A Little EDvice for Teaching Inclusively

Simmee Myers, MA

For many of us, it is easy to remember a time in our education when we felt welcome or included, and a time when we felt unwelcome or excluded. For instructors, personal reflection on these moments can help guide which strategies they might use to create a positive course environment for all students. While this may be a start, teaching inclusively is not as simple as incorporating one or two isolated strategies into a course. Instead, it is an ongoing process that involves a willingness to implement new ideas, continuous reflection on coursework and course climate, and an openness to learning from students.


What is inclusive teaching?

Inclusive teaching is about helping students feel like they belong and feel supported so that they can succeed. This question is especially applicable to students from underrepresented groups who may be more likely to have questions about their belonging and ability to succeed in college. Most commonly, underrepresented groups include low-income students, first generation students, students from underrepresented racial minorities, LGBTQ+ students and students in fields where the gender balance is significantly disproportionate (e.g.,women in certain STEM fields). However, it is important to stress that inclusive teaching does not only consider students in terms of characteristics of advantage or disadvantage. Rather, it highlights ways that a student’s identity can impact how they navigate learning spaces, and what we as teachers can do to make those spaces welcoming to all who enroll.


Where do you begin?

Since inclusive teaching is an ongoing process, it can be hard to know where to start. The following section provides suggestions for any course at any level.


Use Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL is a framework that promotes the use of flexible learning opportunities, thus having the potential to reach a greater number of learners. Using multiple means of representation (presentation of information), expression (student’s demonstration of knowledge) and engagement (interests of students) can provide greater opportunities for students to make connections and show what they know. For example, in order to provide multiple means of expression in courses where students complete a cumulative final project, it may be beneficial to give them more than one format for completing this project, as long as each format satisfies  the goals of the assignment. In this case, students may be able to choose from writing a paper, creating a video, giving a presentation or designing a website. Allowing multiple means of expression lets student choose the format that best showcases their knowledge. It may also provide an opportunity for multiple means of engagement, as students may find it exciting to present content in a way that is of significant interest to them.


Think About Language

Language is ever-changing and contextual, which can make it tricky to know exactly what words groups and individuals prefer. Consider proactively exploring the meaning of terminology if you hear something new on the news, at a conference or speaking with a colleague. Additionally, you can discuss with your students how the meaning of certain terms can vary over time and according to context.  


Review representation

Take a look at your course materials. Especially if you teach a course that covers multiple theorists or authors, examine the identities of those being represented. Is there a diversity of identities represented in these materials? If not, consider if there other important voices that you can add to the curriculum. If not, you may want to explore with your students why these voices are underrepresented in your field. Depending on what you teach, the time you spend on this conversation may differ. For example, in a sociology course, underrepresentation of different groups may be related to course concepts and worthy of greater exploration. In an engineering course, the message may be as simple as letting students know that you hope they are able to create a more diverse population in your field by becoming the next prize-winning researchers.


Check in with your students

Instructors are often unaware of student concerns until they receive their student feedback forms when the semester has already ended. Asking students for mid-semester feedback provides you with the opportunity to assess the climate of the course early on, when small adjustments can still be made. One example is to create a brief survey that students complete in class or online using your college's learning management system (e.g.,Canvas). This feedback can be especially useful when you are trying new things in a course, and may result in a faster and more targeted refinement of teaching techniques. Finally, you may find that some students benefit significantly from a survey question that asks them directly, “What concerns do you have about the course at this time?” Questions like this can be the spark that opens up conversation between student and instructor and can be important for students who have faced significant challenges since the start of the course.


By now, you may be thinking that inclusive teaching strategies just seem like good teaching strategies; indeed this is true. Many strategies for inclusive teaching will help all students in some way, but for students who are experiencing doubts about belonging or success, they may be even more significant. While the strategies above are a way to begin thinking about inclusive teaching, they should only be the start of a continuous and reflective journey to better teaching.


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