Supporting Educational Equity

What role could course materials play in supporting more equitable learning environments? We sat down with Ann Shin, Norton’s editorial director for educational publishing, to discuss an ongoing initiative to create inclusive and equity-minded course materials.

Ann Shin
Image Credit: Justine Knight Photography

First off, could you tell us a bit about your role at Norton?

At Norton, we have editorial teams in many disciplines across the liberal arts and sciences who are focused on the course goals and specific needs of instructors and students in that discipline. At the same time, we have a rigorous editorial process that is common to everything we publish. I work with the 94 full-time members of our editorial departments to make sure that those two facets of our publishing program result in high-quality content that instructors and students can rely on.

How does the editorial process work at Norton?

Educational content that is current, engaging, and pedagogically effective starts with our authors, who are leading teachers and scholars. To give just a couple of examples, our author Stacey Lowery Bretz brings expertise in chemistry education research, as well as years of classroom experience, to the general chemistry textbook she coauthors. Authors like Eric Foner (Give Me Liberty!) are known for their scholarly command of the field—in this case, U.S. history —and for their commitment to introducing students to the topic. But of course, authoring doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Norton’s editorial process hinges on collaboration with our partners in the wider academic community. As we work with authors to develop course materials, we do extensive reviewing and testing with instructors, to ensure our content reflects current research and teaching practices in the discipline, and with students, to ensure these materials will be genuinely useful as tools for learning. Our editors draw on deep experience working in the discipline to understand course needs and how teaching and learning tools can best meet those needs. For instance, the authors and editors of our introductory text Biology Now learned from reviews and conversations on campus that students often needed more practice applying biological concepts to real-world situations, especially scientific claims that come up in the media and everyday life. So they created prototypes for new interactive exercises on evaluating scientific claims, refined the prototypes through focus group workshops with dozens of instructors, ran class tests with instructors actively teaching the course, and then incorporated the finished exercises into the ebook and accompanying resources as a seamless part of the learning experience.

Our commitment to providing high-quality content also involves a rigorous manuscript-editing process. Developmental editors, project editors, and copy editors work with authors through multiple drafts to ensure clarity, readability, and accuracy. It’s not unusual for the manuscript for a Norton text to go through four or five drafts as part of this rigorous process, and we apply a similarly high standard to assessments, tutorials, interactive elements, and other teaching and learning tools.

Has any of this changed with the pandemic?

The fundamentals are very much the same, but as you might imagine, our editors have had to adjust in terms of how we engage with the academic community—attending virtual conferences, running online workshops to discuss a project or a course need, meeting with authors and instructors via Zoom. While there have certainly been some challenges, one happy effect of the move online has been the ability to bring more people into these conversations, regardless of their location. For example, recent online workshops on teaching in the humanities, with scholar-teachers like Martin Puchner and Cathy Day, have included hundreds of literature instructors—many of whom likely would not have been able to participate if we held in-person workshops at, say, an MLA conference.

In terms of the manuscript editing process, we were already working mostly electronically, and we’ve adapted well to virtual collaboration, but I know our editors miss being able to sit down with authors or colleagues to brainstorm new ideas, go over queries, talk through reviewer feedback, or fine-tune infographics and illustrations.

On the blog we’ve recently heard about inclusion with respect to students with disabilities as well as trends in access and affordability. Could you tell us a bit about the editorial initiative to support college success and educational equity?

Accessibility and affordability are so important when it comes to educational equity. Another way that publishers can make an impact is through the content and pedagogy we publish.

There have been many excellent research studies and initiatives at the campus, regional, and national levels designed to promote educational equity. Numerous studies point to evidence that one of the best places to address equity is in the classroom, whether the “classroom” is on campus or virtual. Yet instructors often tell us that they lack the time and resources to connect the dots between the research and what they’re actually doing or assigning in their own courses. We think this provides an opportunity: for Norton to embrace the pedagogical strategies that support educational equity within the course-specific resources that are our bread and butter, and thus to reduce the time required of instructors and to smooth the way for discipline- and course-specific changes.

With the advice of expert educators, our editorial group has developed a broad, evidence-based framework to orient our work in supporting educational equity. We expect that the principles in this framework—which include belonging, culturally responsive teaching, and transparency in assessment—will inspire meaningful improvements in the course materials we produce.

What’s the difference between “inclusive” and “equity-minded” course materials?

Ensuring that the course materials we publish reflect and are informed by a diverse set of lived experiences, without reinforcing harmful biases, is essential. Inclusive content is part of responsible publishing, and it’s a standard that our editors and authors work hard to uphold on an ongoing basis.

The goal of our recent educational equity initiative is to go beyond inclusion and actively support success for all students. The good news is that in many ways, equity-minded pedagogy just is good pedagogy. From a publishing perspective, it involves content and teaching tools that help every student succeed in the course—which is a longstanding goal of our authors’ and editors’ work. For instance, our author Sarah Grison draws on the science of learning in her book Psychology in Your Life with an integrated, scaffolded approach that presents students with substantive course content and insights on skills like studying for a test. For instructors using the book, our High Impact Practice Guide presents research-supported strategies for online teaching and inclusivity. To cite another example, the authors of the Norton text Understanding Our Universe incorporate pedagogy designed to instill a sense that anyone can “do” astronomy, such as hands-on experiments using ordinary household objects that show you don’t need access to fancy equipment to participate in scientific thinking.

As we’ve learned more about how these pedagogical strategies can help address longstanding inequities, it’s exciting to see our authors and editors adapting them to new projects and to revisions of our current offerings. Early last year, we established an editorial working group on educational equity and student success, to engage more deeply with questions about how course materials can have an impact and to broaden our relationships with experts in this area. To take one example, the working group became aware of research on transparent assignments and the TILT approach developed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes et al., which calls for instructors to clarify the purpose, task, and criteria for success for a given assignment, an intervention that leads to a measurable increase in students’ sense of belonging, academic success, and retention. This body of research has inspired Norton editors in several disciplines to be more intentional about building transparent scaffolding into the assessments we create: perhaps by equipping instructors with talking points to discuss the purpose of a Norton-created assignment, or by providing rubrics and samples of successful student writing along with a short-essay prompt. By making it easier for instructors to implement a proven strategy like transparency, we hope to play a small part in the solution toward realizing more equitable student success outcomes.

How can interested instructors get involved?

As I mentioned earlier, reviews and other input from instructors are a pillar of our editorial process—and instructor feedback will be crucial in order for our editors and authors to do this work authentically. If you are interested in participating (as a reviewer for equity-minded materials we’re developing in your discipline or as a participant in any forthcoming workshops on these topics), or if you simply want to stay in the loop as this initiative unfolds, please sign up at Thank you!

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