Inclusive Teaching Strategies

Universities have many terms for speaking about their values and the nature of the communities they hope to foster. In recent years, we have moved beyond "diversity" (which, critics noted, implicitly assumed a largely white, male default) to "inclusion;" and again from "inclusion" alone (which might imply a mere formal commitment to access) to "belonging," which emphasizes our obligation as a community to make all people feel that they have a home at Harvard. What are some concrete moves that we can make to ensure that students feel like they belong in our classrooms? We have developed a list of inclusive teaching strategies based on the literature and our own experience in the classroom. Ultimately, inclusive teaching is good teaching.

  • Get to know your students. Ask your students to share with you why they are taking your course and what they hope to get out of it. Find out what their previous experience with the subject is. Learn their names. Encourage them to take advantage of your office hours by requiring them to visit you at least once in the first month of the course.
  • Build rapport among the group. Give your students opportunities to interact with each other. Ask them to move around and work with different partners throughout a session. This is especially important for discussion classes, or sections that require a lot of participation; be sure to start with icebreakers to help the group feel comfortable. It can be as simple as having students introduce themselves to a partner and then introduce their partner to the larger group.
  • Assess early and often. Assessment does not always have to be in the form of high-stakes midterms, exams, or papers, but rather can be simple check-ins throughout a semester. There are a number of low-stakes techniques that are easily implemented and provide you with quick information. For example, collect student information using index cards or polling software. You can ask them to write answers to brief background knowledge questions to get a sense of where they are starting. Once or twice throughout the semester, ask students to write down and pass in (anonymously) the “muddiest point,” or most confusing part, of the class.
  • Vary teaching strategies. Rather than simply lecturing or running through a problem set, mix things up by getting students to come up with an answer as a group at their given table, or have students come to the board to provide an answer. For discussions, try to have students talk in pairs or smaller groups before opening up to the whole group. Be mindful of the various ways you present information. Some ways work for some, but not others. Consider using a combination of board work, slides, relevant videos, comics, etc. There are many ways to mix things up.
  • Diversify course materials. Evaluate course content (for example, readings, images, examples) for diversity. Are multiple groups and identities represented and respected? Find ways to express that diverse backgrounds have a place in your discipline. For example, draw on diverse scholars and showcase their successes.
  • Allow students to demonstrate their learning in various ways, when possible. Some students excel at articulating arguments in class; others may share deep insights during office hours. Encourage students to develop in all areas and forms of expression, but be open to and acknowledge the fact that students may not all be able to demonstrate their grasp of the material to the same level in the same ways.
  • Be explicit. Be careful not to assume that your approach is obvious to everyone. Provide a rationale for what you are doing. Let students know what they need to do to be successful in the course.
  • Address incivility. It is important to address classroom incivility as soon as possible, as it can have negative impacts on the classroom environment and student learning.
  • Be mindful of language. Model for your students how inclusive language can be used in writing and speaking (for example, use "humanity" rather than "man"). Acknowledge evolving conventions regarding the use of pronouns in English. Keep in mind that the examples we use in teaching are often culturally-based, and can be alienating to students if they lack familiarity with them.

For more information...

A comprehensive checklist of Inclusive Teaching Practices (University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning [CRLT])

Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies (LSE)

hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to Transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.

Freire, P. 1998. Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Translated by Donaldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, Henry A. 2011. On critical pedagogy. New York: Continuum.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.

Wlodkowski, R. J., & Ginsberg, M. B. (2009). Diversity & Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching, 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.