Education Indigenous Learning Environments
Lorinda Riley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0279


A learning environment incorporates the physical location, context, and cultures in which students learn. The term implicitly acknowledges that learning takes place in a multitude of ways and locations. The implication is that certain learning environments are better suited for certain individuals, cultures, subjects, or content. Indigneous students are often underserved in higher education. Few educational institutions, outside of tribally controlled institutions, have a critical mass of Indigenous students, resulting in a lack of Indigenous courses, content, programs, dialogue, and space. An additional consequence is that research solely dedicated to Indigenous postsecondary education is limited. To account for this gap, it is necessary to pull from secondary, and sometimes primary, academic research. Cultural differences between dominant higher education models and traditional ways of learning work to widen the education gap and reduce Indigenous students’ future opportunities. In 2016, approximately, 20 percent of American Indians/Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students enrolled in higher education, yet their graduation rate was 39 percent and 51 percent, respectively, compared to 64 percent for white students. Creating an Indigenous learning environment can serve to improve Indigneous student knowledge acquisition, increase recruitment and retention, and facilitate increased on-campus intercultural dialogue. Curating a space where Indigneous students can thrive and where non-Indigenous students are able to learn about the unique sociohistorical relationship betwen Indigneous people and the United States facilitates the bridging of a cultural gap in larger society. After providing a General Overview, the literature is divided into five sub-themes: Curriculum, Indigenous Knowledge, Indigenous Pedagogy, Indigenous-Focused Assessment, and Culturally Appropriate Safe Space.

General Overview

This section presents a generalized discussion of Indigenous learning in higher education. Few books exist that deal with the topic of Indigenous teaching and learning. However, the edited volume Reyhner 1992 provides practical content on teaching Indigneous students covering the history of Indian education, curriculum modification, addressing issues in Indian education, and subject-focused content. This book lays the groundwork for an understanding of the challenges Indigenous students face as a direct result of colonial powers’ efforts as well as US attempts at assimilating Native Americans into American society. This theme is then brought into the modern era through the article Brayboy, et al. 2015, which opines on the current climate in higher education for Indigneous students. In the literature there is much discussion of an Indigenous learning style. Despite the controversy surrounding whether a distinct student learning style exists, this review would be incomplete without touching on this important concept. The Journal of American Indian Education published a special issue on American Indian learning styles, Tippeconnic and Swisher 1989, which provides a healthy and multifaceted discussion of the topic. Creating an Indigenous learning environment must include the administrative realm as well, examined in Guillory 2009, which provides a discussion of the challenges that currently exist in the higher education environment and their impact on Indigenous student retention. Backes 1993 then highlights the importance of developing Indigenous learning environments at all educational levels in order to create a pool of higher education–ready Indigenous students.

  • Backes, J. 1993. The American Indian high school dropout rate: A matter of style? Journal of American Indian Education 32.3: 16–29.

    A study of Turtle Mountain Chippewa students on how to alleviate the high dropout rate in this community. In addition to determining the dominant learning styles of this specific community the study provides an overlay to the teaching styles used and suggestions for instructional methods that complement this tribe’s culture.

  • Brayboy, B., J. Solyom, and A. Castagno. 2015. Indigenous people in higher education. Journal of American Indian Education 54.1: 154–186.

    Sharing the findings from a survey of Indigneous people in higher education, the article articulates the perception of Indigneous students and the current climate of institution of higher education.

  • Guillory, R. 2009. American Indian/Alaska Native college student retention strategies. Journal of Developmental Education 33.2: 14–40.

    Reporting the findings from a qualitative study of Indigneous student persistence in higher education, this article notes that financial factors, campus support systems, lack of academic prepardness, the need to maintain tribal connection, and the desire to give back played a large factor in the likelihood of persistence.

  • Reyhner, J., ed. 1992. Teaching American Indian students. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    The book focuses on secondary education and incudes chapters on teaching strategies, empowering students, adapting curriculum to culture, and working together with parents, as well as subject-focused content.

  • Tippeconnic, J., and K. Swisher, eds. 1989. Special issue: Journal of American Indian Education.

    Nine articles in this special issue cover a variety of perspectives on Indigenous learning styles. The special issue focuses on using learning-style literature to explore the “impact of cultural values and socialization practice on the teaching-learning process.” (p. i) Content covers placing learning styles in a teaching context, cognition styles, the myth of right-brained Indigenous students, and tribal-specific case studies.

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