Collaborative Classrooms, or the Art of Letting Go

– By Dr. Julia Roncoroni, Counseling Psychology, Morgridge College of Education

 My first day teaching college was awful. No, no, take note. I mean that. I knew the drill: you stand in front of the classroom, you pull up a digital presentation, you talk, and you command control. Students, well, they just stay quiet and listen. Except for I was bored, really, really bored. And I know students were too. I could not decide if it was my uncharming tone, the lack of animation in my slides, or the classroom lighting… but I was doing what teachers do, and students weren’t buying it.

Paulo Freire suggests that, in the traditional model of teaching, we view students as “empty vessels.” So we teach how we were taught, and we measure success accordingly: the more we fill the receptacles, the better professors we are. And students typically buy into the model. In fact, they are often baffled by the proposal that “this is [their] class and [they] decide what form it takes.” Many students go into courses thinking, “education happens to them.” If they sign up and show up for class, as professors, we will do something that will transform what/how much they know about a topic.

Yet, education is a deeply civic and moral exercise, an inherently political practice that enables students to expand on the possibilities of what it means to be critical citizens of their worlds. Capturing the spirit of Freire, Theodor Adorno claims, “Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation… Open thinking points beyond itself.” The cycle of student dependency must be broken, but one of the most difficult steps in our journey as professors is to do away with the way we were taught.

Syllabus Design 

The syllabus is a key communication tool between a professor and his/her students. Many instructional resources will advise professors to ask themselves the following questions as they design the syllabus: (1) Who are the students? (2) What do I want students to be able to do? and (3) How will I measure students’ abilities? Little is said about what students want to learn and how they would like to measure their increased abilities.

Democratic education is emancipatory—students’ understanding of what they should learn and how is just as powerful as the teacher’s. In democratic education, students are empowered to collaboratively (with the professor) design and implement class materials, including the syllabus. The role of the teacher is not to decide what students will learn and how, but instead, facilitate an environment where the students can decide and make meaning of class content.

Classroom Activities

When I surveyed students in my first class at DU, in Fall 2016 (four years after I first taught college), about their class experiences, the response was unanimous: the most liberating aspect of their participation was selecting a topic for a mini-lecture and sharing the results of their research with their peers and the broader DU community. It is easier for students to grasp core psychological concepts and frameworks when they become active collaborators in the investigation of psychological theory, research, and practice. I invite students to participate in projects that allow them to select and present topics that are appealing to them personally. When we design curricula in a way that gives students freedom to decide what (and how) they want to learn, students gain knowledge and skills that go well past the content matter of the course.


Faculty member have the “beauty” of getting it both ways—students think we are out to get them; my colleagues think students are out to get us. Whether you are taking or preparing/grading them, exams can be truly tedious.

We frequently play the ‘gotcha’ game: we use exams and other assignments as an instrument to oppress our students, to see how well they can adjust and not how well they can think critically to the service of their own learning.  We want to know, can students regurgitate this motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable bits of ‘reality’ that we have narrated to them?

Instead, we should ask, are students moving in the direction of being able to think creatively about their reality and participate in the transformation of their worlds in ways that fit their personal and cultural backgrounds and developmental levels? Assessment needs to be consistent, using multiple methods over time. These methods have to be, in part, determined by the expertise of the professor, but they also have to be defined by the expertise of the student-colleague. Making ourselves vulnerable is pivotal in deciding if learning has happened. As professors, we model this vulnerability and make space for students to engage. Students set their own personal baseline against which to contrast class outcomes and decide if learning has happened.


Democratic education can take many different forms, but all forms have one common denominator: a commitment to go outside the box of standardized one-size-fits-all education, so that students can feel empowered and engaged as learners. If we wish to train well-informed citizens who are intrinsically motivated and prepared to confront society’s most pressing challenges, we must provide them with the skills and critical thinking opportunities they need to build a more equitable and socially just society.

Dr. Roncoroni is an Assistant Professor in Morgridge College of Education’s Counseling Psychology department. She received her PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida. She is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA). Dr. Roncoroni’s primary research interests include health disparities, customized culturally sensitive health promotion and health care, and the integration of health promotion in medicine. She is a yoga and Zumba instructor and enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.

Graduate Citings: Tales from the Field – Delma Ramos

Delma-Ramos-DUApril flowers bring…a new May installment of Graduate Citings! We are excited to highlight PhD student Delma Ramos. Delma focuses on social justice in higher education and explores systems of access and opportunity for underserved populations that stem, in part, from her experience as a first generation student. Her inspiring scholarship has led to a variety of opportunities including a summer associate position at the American Council on Education Center for Policy, Research, and Strategy!

