Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Kresge Library, Room 430
100 Library Drive
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4479
(location map)
(248) 370-2751
[email protected]

professor and students discussing in front of a white board.

From a “Student Deficit” to “Course Deficit” Approach to Addressing Equity Gaps

Mon Oct 16, 2023 at 07:30 AM

The Student Success and Equity Dashboard shows persistent equity gaps in several of Oakland University’s large, introductory courses. This gap continues to drive two questions: Why does this gap occur, and what can we do about it?

Some attribute equity gaps to students’ challenges with the high school-to-college transition, academic underpreparedness, or the lack of resources required to succeed in their learning. This rationale, known as the student deficit model, asserts that the key to improving student outcomes rests in addressing students’ shortcomings. However, a new study challenges the student deficit model arguing that equity gaps may be, at least in part, explained as course deficit (Cotner & Ballen, 2023).

“Course Deficit” Model: The Beneficial Difference

Course Deficit Example 1: Content Sequence to Contextualize Learning

The course deficit model places more emphasis on how course structure influences student performance, especially in under-represented minorities (URMs). In Webb and Paul’s (2023) study on student learning in introductory physics, the authors compared student achievement on final exams in two different course structures, with no change in content or rigor. The standard course sequence involved teaching each new physics concept along with new calculations as structured in the textbook, chapter by chapter. In the “concepts-first approach,” fundamental concepts were introduced first, followed by the computational skills.

While the standard course structure resulted in a measurable URM equity gap, the authors found that the concepts-first approach removed the gap in student performance on the final exam. This suggests that changing course structure alone can reduce equity gaps. In fact, when applying the course deficit model more broadly, the authors concluded “there needs to be increasing focus on introductory courses, themselves, as the causes of demographic gaps.”

  • Student deficit mindset: “These students aren’t prepared to do well in physics.”
  • Course deficit mindset: “Students learn more effectively when concepts are taught with calculations.”
  • Solution: Introduce fundamental concepts before computational skills.

Course Deficit Example 2: Exam Frequency and Grade Weight

The course deficit model was first named in an earlier study on gender performance gaps. The authors found that women, when compared to men, tended to have lower exam scores in courses where the exams were higher stakes (they counted for a greater percentage of the course grade) versus lower stakes. Thus, the gender performance gaps were more pronounced as the exam grades were a higher portion of the total course grade. This gap was not found in other lower stakes assessments. One explanation for these data is that women performed better on the exams when the perceived risk was lower.

  • Student deficit mindset: “These students didn’t study enough.”
  • Course deficit mindset: “Anxiety due to high-stakes assessments can make test-taking more difficult.”
  • Solution: Use mixed level assessments, with exams a lower percentage of the final grade.

Course Deficit Example 3 (from OU): Prompting Learning Self-Awareness

In an early Teaching Tip, an assessment method called peer-paired problems was introduced as part of a successful course redesign, which ultimately reduced the URM equity gap in introductory biology. In this method, students were challenged daily with problem-solving questions, independently first, and then in pairs. By changing the course structure to include more frequent assessments with real-time feedback, students practiced gauging their own learning process.  

  • Student deficit mindset: “These students don’t get it.”
  • Course deficit mindset: “Students learn more effectively when they test their knowledge frequently over time.”
  • Solution: Use low-stakes assessments to provide frequent, consistent feedback.

What This Means for Us

Webb and Paul’s 2023 study adds to the growing body of evidence indicating the pedagogies we chose can influence student performance in a profound way, potentially either increasing or decreasing equity gaps. While active learning and inclusive teaching practices have been emphasized as a critical way we can narrow achievement gaps, we should be aware that additional course structure changes may improve student outcomes as well.

It is important to note that the course deficit model should not be interpreted as an instructor deficit. Individual instructors have varied degrees of autonomy in designing or structuring courses, from texts we use and acceptable assessments to the size of our classes. We can reflect on the agency we do have to create a caring environment and implement strategies that promote belonging. We can also identify issues at the department, school, and discipline level and bring them up to leaders and in committee work.

  1. Consider your own personal biases and mindset when it comes to student learning. We often inherit these biases, but we can interrupt them. Taking an asset-based approach to minoritized students helps us recognize our students’ strengths and value their cultural backgrounds, experiences and knowledge.
  2. Inquire into scholarship and practitioner accounts that focus on course deficits, or ways to address disparities at the course design level. Search for these learning opportunities through webinars, conferences, publications, and even popular media like academic podcasts. CETL staff are happy to help in this search.
  3. Maintain high standards and expectations for all students, with clear direction on the support and scaffolding to reach those high standards.
  4. Reflect on and revise your course structure. Consider whether there is room to incorporate active learning. For example, replacing lecture time with active problem solving, using interrupted lecturing, or incorporating group work, all increase student engagement. Can you add low-stakes assessments to scaffold the learning process? You can find more ideas on minimizing equity gaps at OU, and CETL staff can talk through this approach.

The Larger Picture of Belonging

While these studies are an inspiration for us to rethink some of our course structure to increase equity in our classes, we must also consider the role of the classroom climate and campus environment. Active learning or assessment changes may not have the impact expected unless we simultaneously approach teaching with empathy, and intentional relationship-building. Our teaching tips on inclusion and teaching presence offer some points of consideration.

References and Resources 

Cotner, S., & Ballen C.J. (2017) Can mixed assessment methods make biology classes more equitable? PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189610. https://

Webb, D. J., & Paul, C. A. (2023). Attributing equity gaps to course structure in introductory physics. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 19. 

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Sarah Hosch is the Faculty Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and a Special Instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Oakland University. She teaches all levels of biology coursework and her interests include evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning gains and reduce equity gaps in gateway course success. Sarah loves exploring nature, cooking, and exercising.

Edited by Rachel Smydra, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Faculty Fellow at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips