When designing a course, each move matters. From your selection of course materials, to your teaching methods, to the ways you ask students to demonstrate their learning, your course may privilege some students while disadvantaging others. There are moves you can make during the course design phase, though, that can help you create a more equitable and inclusive learning experience.
- Work to articulate assumptions and expectations that inform your approach to course design and teaching. Whether or not we’re conscious of it, we hold beliefs about how learning works and what counts as good teaching. This set of beliefs is often called a teaching and learning philosophy. This philosophy stems from our own experiences and observations as both students and teachers. Depending on the context, our beliefs may or may not give way to what would actually constitute effective teaching and learning in a given situation. For this reason it’s important to build awareness and agility around one’s teaching and learning philosophy. To that end, try answering these questions: By what methods and activities do students learn? What does it look like to be “knowledgeable” in your field? How is power shared or not in your classroom? What do you assume your students should be able to understand or do in order to be “successful” in your class? These are big questions. At times it may be hard to discern why grappling with these questions matters, especially during the course design phase. But reflecting on questions like these is an ongoing process and practice that can inform all aspects of your teaching. Alongside building self-awareness around your teaching and learning philosophy, there are a number of concrete steps you can take in order to design your course for inclusivity.
- Diversify course materials. What are you teaching? Look with a critical eye. Are multiple identities and communities represented and respected as legitimate sources of critique or knowledge? Consider whether or not the readings, visual and audio content, and examples you use in class are communicating and welcoming diversity. If you find that your course materials are homogenous across some metric, ask: why? Is this homogeneity inherited? Was there a deliberate choice to limit the diversity of the materials, and is that choice truly serving the course’s teaching and learning aims? Whatever the answers, find ways to express how practitioners and perspectives from a wide range of backgrounds have a place in your discipline. For example, draw on underrepresented scholars and showcase their successes. When this is not possible, be forthright about this reality and acknowledge how this limitation can constrain what counts as knowledge in your discipline.
- Plan to assess early and often. Assessment doesn’t always have to be in the form of high-stakes midterms, exams, or papers. There are a number of low-stakes techniques that are easy to implement and that can provide quick, useful information. For example, you might collect student information using index cards or polling software. At the start of a class or a new module of material, you can ask students to write answers to brief background knowledge questions to get a sense of where they’re starting from. Once or twice throughout the semester, ask students to write down and pass in their “muddiest point,” that is, the most confusing part of the class they’ve experienced thus far; ensure that their feedback remains anonymous. Providing ongoing opportunities for assessment can both inform you about how student learning is going and where it might be necessary to make adjustments, and it can allow students a chance to reflect on how well they’re learning and where they might adjust their approach to your course as needed. See more on ongoing assessments.
- Plan to vary teaching strategies. Planning to employ various teaching strategies can go a long way toward fostering inclusivity by validating different learning tendencies and understandings of what counts as knowledge. Some teaching strategies will work wonderfully for some, but not others. Consider using a combination of board work, slides, videos, comics, podcasts—a variety of media and activities. Rather than simply lecturing or running through problem sets, mix things up by getting students to come up with answers in small groups, or invite students to the board to show their process. For discussions, try having students talk in pairs or smaller groups before opening up to the whole group. There are many ways to mix things up.
- Allow students to demonstrate their learning in various ways, when possible. Some students excel at discussing and articulating arguments in class; others may share deep insights during office hours or via online discussion platforms. Encourage students to develop in all areas and forms of expression, but also communicate your recognition that not all students demonstrate their grasp of the material in the same ways equally. If a student or group of students is having difficulty learning or communicating through a particular medium, then it can be helpful to dedicate class time to walking everyone through the purpose and process of working with that medium. For example, if students are to research and write an academic paper, then you may spend some class time clearly articulating the purpose of not just this particular paper, but academic paper writing more broadly. If you are inviting students to use a less conventional medium to complete an assignment—creating a video or podcast, for instance—then it’s important to articulate how these media provide unique opportunities for demonstrating learning, and why you believe working with them is a good fit for the learning aims of the assignment. This explicit communication about how learning can be demonstrated in various ways, through various media, helps convey to students your support and openness to the differences they may experience in demonstrating what they’re learning.
For more information...
Diversifying Syllabi (for philosophical topics and texts)
Stephen D. Brookfield. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 2nd ed. 2017.
Jin Li. Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West. 2012.
Cultivating an Inclusive Climate
Course design is the first step. Cultivating a classroom climate that fosters learning is an ongoing process. It starts on the first day of class and entails creating, communicating, and managing the classroom norms and conventions in a way that is conducive to learning. The following strategies can help instructors achieve an inclusive classroom climate.
- Set the tone on your first day. Set the tone for inclusivity by providing opportunities for students to introduce themselves, learn about their classmates, and learn about you. You’re all in the same classroom: what brought you to this particular classroom, at this particular time, to study this particular topic? What do you hope to learn or get out of the class? (Note: you’ll have to be open to receiving a variety of answers, including ones that indicate the class is required and they’re simply hoping to get some credits from it!) Clearly introduce students to the course’s learning goals and any methods they should expect to engage in regularly throughout the semester. If your class primarily involves discussion, for instance, then be explicit about discussion norms and conventions from day one. You may even come up with ground rules for group interaction together as a class; these ground rules can live on an online version of the syllabus or the course’s website. The first day is also a great time to articulate how you understand your course to be relevant to your students’ lives.
- Get to know your students. Beyond learning names, ask your students why they’re taking your course and what they hope to get out of it. Beyond asking these questions, find out about your students’ previous experience with your discipline and subject. You may also want to learn more about their extracurricular passions and commitments. You can collect all of this information on index cards on the first day, or you could invite students to sign-up for a brief one-on-one or small group meeting with you at the start of the semester. In any case, encourage your students to take advantage of your office hours throughout the semester. Requiring them to visit you at least once in the first month of the course—even briefly—can be a helpful signal of your availability and willingness to engage.
- Build rapport among the group. Give your students regular opportunities to interact with each other and you. Start classes with an icebreaker or opening ritual or routine to help the group feel comfortable and aligned. You may ask students to take turns leading the opening exercise so that ownership over this part of the class is shared. Throughout the semester, invite students to move around and work with different partners. This movement not only prevents classroom social dynamics from getting stale, it also allows students an opportunity to get to know each other throughout the class’ duration. This variation is especially important for discussion-based classes, or sections that require a lot of pair work.
- Be explicit. Your approach and methods won’t be obvious to everyone, so it’s important to cultivate a habit of explaining and giving a rationale for both what you’re doing and what you’re asking students to do. Slowing down and explaining the process behind your teaching will make the work more accessible to your students—it will likely be helpful for you too! Clearly articulate what students need to do in order to fulfill all of the class’ requirements and to excel in doing so. Be sure to review rubrics for big assignments or exams, for instance, and break down how you’ll measure participation throughout the class. If you change elements of your course during the semester, make sure to keep students up-to-date, letting them know what to expect.
- Be mindful of language. Keep in mind that a lot of language used while teaching is culturally specific. Certain terms or ways of speaking may be alienating to students if they lack familiarity. If you personally feel uncertain about what language to use when speaking about a particular identity or community, for instance, then do some research. Acknowledge your position in relation to the identity or community of which you’re speaking. Don’t be hesitant to tell your class that you’re learning and might make mistakes; be open to conversation and feedback. If you decide to talk to your class about your learning process, be sure to avoid a confessional. This is an opportunity not to air whatever guilt or uncertainty you may feel about your knowledge gaps, but rather simply to acknowledge those gaps and your aim to ameliorate them. You might also share what has been constructive or meaningful for you in your work to cultivate mindfulness around language. Still, acknowledging gaps in your knowledge is vulnerable to be sure. But communicating that you’re learning will signal both that you recognize your limitations and that you’re taking the initiative to seek knowledge for yourself. Finally, know that you will likely make mistakes and be misunderstood at times. When it comes to mindfulness around language, it’s important to operate with a spirit of open-minded curiosity, humility, and goodwill.
- Do an early-semester check-in. How will you know if your efforts to cultivate an inclusive classroom climate are working? Gather feedback early and often. For example, a few weeks into your class, you can ask students to provide feedback anonymously through an early semester survey. Your purposes for conducting this survey may vary, but it’s important to explain clearly what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and when and how you will share with the class what you learn. After conducting the survey, follow up by summarizing your findings for the class. Be sure to explain what you can or cannot do in response to the feedback, and why.
- Acknowledge and respond to difficult topics. Difficult topics come in many forms in the classroom. Some are rooted in course content; for example, a lack of diverse perspectives in the literature, or triggering material, such as accounts of genocide or rape. Some difficult topics take the form of current events that intersect with course content and/or the lives of people present in your classroom; for instance, hostile immigration policies, race-based violence, or pervasive sexual harassment. Difficult topics can also come in the form of uneasy realities related to your discipline – unbalanced gender and ethnic representation, unethical research practices, a history of systematically excluding certain voices, and more. Rather than ignore these uncomfortable truths, take time to acknowledge them. Ultimately you must decide how much of your teaching you want to dedicate to addressing such difficult topics. In some cases, you may be charged with teaching a body of academic content, so taking time to address difficult topics may feel like a distraction from your teaching obligations. The difficulty will be entering your classroom regardless, though, affecting your classroom’s dynamics. Offering even a brief, structured opportunity for everyone to acknowledge and communicate around the difficulty can be helpful. It’s especially effective to work towards linking up these conversations with whatever academic content you may be covering at the time.
For more information...
Paolo Freire. Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those who Dare Teach, expanded edition. 2005.
Marjorie B. Ginsberg and Raymond J. Wlodkowski. Diversity & Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching, 2nd Edition. 2009.
bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. 2014.
Navigating Difficult Moments in the Classroom
You make a remark that instigates a strong emotional reaction in a student or group of students. A student offers a comment that marginalizes a range of people and perspectives. Someone is wearing a piece of clothing or taking up space in a way that surfaces ideological disagreement. Now what?
While there’s often no single “right” response, as the instructor, how you address difficult moments in the classroom has implications for learning. Your response can communicate indifference or even hostility; alternatively, it can show that you’re aware of your classroom’s dynamics, you aim to promote learning even through struggle, and you care about your students’ well-being. Here are some tips for helping you to respond productively.
- Attend to your own reactions. Take a moment to steady yourself. A couple deep breaths can be helpful here. Though it may be challenging, holding steady while navigating a difficult moment can help others feel safe, less reactive, and better able to slow down and explore the dynamics at work in the situation. There are likely many different, complicated responses playing out in the room. What are you feeling? Allow yourself a pause; you can even invite everyone in the room to pause along with you. How are others reacting to what is happening? You can offer everyone some time to think, write, or even leave the room for a bit. Observe your own reactions to what is happening. Try to distinguish between what you are experiencing, what is actually being said or done, and the various possible interpretations of what is happening. There’s a lot going on in this moment! Attending to your reactions is a skill to be practiced.
- Understand the situation. It’s possible that, in the heat and complexity of the moment, there has been some misunderstanding. Maybe someone has misspoken or you’ve mistaken their meaning. Others in the room may be in the same situation, wondering whether they've heard and understood a comment correctly, for instance. It's important to make sure that your understanding of the situation is as accurate as possible and sensitive to the different perspectives present in the room. It may be fitting to ask the person or people involved for further explanation or clarification. If the difficult moment was sparked by a comment, you could try repeating back the comment or its logical implications – not as an accusation, but to allow the speaker to clarify their meaning. You might ask: “What makes you say that?” or “Can you say more about what you mean?” Try to discern if there is a learning opportunity here, or perhaps a need for articulating boundaries.
- Deepend and nuance your short-term response. You’ve slowed down the situation, attended to your reactions, and asked for further explanation or clarification as needed. As noted above, the dynamics at play in this moment are complex! How can you deepen and nuance your response in the short-term? For one, try and separate the utterance, idea, or action from the person who articulated or performed it. Hold people accountable for what they say and do; also recognize that a single offensive or even harmful act doesn’t reveal the entirety of someone’s character and motives. You can make it clear that a comment or act is unwelcome in the classroom, even while admitting you’re not sure precisely why or how it came about. For another, you might acknowledge the various emotional responses in the room as material that can contribute meaningfully to class discussion. Can these responses reveal something interesting about a concept that is being studied or a method being practiced? This move can both validate the different kinds of responses unfolding for individuals in the room and communicate that lived experience is relevant for classroom learning.
- Consider your long-term response. Your short-term response to a difficult moment need not be your only response. Do you think the moment requires follow-up action so that future classes aren’t negatively affected? Would it be helpful to check-in with the class or certain individuals either via email or during the next class meeting? If you perceived harm being done or unease being instigated, you may offer to talk with a student or students after class, over email or in-person. You may also consider how chances for feedback and communication of personal experience might be incorporated in the ongoing class structure. Perhaps invite everyone to write or share exit notes at the end of every class, or maybe you collect feedback at several points throughout the semester. Regular opportunities to articulate one’s experience in a course can do much toward alleviating the pressure placed on any one emotionally intense moment; they also help cultivate a practice of reflection and self-awareness.