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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 USask 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 USask 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. The university has a diversity, equity and inclusion policy that our centres abide by.

It states: 

All members of the university community share the responsibility for creating a supportive and inclusive environment. The university community is accountable to:

  • Foster a culture that embraces equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

  • Acknowledge and address the biases, underlying beliefs and values, assumptions, and stereotypes that inhibit opportunity in work and learning environments.

  • Welcome, embrace, and foster positive, informed and inclusive attitudes towards each other.

  • Provide environments that are free of discrimination and harassment, and inclusive of all individuals.

  • Ensure the inclusion of perspectives and voices of underrepresented groups in decision-making.

College and Units are accountable to:

  • Critically review college/unit structures, systems, procedures, and processes to address disadvantage and underrepresentation.

  • Develop research, curriculum, and practices that support equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging and have a positive impact in the broader community.

  • Critically review college/unit sanctioned documents, publications, and other works to ensure the use of inclusive and non-discriminatory language and images that reflect social and cultural diversity.

  • Provide physical and virtual environments that are accessible, including but not limited to the equipment and resources within them.

  • Create and sustain a welcoming environment in their college/unit that reflects social and cultural diversity through signage, art, ceremonial spaces, language, and inclusive cultural practices and protocols.

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., such as bouncing one leg. This actually helps the student to focus, so do not draw attention to it and look at it as an adaptive and necessary mechanism.
  • May interrupt frequently
  • May fatigue easily when reading or writing.
  • Difficulty with sustained attention. May need breaks or activities broken into smaller tasks.
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.
  • Bluntness
Spoken Language challenges
  • Difficulty concentrating in lectures
  • Poor vocabulary
  • May use hands a lot to gesture while speaking, etc. 
  • May need to write things out or draw diagrams.
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.

It is 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 are not appreciated or accommodated – spiritual, holistic, experiential, embodied, 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 location to a large city
  • Inherent mistrust of the education system due to the legacy of residential schools and ongoing discrimination
  • Varying levels 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, and a calendar and system that doesn't accommodate cultural ceremonies or family gatherings 
  • The student may be the first in their family to attend university, and so aren't as able to access insider information or tips
  • Oppression, racism, and other systemic social issues, at, and away from, school 
  • 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 or calling on them in class to speak as representatives of all Indigenous peoples.

These challenges and barriers are not unique to Indigenous students, nor will all Indigenous students experience all of 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 Zoom appointmen  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

USask is fortunate to welcome 3,000 international students from over 30 countries! 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, especially during a pandemic. Some may get a late start to the year because of delays in the visa and study permit process.
  • 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. Some common Canadian customs, such as walking by and saying "hi" to someone you know without stopping to talk, may seem alienating and rude. 
  • 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 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 international students. Many staff, faculty and students take the "deficit" attitude and approach to international students, rather than focusing on what they contribute, such as multilingualism and diverse perspectives.

 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.

DISCs Self-Assessment Tool "The DISCs Project Self-Assessment Tool is intended to help users gauge their own levels of competence and comfort in the themes of gender-consciousness, interculturalism, and community both in their individual pedagogical practices and wider academic engagements." 

Avoid the assumption that all international students are English as a Subsequent Language (ESL) students. For example, a Nigerian student may have an accent different than someone with a regional Canadian 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 very well, but still have a few remaining challenges 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 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. Sometimes, international students struggle with the concept of plagiarism. Moreover, some ESL students have the added difficulty of trying to learn how to paraphrase using a more limited English vocabulary (though their understanding of syntax may be more sophisticated than a domestically educated student, giving them an advantage in paraphrasing).
  • 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, USask students are expected to participate in classroom discussions, assignments, group work, and so on, often drawing on their own perspectives or even disagreeing with a professor. 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 in class, in a workshop, or in group discussions (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 USask 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 Editors Canada: 

Also, a USask tutoring network, TutorOcean, will be functional by September 2021.

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

LGBTQ2S+ Students: Creating a Positive Space

LQBTQ2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Two-Spirit and additional sexual orientations and gender identities) students often 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 LGBTQ2S+ youth are kicked out of their homes [1]
  • Homelessness – LGBTQ2S+ 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 – LGBTQ2S+ 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 LGBTQ2S+ 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. If you aren't sure what pronouns to use (e.g., "he" or "she"), use "they/them."
  • 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 LGBTQ2S+ 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 LGBTQ2S+ students and may influence their interactions with peers, tutors, faculty, and staff.

Gender-Biased Language

Language and word use can be biased toward dichotomous gender. 

Activity: Watch this recording of a workshop developed by Carolina de Barros and Juno Raine. How can you apply what you learned to your tutoring?

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 (e.g., a name tag with your pronouns, your signature line in an email, your appointment bio on the writing centre website, or your verbal introduction: "Hi, I'm Liv, my pronouns are she/her; what would you like to focus on in our time together today?" Some tutors wear a name tag that shows their pronouns.

Suggested resources:

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.  [NOTE: this will change with the new MLA 9th edition 2021]

APA – American Philosophical Association information can be found here


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

Simon Fraser U Library has an excellent guide for inclusive writing. 

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.