Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive

Thursday, August 8, 2019

In many courses, the days after the first exam can be stressful. Some students might feel worried about the results, or even doubt their abilities. So at the end of one challenging exam, a professor took a few minutes of class time to reassure her students. 

Her brief remarks led to the kind of email that every faculty member should want to receive: “The speech you gave post-exam was something I needed to hear. Thank you for reminding me that I belong here and have the potential to succeed.” The student’s words tell you a lot about the instructor’s teaching style.

You may wonder: Is the role of a college instructor to help students feel included and ready to thrive? Is that something I should be doing? As champions of inclusive teaching, we say — emphatically — yes. 

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Traditional teaching methods do not serve all students well. This guide is for any faculty member who believes, as we do, that education can be an equalizer. We share tips here that any instructor can use to minimize inequities and help more students succeed. We’re not suggesting a complete redesign of your courses, but more of an overlay to your current teaching practices. 

Principle No. 1: Inclusive teaching is a mind-set. 

For every teaching decision you make, ask yourself, “Who is being left out as a result of this approach?” Consider: When you lecture, students vary in their ability to stay focused, pull out key ideas, and organize the information. Is it “hand-holding” to provide a skeletal outline of your lecture in advance? Critics might think so. But the result is that all students leave class with a set of minimal notes, a clearer idea of the main points, and an expert’s example of how ideas fit and flow together. And in the process, your students now have a good structure for how to take notes.

Principle No. 2: The more structure, the better for all students. 

It’s worth repeating: More structure works for most undergraduates, without harming those who don’t need it. Students come to your classroom today with different cultural backgrounds, personalities, learning differences, and confidence levels. Their very diversity may seem overwhelming at times, but you can reach more of them by sharpening the structure of your syllabus, assignments, tests, and pedagogy. In our experience, all students appreciate and thrive from additional structure, and some benefit disproportionately.

Principle No. 3: Too little structure leaves too many students behind. 

Some of the most traditional and common teaching methods — lecturing, cold-calling — aren’t very inclusive, at least as they are commonly done. Certain faculty members even take pride in using the classroom to cull the “weak” students from the “strong.” This is especially true in STEM fields, as we know from experience, since one of us teaches biology and the other statistics.  

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education