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Ethnicity as a Learning Tool

Updated Tuesday, 13th July 2021
How can students have an effective learning experience and attain good grades, irrespective of their ethnicities? Dr Manfusa Shams explores three challenges relating to this... 

A good learning experience ensures knowledge enhancement and personal development. However, the inequitable learning outcomes for diverse ethnic minority groups is apparent in all learning environments, especially in the higher education sector. The sheer presence of race and ethnicity in higher education demands careful scrutiny of learning delivery to bridge the gap between educational attainment levels of different ethnic groups. There is widespread evidence of differential distribution of educational attainment amongst different ethnic groups across all subject areas in UK universities. An interesting report suggests that the attainment gap cannot be explained by background or prior educational qualifications implying the dominant influence of other factors on students learning experience. One of these important factors is ethnicity itself as a strong determinant of learning experiences and achievement levels.

This article presents three challenges of ethnicity as a learning tool. The aim is to highlight the need to address these challenging issues in order to ensure that students can experience effective learning irrespective of their ethnicities and that educational achievement is not characterised by ethnicity.

Challenge 1: Racialised learning environment

Student studying on her bed

A good learning experience is influenced by a racialised learning environment in which diversity is celebrated and difference is acknowledged. However, a learning environment is not always immune from racially driven learning dialogues as is evident in recent black lives matter mass events in the UK universities (for instance at The Open University in 2020).

The increasing awareness of the live presence of ethnic learners in a racially diverse learning institution is facilitating the process of developing alternative learning experiences for ethnic minority students in which their ethnicity can empower their learning experiences, and help them to acknowledge that learning experiences are influenced by the contextual factors such as ethnicity. One example of this alternative learning experience is critical reflective learning in which a learner will learn using an ethnicity lens. This will empower a learner as well as help us to understand how different learning experiences are created by ethnicity itself, and how this is linked to inequitable learning outcomes.

Ethnicity is a socially constructed element in our life. Racial formation theory (Omi and Winant, 2014) has posited the existence of individual and global differences in presenting race and ethnicity in learning institutions. The concepts race and ethnicity in a higher educational context cannot be fully understood without exploring the institutional structural system used to address equality and diversity.

Challenge 2: Inequitable learning attainment

Student graduating wearing academic dress

Ethnicity is contributing to the widening gap in learning attainment as is evident in the recent statistical report by the Universities UK (2019). The question is if ethnicity is a contributing factor to the inequitable learning outcomes then how can ethnicity be used as a defining factor to minimise the wide gap in learning attainment?

This is however a very difficult task as institutional effort is not enough to popularise the positive effect of ethnicity in the learning environment without individual input from the learners themselves. Individual input can help to gather collective voices against discrimination and prejudice, and to develop a collective force to achieve equitable learning outcomes.

Challenge 3: Personalised learning experience

Student doing reserach in the library

An ethnic minority student is often personalised their learning experience, e.g., students often express concerns of reading a particular section of a textbook if the content resembles their own personal experiences (Shams, 2019). While it is important to relate the learning to their own life experiences, this may not always bring positive learning experiences. The higher education institutions are yet to have fully developed the mechanism to filter the ethnic and racial issues from learning experiences. Thus the learning of race and ethnicity remains a critical issue in the higher education sectors. On the contrary, relating the learned subjects to personal experiences are valued and encouraged in some disciplines. This is adding fuel to further concerns about the value of diverse learning delivery methods when this may not bring positive learning experiences for the racially diverse and ethnically distinctive learners.

In conclusion

A learning journey is predominantly guided by the ethnicity of a learner irrespective of the learning environment in which they are exposed. The personalised learning experience is quite often influenced by a student’s own life experiences and perceived ethnicity. While the generalised learning experience is supposed to be guided by the formal institutional education which is delivered to all learners equally. It is important to separate out the personalised learning experiences as determined by the ethnic status of the learner from the generalised learning experiences derived from the formal educational platform. The benefit of this separation is related to generating insights in the role of ethnicity in learning, and how learning can be enriched using ethnic experiences. Thus ethnicity can play a positive role to provide the pathway to achieve desired learning if ethnic experiences are valued and recognised as important learning outcomes. The debate on the value of ethnicity itself as a powerful learning tool is expected to continue.


Omi, M. and Winant, H. (2014) Racial Formation in the United States, Routledge.

Shams, M. (2019) ‘Students’ voices in learning’, Access summer 2019 Newsletter, The Open University.



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