Center for Teaching and Learning

Inclusive Teaching Strategies

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Giving students opportunities to think and talk about the course material

  1. Wait time. Lengthen your “wait time” after posing a question to your class to increase time for student thinking and to expand the number of students participating verbally. One trick is to silently count to 10 in your head after asking a question, or to tell the students in advance that you won’t call on anyone until you see 5 hands raised. (Asking for 5 hands to be raised before you call on anyone can also allow you to call on students who tend to participate less frequently.)
  1. Allow students time to write. After asking your students a question, give your students a minute to write their thoughts down before asking anyone to respond. Explicitly require them all to write out at least one or two ideas that capture their initial thinking in response to the question posed. This act of writing itself may even lead students to discover points of confusion or key insights.
  1. Think-pair-share. After asking your students a question, give your students a minute or so to individually think (or write) to collect their thoughts in response to a question. Then ask students to turn and talk with a neighboring student, compare ideas, and identify points of agreement and misalignment. These pair discussions may or may not be followed by a whole-group conversation in which individual students are asked to share the results of their pair discussion aloud with the whole class.
  1. Do not try to do too much. To prevent yourself from going too quickly in class, reduce the amount of material addressed during class time by prompting students to learn more material outside class time. One strategy for prioritizing how to spend precious class time is to decide on which concepts in a course are most meaningful or difficult to learn, are rooted in common misconceptions, and/or represent fundamental principles.
Building an inclusive and fair classroom community for all students
  1. Learn or have access to students’ names. To cultivate a welcoming, inclusive, and equitable classroom environment, one of the simplest strategies you can use is to structure ways to get to know and call students by their names. In addition to trying to memorize their names from photo lists, you can also distribute (and continually use) name tents so that both you and other students can see them.
  1. Integrate culturally diverse and relevant examples / Ensure that course content does not marginalize students. Make the discipline less abstract and more concrete by noting diverse perspectives, cultures, and people relevant to what the students are learning about. Judiciously choosing stories from both history and present-day discoveries conveys that diverse populations of people can and do make key contributions. This simple strategy can help students feel connected to the content, help them feel that they belong in the course or field, and reinforce their developing sense of competence and purpose. Consider whether certain perspectives are typically unrepresented in your course materials. Neglecting some issues can imply a value judgment, which can alienate certain groups of students, thus hindering their developing sense of identity.
  1. Work in stations or small groups. Assign tasks that require students to work in small groups in order to allow students to practice thinking and talking about course material without the stress of having to speak in front of the entire class. “Jigsaws” are a type of activity in which students start off in one small group, checking their expertise with other students who are all studying the same topic before rearranging into new small groups in which expertise from different topics is shared.
  1. Use a variety of active-learning strategies. To engage the broadest population of students, use a variety of active-learning strategies from class session to class session. For each strategy, some students will be out of their comfort zones, and others will be in their comfort zones. For example, try including anonymous polling, group problem solving, brainstorming, concept maps, statement corrections, sequence reconstructions, comparing and contrasting concepts using Venn diagrams, etc.
  1. Be explicit about promoting access and equity / Model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes. Perhaps the most powerful teaching strategy in building an inclusive and equitable learning environment is to be explicit that accessibility, fairness, and equity are among your key goals. Making explicit statements about the importance of engaging critical and diverse perspectives can make issues of fairness and equity explicit rather than implicit.
Monitoring (your own and students’) behavior to cultivate divergent thinking
  1. Ask open-ended questions / Resist a single right answer. To cultivate creative and critical thinking in your classroom, you may want to use open-ended questions, which are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes”/“no”, or even a single word or phrase. Open-ended questions by definition have multiple possible responses, so inviting answers from a large group can yield more than an expected set of responses. Ask students to generate multiple approaches to a problem (“What are the five best ways we could approach this question?”) or ask students to take a devil’s advocate position to identify counter arguments. Ask them to articulate their perspectives before you volunteer yours so as not to bias them. When appropriate, use assignments with multiple correct solutions.
  1. Use praise with caution. By enthusiastically heaping praise on a verbally participating student, you may inadvertently convey to other students that a response was so wonderful that it is impossible to build on, exceed, or question. Instructor praise can also elevate the status of some students, or select forms of participation, which can destabilize classroom culture.
  1. Establish classroom community norms. It is critical that you have a set of community norms, ideally developed in collaboration with students, to establish expected and acceptable behaviors in the classroom. Common group norms include:
    • Everyone here has something to learn.
    • Everyone here is expected to support their colleagues in identifying and clarifying their confusions about course material.
    • Ideas shared during class will be treated respectfully.
    • Listen actively and attentively.
    • Do not interrupt one another.
