As teachers and mentors, we have an important role to play in creating a supportive and inclusive learning climate for all students. Research shows that many common educational and social practices reinforce inequities and work against the success of students from underrepresented groups. Thus, promoting success for all learners requires us to reflect on our own practices and engage in deliberate, intentional efforts to model and promote an equitable teaching and learning environment.
Yet embracing diversity in our teaching is not just important for students from underrepresented groups, or only relevant for courses that focus on diversity itself. All university students should learn about the diverse world in which they live, and all instructors should draw upon diversity to enrich learning for everyone.
The resources on this page are intended to help instructors adopt teaching methods and strategies that enhance inclusivity and respect for diversity in their classes.
Adopting Inclusive Teaching Methods
Some teaching strategies are particularly effective in engaging and supporting learning in students from a wide range of backgrounds. Methods that encourage active and collaborative learning improve student engagement and learning for all students, and close the opportunity gap between underrepresented and majority students. The overall effectiveness of these methods has been borne out in research nationally, most recently by a major meta-analysis of hundreds of studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Strategies such as cooperative small group learning, problem-based learning, and increased course structure (e.g., guided-reading questions, preparatory homework, and in-class activities) have proved especially helpful to minority students and first-generation students. These methods are at the core of current course redesign efforts to include more student-centered teaching. Similarly, peer-led supplemental discussions or workshops enhance learning for all, with especially significant benefits for minority or underrepresented student groups.
These approaches shrink large classes to smaller groups in the same space, reduce academic isolation, and encourage a sense of community and social support. They enhance critical thinking, improve student preparation and accountability, and transform students into active learners. They also employ universal design, a strategy that increases access and support for particular groups of students but that benefits all learners.
We recommend presenting students with open-ended problems and assignments that have many “correct” answers: the types of questions that require the consensus of a group or contributions from everyone in a group to address.
It’s also important to increase transparency in courses. For example, rubrics improve grading efficiency and consistency, and they also demystify what it takes to succeed on an assignment. Students from underrepresented groups who do not have access to insider academic knowledge can benefit from additional clarity and transparency.
Throughout the semester, you should continually assess student outcomes. Use formal (e.g., student performance, student feedback) and informal (e.g., in-class engagement, participation) evidence to guide your teaching.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself as you consider creating a more inclusive environment in your course:
- How does your teaching promote broad student achievement of the skills and concepts you hope they will take away from your course?
- Are your methods engaging students from a wide range of backgrounds?
- When student outcomes fall short of your expectations or wishes, do you seek out new interventions to address those challenges?
- Born, W.L,, Revell, W., & Pinto, L.H. (2002). Improving Biology Performance with Workshop Groups. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 11(4).
- Eddy, S.L., & Hogan, K.A. (2014). Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13, 453–468.
- Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance across the STEM disciplines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 111, 8410–8415.
Creating an Inclusive Climate
An inclusive classroom climate is one that embraces diversity and creates an atmosphere of respect for all members of the KU community. Feeling unsupported and isolated in the university environment puts students at a high risk for dropping out of college, particularly in the first two years of the curriculum. The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning argues that we can capitalize on the rich array of experiences, backgrounds, and skills that diverse faculty and students bring to the classroom to the benefit of all. Here are some strategies that faculty can adopt to promote a sense of belonging, validation, and mutual respect in our classrooms:
- Look for ways to increase student exposure to the diversity of human experience. Choose content and examples that address and model diversity, regardless of the subject. Although issues of diversity may at first glance seem more relevant to some disciplines than others, scholars in any discipline should consider how different frames of reference and cultural assumptions affect the accumulation of knowledge.
- Include issues of diversity as part of the course learning outcomes. Use images of people that represent various ethnicities, races, and genders, and use a broad range of analogies and examples. Make your classroom inspiring for underrepresented students. Discussing the contributions of diverse scholars and providing role models that represent a range of cultures, races, genders, or sexual identities conveys that everyone can be successful.
- Create diverse groups or learning teams. When using instructor-formed groups or learning teams, avoid (when possible) creating groups that either isolate underrepresented students or create homogenous groups of students. Students who feel isolated within their team may lose the benefits of collaborative learning, and may have an amplified feeling of marginalization at the university. Provide guidelines for group interactions, check on group functioning through peer feedback, and intervene to shift or structure groups as needed.
- Reduce stereotype threat. This term was coined by Steele and Aronson (1995) to refer to situations in which the performance of negatively stereotyped groups suffers when that stereotype is activated or emphasized. Strategies such as reframing a task with different language and providing role models can help to counteract stereotype threat.
- Include diversity and disabilities statements in your syllabus. Such statements communicate a commitment to diversity and inclusion from the beginning of the semester. They also provide an opportunity to set ground rules or a code of conduct for respectful and appropriate behavior.
- Reflect on your own background and experiences. Consider how your own background and cultural influences might affect how you have designed your course. Does the material provide an accurate representation of various perspectives? The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan provides reflective strategies for faculty to examine the impact of social identity on teaching.
- Create a gender inclusive environment by using gender inclusive langue and respecting your students' personal pronouns. Set an example for your class and play an active role in using inclusive gender language in your classroom.
Resource: Rocca, Kella A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: an extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education 59:2 (April): 185-213
Leading Difficult Discussions
Instructors can create a positive climate for intellectual discourse about diversity by setting guidelines for class participation that anticipate difficult discussions, and managing contentious interactions when they arise. Here are a few suggestions:
- Set guidelines. Provide students with a set of ground rules for class participation, or engage your students in designing them with you. Ground rules about civil behavior, acceptable evidence, and appropriate responses to offensive statements can make your expectations for civil, meaningful discourse clear from the start, and facilitate an atmosphere of mutual respect. Encourage all students to participate by assigning roles, or providing multiple avenues for participation (e.g., through writing or discussion).
- Manage contentious interactions. When an offensive remark is made, Lee Warren, of the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University, encourages us “1) to manage ourselves so as to make them useful, and 2) to find the teaching opportunities to help students learn in and from the moment.” Try to collect yourself and set aside your own personal reactions. Do not allow personal attacks or avoid addressing a hot moment altogether. Instead, help students step back and think about the issue productively, such as by making it a topic of general discussion or a writing exercise.
- Treat students as individuals, not as representatives of or “experts” for their racial, cultural, or other social identity group. Allow students to draw on their own lives and experiences when appropriate.
Inclusive Teaching Resources
- Supporting Learning For All
- Navigating Difficult Discussions
- Creating and Inclusive Climate