Researcher: Delma Ramos, PhD student in the Higher Education program at DU.

Current Research: I have been involved in collaborative projects guided by both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Currently, I am participating in a study that explores the transition to college of low-income and first generation families and the systems institutions have in place to determine their involvement in their children’s college experience. Another project examines the academic trajectories of low-income, first generation women of color in racialized and sexualized academic settings.

Most recently I was invited to collaborate in two studies one which seeks to understand the role that low-income and families of color play in cultivating their children’s educational aspirations and ideologies, and one that involves the construction of a series of measures of Funds of Knowledge. I am also currently working with the Colorado Department of Higher Education on projects related to developmental education and performance metrics.  This summer, I look forward to joining the American Council on Education Center for Policy, Research, and Strategy in DC as a graduate summer associate exploring federal policies impacting higher education. Findings from at least two of the projects have been widely disseminated at forums including ASHE, NASPA, and AERA. Several publications that have emerged from this work are currently in the pipeline.

Collaborators: Most of the research inquiries I have participate(d) in are collaborations with various researchers.  In these settings, I play different roles as part of the research process from proposal development to finding dissemination and the creation of recommendations. These partnerships have taken place within the University of Denver, primarily with my academic advisor Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama and with colleagues from outside organizations including the University of Missouri, the University of California-Los Angeles, Teachers College, the Denver Scholarship Foundation, RAND Corporation, and the Education Commission of the States.

Initial Inspiration: My research interests include access, retention, and graduation from higher education institutions, with an emphasis on underserved populations. Additionally, I focus on the assessment of programs with similar foci and on issues pertaining to educational quality and inclusive pedagogies in higher education, with a special interest in measure development. Philosophically, my research agenda is driven by my passionate commitment to social justice and my vision for a more inclusive and accessible higher education system. My research interests are further strengthened by my background as a first generation student and my exposure to scholars who study inequities in higher education as influenced by economic, social, and political contexts.

Biggest Challenge: As a woman of color, my biggest challenge has been to identify support systems that strengthen my ability to persist and succeed in my program at DU. My support network is composed of colleagues within and outside of DU as well as family and friends outside of Higher Ed.

Research Advice- Make Connections: I have found networking to be a very effective tool to access a wide array of research and other professional development opportunities.  Reach out to those people you would like to work with, you’ve got nothing to lose!


DU Faculty and Students Working to Change the Inequality Landscape in Higher Education

The Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) will be holding their 40th Annual Conference right here in the mile high city from November 5-7. We are excited to announce that 12 University of Denver faculty and students will be participating and sharing their research on institutional change. These movers and shakers’ research covers a broad range of important issues that are sure to advance the conversation of inequality in Higher Education and stimulate collaboration among researchers and decision makers. We took some time this month to visit with these individuals and discover what their scholarship is all about.

Post Doctoral Fellow

Dian SquireDian Squire, PhD Loyola University, Higher Education: Dian Squire is the postdoctoral fellow in the Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (in)Equality. His research examines diversity, equity, and justice in higher education.  His current research focuses on the experiences of graduate students of color.



  • Graduate Student Session: Conversations with Newly Minted PhD’s.  This presentation focuses on how university responses to national racial incidences (e.g., Ferguson) affect why faculty of color recruit and admit students into doctoral programs.  I found that impeding neoliberal logics and shifting notions of community influence institutional norms and values, and thereby affect the praxis of faculty of color related to the admissions process.

Doctoral Students

Meseret HailuMeseret Hailu, PhD student, Higher Education: Meseret’s research interests are grounded in comparative international education, with a special emphasis on gender issues in STEM programs in Ethiopian higher education. Methodologically, she aims to craft a mixed-methods research agenda.

Presentations: I will be discussing factors that lead to increased higher education access for women, and the experiences of women in STEM higher education.

  • Examining the role of Girl Hub in Shaping College-­‐going Culture for Women in Ethiopia.
  • Understanding Diaspora women’s Experiences in Ethiopian STEM Higher Education.

DelmaDelma Ramos, PhD student, Higher Education: Delma’s research interests include access, retention, and graduation from higher education institutions, with an emphasis on underserved populations. Additionally, she focuses on the evaluation and assessment of programs with similar foci and on issues pertaining to educational quality in postsecondary education.



