Inclusive Classroom

May 12, 2015

Our first topic focuses on creating an inclusive classroom, recognizing that everyone plays a role in promoting a safe and supportive learning environment. This article offers a few tips to help both students and instructors consider ways to contribute to inclusivity within the classroom.

Expanding Human Potential, Improving People’s Lives: Generating and Maintaining Inclusiveness in the Classroom

While the overall quantitative data indicated that survey respondents felt the CHS climate for respecting diversity is generally respectful, the qualitative findings revealed some areas where continued growth is needed. Quantitative data indicated that survey respondents (including CHS faculty, students, and staff) felt the climate in CHS for respecting diversity across 16 different factors, such as ethnicity, religion, gender identity, and ability, is generally respectful;1 however, there was a wide variety of responses. Worthy of further discussion is the finding that when asked about personal experiences or observations of disrespectful or offensive conduct that has unreasonably interfered with the ability to work or learn, there was a statistically significant difference in responses between individuals from underrepresented backgrounds (31% experienced; 34.5% observed) and those within dominant groups (15.2% experienced; 17.3% observed). Themes from the qualitative data further highlighted the complexity of these experiences and how they are impacting people in different ways.

Specific to the classroom learning environment, we found a number of written responses describing experiences indicating that some faculty may experience difficulty in dealing with diversity and inclusivity in the classroom and that some students may need to work toward contributing to inclusivity. Working within the understanding that cultural competence is a set of learned skills and a process of development, we offer the following as useful ideas to enhance inclusivity in our classrooms.

For students:

  • Check your assumptions. Notice when you are making statements that portray everyone from a specific group in the same way. This occurs when you attribute negative observations to a whole group (e.g., based on their race, gender, ability, age) as opposed to an individual. Avoid making sweeping generalizations. Be aware of not only the diversity across groups, but also the diversity within groups. 
  • Avoid speaking as if everyone in an ethnic, religious, age, sexual identity, or other group thinks or behaves alike. Our use of scientific findings in class can be misleading and needs careful interpretation. “Significant difference” rarely means that 100% of people in a group do or think something in the same way.
  • Keep in mind that jokes that make fun of people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability or other attribute can be offensive and demeaning to others.
  • Understand that learning about inclusivity is a process. Challenge yourself to reflect on ways you can contribute to an environment that not only welcomes others but also helps everyone feel included as valuable members of the class.

For faculty:

Regardless of the topics covered, classroom materials should be inclusive. Small things that build a classroom that welcomes diversity are:

  • Practice self-reflection. In order to model cultural competency for our students, we must challenge ourselves to explore our own biases and assumptions. Always be willing to ask yourself – who’s NOT at the table? Whose voice is not being heard? Where are the gaps and how can you fill them within your classroom?
  • Include diversity of ethnic/racial, gender and sexual orientation, ability and socioeconomic status groups in examples, case studies, and visuals used in class, making sure that underrepresented groups are not always the negative examples. It often takes diligence to find varied examples, but diverse students notice and appreciate when diversity is incorporated in examples. The instructor does not need to/and should not always point out that diversity is represented. The presence of diverse examples helps to set the tone for acceptance and modeling of culturally competent practices.
  • Avoid calling on individuals from underrepresented groups to provide the perspective of all individuals in their group. The one male person in class cannot stand for all men; the one African American student cannot speak for all individuals of color.
  • Include a variety of assignments that accommodate different learning styles.
  • Recognize that academic writing is a difficult process for many students. Set up Turnitin in Blackboard so students can benefit from the guidance offered through this program. Opportunities to turn in their assignments for plagiarism and grammar/writing checks before final submission can be particularly helpful for international students writing in what is not their native language and for any students who need to work on writing skills.
  • If students make offensive or stereotypical comments in class, use those statements as teachable moments. Sometimes, an instructor can be taken by surprise by an inappropriate statement and initially not feel comfortable addressing the issue. It may be more appropriate to come back to the example in a subsequent class session to help students recognize, process, and practice discussion around potentially difficult topics.
  • Model person-first language for your students, emphasizing the shared humanity of individuals rather than individual differences. For example, speak about people with diverse needs rather than special needs individuals; children who were adopted rather than adopted children; consumers who are older rather than the elderly; students with dyslexia rather than dyslexic students, etc.

Helpful resources include:

University of Michigan, Creating Inclusive Classrooms, Practical Suggestions.

University of Berkeley, Creating Inclusive Classrooms: Resources for Leveraging Diversity in the Classroom. 

Encourage attendance at the annual ISCORE conference.

The CHS Diversity Coordinator, Carmen Flagge, is an excellent resource person.

CELT (the ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching) frequently promotes sessions related to faculty development on inclusive teaching. Check for announcements.

Iowa State University Diversity, Equity and Community website

1. The 16 factors in the survey include: African Americans/Blacks; Native American Indians/Native Alaskans; Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders; Asian Americans; European Americans/Whites; Latino(a)s/Chicano(a)s/Hispanic Americans; Middle Eastern Americans; Internationals who are not citizens; Men; Women; LGBT persons; Persons with disabilities; Non-native English speakers; Persons who are not Christians; Atheists or non-believers; Christians. The mean across all respondents was 4.17 on a 5-point scale, with 5 indicating that the climate in the College is “very respectful.”