An inclusive classroom climate refers to an environment where all students feel supported intellectually and academically, and are extended a sense of belonging in the classroom regardless of identity, learning preferences, or education. Such environments are sustained when instructors and students work together for thoughtfulness, respect, and academic excellence, and are key to encouraging the academic success of all students. Research indicates that many students may be more likely to prosper academically in settings with more collaborative modes of learning that acknowledge students’ personal experiences (Kaplan and Miller 2007).
Student learning can be enhanced by establishing a classroom tone that is friendly, caring and supportive, and that lets students explore the relationships among course material, personal, and social experiences. Instructors can consider a variety of areas to promote inclusivity, including the syllabus, choices in assigned reading, discussion expectations, and personal style.
- A thoughtful diversity statement in the syllabus offers support to students by welcoming identities into the classroom, making visible disability, student support, and academic strategy services on campus, and inviting students to share any concerns with the instructor. The instructor also takes time to focus on the diversity statement during the first class meeting.
- Instructors in the humanities and social sciences explore diverse readings and social examples that engage with often-marginalized experiences. They remain attuned to contemporary political and social issues, and provide opportunities for students to freely share their thoughts and perspectives from all sides, with civility and respect.
- A course integrates various methods of assessment in order to reflect different ways to demonstrate learning. This approach, while eschewing the notion of learning styles, visibly performs acknowledgement that each student in a class pursues their own learning path with unique struggles and successes.
- On the first day of class, and / or the first few minutes of each class, an instructor gets to know students, asks what they are thinking, and invites them to contribute their hopes and learning goals for the course or session.
To maintain an inclusive classroom climate, the instructor can:
- Structure classroom conversations to encourage respectful and equitable participation - Instructors can establish ground rules or specific guidelines for appropriate behavior early in the semester (including confidentiality, respectful disagreement, and civil debate); as a strategy to promote student buy-in, instructors can enlist students to help create and maintain these rules. Alternatively, students might be offered a quiet minute to think of responses to key questions or to write down new questions before responding. Instructors can also establish specific guidelines about how students should signal that they want to speak and contribute to a discussion, and intervene when students violate classroom norms.
- Use small groups to encourage non-competitive ways of learning and encourage cross-cultural communication - If patterns of seating segregation in the classroom are tied to patterns of nonparticipation, instructors can assign small groups across racial/ethnic or gender lines. If some students are hesitant to speak up in class, they might contribute in small groups first. Instructors should pay careful attention to group dynamics, and intervene if some students become excluded from full participation and/or more assertive students begin to dominate. Beyond classroom strategies, instructors can set up study groups or assign collaborative projects that require meetings outside of class, such as peer editing, group papers, laboratory assignments, or presentations that enable students to work with each other.
- Anticipate sensitive issues and acknowledge racial, class or cultural differences in the classroom when appropriate - When discussing controversial issues, instructors should expect emotional responses or even conflict. Such emotion is not necessarily negative, unless it makes students unduly upset, inhibits class discussion, or causes students to behave rudely. In such cases the instructor may need to intervene and remind students of the rules for classroom discussion. Establishing shared guidelines can help to mitigate disrespect and hostility, or prevent it from arising in the first place.
- Model inclusive language - As an element of developing a respectful, inclusive environment, instructors can be aware of the language practices they model. Common beneficial practices include: avoid using masculine pronouns for both males and females; when using American idioms, explain them for the benefit of non-native English speakers; and avoid using falsely inclusive terms or statements like “women” for European or European American women or “all women/men” for heterosexual individuals. To assist in this strategy, instructors can vary the concrete examples and case studies used to include a variety of social characteristics, such as race or gender.
- Use multiple and diverse examples - Expanding on the idea of varied examples above, instructors can include multicultural examples, visuals, and materials as much as possible in lectures. These should include multiple perspectives on the syllabus, in class discussion, and in assignments, when possible. If including course material or examples that place a group in the position of an oppressed victim, instructors should be sure to provide examples of empowerment for balance. Other ways to involve multiple perspectives include playing devil’s advocate, engaging in a debate about the possible interpretations of a text, and assigning the work of relevant minority scholars.
- Personally connect with students - Instructors can use a diversity statement or teaching philosophy statement in the syllabus as a way to welcome all students and model openness and honesty. Extending this policy, instructors should feel free to discuss personal learning experiences and challenges whenever appropriate - studies show that students appreciate and learn from metacognitive moments where they can reflect on their or other peoples’ thinking. Where appropriate, instructors can even encourage students to meet one-on-one during the semester for conversation.
- Provide alternative means for participation - To signal awareness of different emotional and social conditions in the classroom, instructors should allow student participation opportunities via online discussions in addition to the classroom. Instructors can also collect journal entries, reading logs, or other reflection pieces, and should avoid a single homogenous strategy for the entirety of term.
- Respectfully communicate with students - Instructors should take care to pronounce students’ names correctly and in the proper order: this includes not shortening or simplifying a student’s name without his/her clear approval; being aware that some ethnicities may arrange their given and family names in various orders; asking students for their preferred gender pronouns, and avoiding gender binaries by using plurals instead, such as “they” instead of he or she; and being aware of contemporary terms for cultural identities. If unsure of an appropriate address or cultural form of identity, the instructor can ask in a non-threatening context. In contrast, instructors should not ask any student to be a representative spokesperson for his or her perceived group, or look pointedly at or away from these same students when discussing issues of race, class, gender, etc. Neither should they ask or expect students to be knowledgeable about their ethnic heritage, history, language, or culture unless they volunteer such information.
- Address offensive, discriminatory, and insensitive comments - As part of an inclusive classroom environment, instructors should respect all students’ honest expressions and thoughts. If a student’s response indicates an emotional investment in the subject, instructors should not let other students dismiss their contribution as “irrational” or “unscholarly” reactions; rather, they can address blatantly offensive and discriminatory comments and hold students accountable for their behavior.
- Perform a Self-Assessment - Instructors can explore any number of teaching inventories to assess habits and classroom practices, reveal gaps in approaches, and consider strategies for revision. The “Downloads” section at the bottom of this page includes an assessment for considering the degree of inclusivity in the syllabus and course design.
The downloads section (bottom) also features a printable handout version of this web page.
References and Additional Reading
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Armstrong, M.A. (2011). Small world: Crafting an inclusive classroom (no matter what you teach). Thought and Action, Fall, 51-61.
Creating Inclusive College Classrooms - UMichigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
hooks b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.
Kaplan, M. & Miller, A. T. (Eds.). (2007). Special Issue: Scholarship of multicultural teaching and learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (111).
Salazar, M., Norton, A., & Tuitt, F. (2009). Weaving promising practices for inclusive excellence into the higher education classroom. In L.B. Nilson and J.E. Miller (Eds.) To improve the academy. (pp. 208-226). Jossey-Bass.
Tanner KD. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 12: 322-331.
University of Virginia. Center for Teaching Excellence. Teaching a Diverse Student Body: Practical Strategies for Enhancing our Students’ Learning.
Watson L et al. (2002). How Minority Students Experience College: Implications for Planning and Policy. Stylus.