  • The Uphill Battle: An Analysis of Race and Gender Struggles in the Academic Pathways of Doctoral Women of Color: This multiple case study examines the experiences of doctoral women of color with emphasis on ways in which they navigated racist and sexist academic spaces. The empowering narratives offered by participants not only disrupt inequitable contexts but also expand our understanding of assets for doctoral women of color academic success.
  • Limiting Levels of Involvement of Low-Income, First-Generation, Families of Color through Controlling Images: This multiple case study examines how higher education personnel utilize controlling images to establish guidelines of family involvement, including that of low-income, first-generation families of color. Family involvement is thus limited to the extent to which it aligns with controlling images that portray these families under deficit filled lights.
  •  Inequity in Workforce Outcomes of College-­educated Immigrants of Color: Human Capital Transferability and Job Mismatch: This scholarly paper explores literature on human capital transferability and job mismatch issues of college educated immigrants of color. Through an exploration of the past 15 years of literature, the paper sheds light on factors that heighten inequality in workforce outcomes of underrepresented immigrants.

MSarubbi headshotMolly Sarubbi, PhD student, Higher Education: Molly has crafted a 3-day, embedded conference experience for local Indigenous practitioners and Tribal College Presidents in which they can participate in various conference presentations, events, and community building sessions. In an effort to further celebrate the Indigenous cultures of expression, she has also scheduled local spirit leaders to lead the group in an opening and closing ceremony. Local artists have also been invited to showcase their cultural works.

Raquel HeadshotRaquel Wright-Mair, PhD student, Higher Education: Raquel’s research is grounded in social justice and focuses on issues of access and equity, as well as the identification of ways to create inclusive campus environments for underrepresented populations. Her research agenda includes looking at the experiences of students, faculty, and administrators of color on college campuses and examining structures, policies, and systems necessary for their growth, development, and success.

Bryan HubainBryan Hubain, PhD candidate, Higher Education: Bryan’s research is multifaceted and mutually informing. He focuses on the intersections of identities and how specific intersections of marginalized identities influence someone’s personal experiences and perceptions. His current dissertation research agenda focuses on a queer and intersectional analysis of the narratives of Black gay international students and racism in LGBTQ communities.

Presentation: The topic was born out of conversations and concerns about racial incidents on college campuses nationally.

  • Dialoguing the improvisation of risk: Critically addressing racial inequality and racial incidents in higher education. Bryan, Raquel, and Dr. Tuitt collaborated  to develop a session that is concerned with the decisions that Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) in Colorado need to make when addressing very public and visible incidents of racial discrimination and inequalities nationally and on campus. These CDOs are placed in very unique positions when they improvise to address these issues on campus via policy, statements, or programming, when current academic literature, most times, lack the necessary insight to provide recommendations on solutions.

VaraxyVaraxy Yi-Borromeo, PhD student, Higher Education: Varaxy’s research focuses on historically underrepresented and marginalized populations in higher education. Specifically, she is interested in Southeast Asian American college student success. Additionally, she is also interested in graduate student support, especially for graduate students of color.

Presentations: At the Council for Ethnic Participation pre-conference, Delma Ramos and I will be discussing findings from a research project with doctoral women of color and their experiences with racism and sexism; specifically, what coping strategies they utilize to deal with racism and sexism. At the general conference, I will be presenting two papers with my research team, one on the impacts of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on sense of belonging among White students and Students of Color and another on the barriers and challenges refugee students (and their parents) from Burma and Bhutan face in education.

  • The Uphill Battle: An Analysis of Race and Gender Struggles in the Academic Pathways of Doctoral Women of Color.
  • Understanding the Experiences of Faculty Engaging in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Curriculum in the Classroom.
  • The Impact of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on Sense of
    Belonging among White Students and Students of Color.
  • Navigating Two Worlds: Educational Resilience of Burmese and Bhutanese Refugee Youth.

Master’s Student

Jeffrey MarianoJeffrey Mariano, Master’s student, Higher Education : Jeff’s research uses the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) model as a means to explore how faculty members across various disciplines (STEM, professional fields, arts and humanities, and social sciences) incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum into their classrooms. Specifically, this study highlights the ways these faculty engage the cultural backgrounds and knowledge of their students and the barriers and challenges they face.


  • Understanding the Experiences of Faculty Engaging in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Curriculum in the Classroom: This presentation will be an update of the research project as we are still in the data collection phase.