    • Critique ideas, not people.
    • Challenge one another, but do so respectfully.
    • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence.
    • Build on one another’s comments, work towards a shared understanding.
  1. Collect assessment evidence from every student regularly. Frequently collect assessment evidence to identify what your students are learning successfully and what concepts/skills they are struggling with. You can start with an online “More About You” survey as homework on the first day of a course, then continue gathering feedback throughout the semester. For instance, use a weekly two-question survey asking questions like:
    • “What's the most interesting concept you learned in class this week?”
    • “What topic from this week's lessons do you find most challenging?”
    • “What questions do you have about this week’s material?”
  2. Teach your students from the moment they arrive. Consider what students are learning, not just about the subject matter, but also about the culture of the classroom from the moment they enter the room. Reflect on what you wish to do on the first day of a course, which sends a strong message to students about the goals of the course, the role of the instructor, and the role of the students. You may want to do a “reciprocal interview” in which you can ask questions of the students and students can ask questions of you to get to know each other. 
Help your students develop a growth mindset
  1. Destigmatize mistakes and challenges. Normalize mistakes as part of the learning process. Describe mistakes you’ve made as a student, scholar, and/or as a professional. Give your students permission to make mistakes now (in class, during office hours, or homework) so that they don’t make them later (on exams and real life). Help your students prioritize process over results.
  2. Be as clear as possible when providing feedback and teach your students how to receive feedback and how to use it effectively. We can all struggle with receiving critical feedback, and many students are still learning how to use feedback constructively. In addition to providing your students with targeted, actionable feedback that provides concrete steps they can use to improve their performance, it is also important to explain to your students how you want them to use your feedback. Tell your students that your goal is their success and that when you provide feedback, it is so that they will learn from it and perform better the next time. State these expectations early and often, and provide early opportunities for students to gain confidence on each new skill or topic. It can also help to share with students how you’ve grown and improved using feedback that you’ve received.
  3. Communicate that abilities can grow. Explain to students how expertise develops with time, effort, feedback, and mentoring/coaching. People are not born innately as experts in a field; people need to work hard and learn from their mistakes to achieve their expertise. Ask your students to “Think of a subject/task/activity that you have become very good at. What did you do to become skilled at it?” It is often not a linear path.
  4. Communicate that abilities can grow. Explain to students how expertise develops with time, effort, feedback, and mentoring/coaching. People are not born innately as experts in a field; people need to work hard and learn from their mistakes to achieve their expertise. Ask your students to “Think of a subject/task/activity that you have become very good at. What did you do to become skilled at it?”
Be a role model for your students
  1. Examine your assumptions about students / Be mindful of low-ability cues. It is common for instructors to assume that students share our background and frames of reference (for example, historical or literary references). It is equally common to make assumptions about students’ ability (for example, that a student's tentative language may indicate intellectual weakness). These assumptions can result in behaviors that are unintentionally alienating and can affect climate and students’ developing sense of identity. Set a high bar for your students, empower your students to achieve your high standards, and avoid letting them feel that they should be happy with mediocre performance. 
  2. Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group. Students from historically underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds often report either feeling invisible in class or sticking out like a sore thumb as the token minority. This experience is heightened when they are asked to serve as spokespeople for their whole group. Asking an individual to speak as a representative of a group they may (or may not) identify with can both belittle the diversity of opinions within that group and trivialize the individual by implying only one part of their identity matters. Rather than asking people to speak on behalf of a group, treat students as individuals and ask them to speak for themselves.
  3. Model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes. Just as instructors operate under a set of assumptions that may or may not be true, so do students. Addressing these assumptions (for example, that we all share a common heritage, set of experiences, or goals) by modeling inclusiveness can provide a powerful learning experience for all students. For instance, try avoiding using masculine pronouns for both males and females or, when you use American idioms, explain them for the benefit of non-native English speakers. These types of behaviors can “catch on” in a classroom and create a climate that is welcoming to all rather than demotivating to some who do not feel represented or validated.
  4. Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues. We can often anticipate which issues may be “hot topics” for some of our students. Preparing students to learn from these opportunities often requires:
    • careful framing (for instance, an acknowledgment that the topic can have personal significance for many students);
    • an articulation of the expectations for the tone of the discussion;
    • an explanation for why the course is dealing with the issue (for instance, the necessity to hear all sides of the debate to arrive at a multifaceted understanding); and
    • ground rules / community norms (see above) that assure a civil discussion.

(Adapted from Tanner KD. “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE Life Sci Educ. 2013 Fall; 12(3): 322–331 and Ambrose SA. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.)