Inclusive Teaching Strategies

How Do You Design Classes to Enable All of Your Students to Succeed?

We all want our classrooms to be inviting places where diverse perspectives and backgrounds are welcome and enrich the educational experience. When you design a course that is supportive of diversity and promotes a sense of belonging, your students are more likely to succeed. In fact, many of the pedagogical strategies for increasing student engagement can also help you to create an inclusive classroom.

You will want to begin at the course planning phase. Here are several ways to incorporate diversity into your syllabus:

  • Consider the author's gender, race, class, sexual orientation, political viewpoint, and nationality of the literature you are assigning. In many fields, it can be a potentially significant learning experience for your students to investigate how these contexts shape knowledge or engage authors with a broad range of identities on a particular topic.
  • Check religious holidays each semester to make sure they do not make your course calendar challenging for some students to be involved. Academic regulations allow for excused absences or missed assignments for religious holidays when students notify faculty and plan to make up work.  
  • Review the University's Discrimination and Harassment FAQs and index the University's anti-discrimination policy in your syllabus.
  • Review the Office of Disability Services information for faculty regarding accessibility for students with disabilities and inform students of the Office of Disability Services in your syllabus so they can consult ODS if they need assistance at any time.
  • Explain to your students how they can contact you through email and how to use office hours, which may be especially valuable in courses with first-year students. 
  • Clearly state your expectations for broad participation in discussions, and explain how students will be evaluated and graded.
  • Put readings and other course materials on reserve in the library and be sure to indicate this on your syllabus so that all of your students know which materials are freely available. 

A key starting point in course design is understanding your students’ preparation and expectations for coursework. Consider the diversity of academic and social experiences that your students – and you – bring to your course and to each other. Some strategies for uncovering this diversity include: 

  • Design a discussion for the first day of class that surfaces students’ perspectives on the discipline and material in the course.
  • Share a story with your students about your own struggles with the material, such as understanding a new concept, making unexpected connections, or solving a particular kind of problem. Your students will appreciate having a chance to get to know you and will be encouraged to know that even their apparent “genius” professor found the material challenging at one time.
  • Reflect on how your academic and social experiences and your own assumptions about your students might shape your interactions with them. Carefully listen for moments in which your students might make valuable comments or insights that you don’t expect.
  • Create short online video lectures and assignments to support adaptive learning in especially challenging areas of your course to level the field and make the material more accessible for all of your students

Once you’ve developed a course plan, there are steps you can take to create a more inclusive environment in the classroom such as:

  • Incorporate a variety of activities, assignments and audio-visual media that enable students to take different pathways toward participating in class and demonstrating their learning.
  • Establish ground rules and values for discussion, particularly in courses where controversial topics are at the center. These might include confidentiality, openness, respectful disagreement and civil debate.
  • Give students a quiet minute to think of responses to key questions or to jot down new questions. This technique enables everyone to more confidently contribute to the whole discussion. Similarly, give students brief opportunities to pair up to discuss key questions to provide a stronger basis for individual participation.
  • If you do assign small group work, be sure to create well defined tasks and, when possible, avoid outnumbering or isolating students from underrepresented groups
  • Use your course website or blog to stimulate and continue discussions that may invite a wider range of participation. In some instances, students may be more comfortable taking risks in online discussions rather than in the classroom.
  • Expand the classroom activity into an online learning environment. Meaningful online discussions and collaborative assignments can increase engagement among students who typically learn less effectively in lecture and seminar style settings
  • Use gender-inclusive language that avoids gender binaries by using plurals instead, such as “their” instead of he or she. 
  • Be aware of contemporary terms for cultural identities. Use terminology that is clear and inclusive, but not divisive or essentialist. Preferences within cultural communities change over time and vary across regions. If you are unsure what term to use, ask in a non-threatening context.
  • Do not assume a student belongs to a particular group or can represent a fixed or unitary perspective on behalf of a group.
  • Address blatantly offensive and discriminatory comments and hold students accountable for their behavior.
  • Show respect for perspectives and ideas that do not match your own.
  • Encourage students to think of themselves in terms of their unique experiences and characteristics rather than in terms that evoke homogeneous or stereotyped identities.
  • Connect with students by sharing information about yourself so that you are approachable and your class is a welcoming environment.
  • Encourage students to meet with you one-on-one at least once during the semester.  

Finally, another important element to inclusive teaching is student feedback and course evaluations:

  • Leave a minute at the end of class for students to anonymously jot down on notecards “muddy points” from the day’s class.
  • When giving a student critical feedback, affirm your standards and, when possible, assure the student of your belief that the student can meet those standards.
  • Encourage students’ potential for intellectual growth and dexterity in your feedback, rather than praising intrinsic abilities or referring to external constraints that might be attributed to stereotypes.
  • Consider a midterm evaluation to gauge students’ level of comfort in the class. These can be done on paper or through Blackboard or Qualtrics. Good questions will help students reflect on their processes of learning, rather than focusing solely on instructor performance or content. Be sure to discuss the results in the next class session, and tell students about any changes you plan to make as a result of their feedback. 

*The McGraw Center wishes to thank Hannah Rosenthal, Princeton Class of 2015, and an intern in the Office of the Provost, for her contributions to these tips.