how to use the pronouns someone goes by. In particular, we are focusing on pronouns used to refer to a singular human in the third person."

While replacing gender-specific pronouns with plurals has become more common in spoken and conversational language, written language differs by discipline. Citation styles address gender neutrality.

The chart below gives an overview of gender neutrality in APA, Chicago, and MLA styles. The headings are hyperlinked to more information and examples. Please note that for all three, a person is free to break the rules to use "they" in the singular. When coaching students, let them know the "rules," but also let them know how to advocate with their supervisors, prospective publishers, committees, or professors for breaking the rules.

APA, Chicago, and MLA
  • Use an article (the) instead of the pronoun. For example, change ‘his response’ to ‘the response’.
  • Rephrase the clause or sentence to enable the use of plural nouns and pronouns.
  • Rephrase the clause or sentence to avoid using pronouns.
APA (American Psychological Association)
  • Do not use ‘he or she’,‘he/she,’ (s)he, or s/he
  • Use an appropriate noun such as ‘student,’ or ‘individual,’ ‘participant.’
  • Omit the pronoun
  • When the gendered pronoun follows an ‘if’ clause, replace it with the relative pronoun ‘who.’
  • Sparing use of ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her’ is acceptable
  • Omit the pronoun.
  • Repeat the noun.
  • Replace the gendered pronoun with the neutral singular pronoun ‘one.’
  • Sparing use of ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her’ is acceptable, and it is preferable to reword the sentence to use the plural.

APA – American Philosophical Association information can be found here

GSD Terms and Definitions

Many students are uncertain about the distinctions between gender and sexual orientation. To reduce confusion, Trans Student Education Resources created the following visual and has not copyrighted it to encourage sharing.

If you would prefer to watch a video about gender diversity, the creator of the Genderbread Person, Sam Killerman has an engaging TEDx Talk (16:29). 

Further reading
Review Queer Terminology (maintained by OUTSaskatoon) and test your knowledge by completing the Terms and Definitions quiz. 

Overall, be respectful. Avoid discussing or speculating about people’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission and use inclusive, gender non-specific language. Consider reading GLAAD’s Tips for Allies of Trans* People.