NickCutforth-150x150-e1425592954469Dr. Nick Cutforth, Research Methods and Statistics: Dr. Cutforth’s research and teaching interests include school health and physical activity environments, qualitative research, physical activity and youth development, university/community partnerships, and community-based research. His current research involves school-based intervention studies related to physical activity and healthy eating among K-12 students in the San Luis Valley in rural Colorado.

Presentations: I’ll be on a panel responding to a paper that advocates for CBR to take a more culturally appropriate approach to addressing Latino/a and Chicano/a issues.

  • The Civic Engagement Movement: A Symposium and Participatory History.
  • Exploring the Power and Potential of Community-Based Research to Address Educational Inequality.

Ryan GildersleeveDr. Ryan Gildersleeve, Higher Education: Dr. Gildersleeve’s research agenda critically investigates the social and political contexts of educational opportunity for historically marginalized communities. He pursues this agenda in three inter-related braided lines of inquiry: critical policy studies, cultural analyses of higher education institutions, and poststructural philosophy/critical qualitative inquiry. Cumulatively, he hopes to contribute new tools for the study of inequality and the role(s) of postsecondary education in affirming social opportunities for non-dominant youth.


  • Ritual Culture and Latino Students in American Higher Education: Through this paper I report findings from my recent critical ethnography of Latino graduation ceremonies on public higher education campuses. The project seeks to understand how Latino communities are reconfiguring the purposes and values of higher education, and how such figurings can be produced and reflected through ritual culture like graduation ceremonies. This falls under my “cultural analyses of higher education institutions” line of inquiry.
  • Exploring Posthumanism in Higher Education: Methods, Contexts, and Implications: This is a symposium of five panelists discussing posthumanist philosophy and the study of higher education. In this symposium, I am responsible for outlining the broad array of posthumanist philosophies that have emerged in the past 15 years or so. Posthumanism can be understood as a reconciliation between the humanist approaches to inquiry from the modernist project and its conflicts with the anti-humanist approaches from the postmodern and poststructural projects. Posthumanism takes an affirmative approach to critique and the creation of new concepts/explanations while addressing the pitfalls and problems of humanism. In short – I am presenting a new ontology for doing critical research on postsecondary education – an ontology where human beings are not the center of the universe.

Judy KiyamaDr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, Higher Education: Dr. Kiyama’s research examines the structures that shape educational opportunities for underserved groups through an asset-based lens to better understand the collective knowledge and resources drawn upon to confront, negotiate, and (re)shape such structures. Dr. Kiyama’s current projects focus on the high school to college transition experiences of first-generation, and low-income, and families of color and their role in serving as sources of cultural support for their college-aged students.

Presentations: My presentations will focus on a combination of findings from current research projects, as well as sharing of frameworks and methodologies that inform the culturally-relevant research and practice.

  • Limiting Levels of Involvement of Low-­‐Income, First-­Generation, Families of Color through Controlling Images. Delma Ramos, Casandra, Harper and I will present findings from our “Parents and Families in Transition” study that demonstrate the ways in which institutions negatively shape and restrict engagement for low-income, first-generation, and families of color.

Through two different presidential sessions, I’ll share more about how my research and practice work to address educational inequities in culturally relevant ways. Finally, together with colleagues, we will address how community-based research can be a powerful methodological tool for partnering with diverse communities to address systemic inequities.

  • Presidential Session: Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs.
  • Presidential Session: Culturally Relevant Research in Higher Education.
  •  Exploring the Power and Potential of Community-Based Research to Address Educational Inequality.

Frank TuittDr. Frank Tuitt, Center for Multicultural Excellence: Dr. Tuitt’s research explores topics related to access and equity in higher education; teaching and learning in racially diverse college classrooms; and diversity and organizational transformation. Dr. Tuitt is a co-editor and contributing author of the books Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms, and Contesting the myth of a post-racial era: The continued significance of race in U.S. education.

Presentations: Through these presentations we will share findings from a critical discourse analysis on faculty responses to an Inclusive Excellence campus climate survey to illuminate the social political context of institutional climate and its impact on the lives of faculty, in particular those in pursuit of social justice.

  • Dialoguing the improvisation of risk: Critically addressing racial inequality and racial incidents in higher education.
  • The (un)intended consequences of campus racial climate on university faculty.
  •  The Black Womanist Manifesto: Navigating Media Influences in Higher Education.

Do you know of anyone conducting fascinating research? Let us know and we may include them in upcoming blog posts!