Creating a richer and more dynamic classroom is essential in order to motivate and engage 21st century learners. One important way to do so is by incorporating inclusive teaching into your college course delivery. Culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) embraces multicultural education and helps educators mitigate some of the inequities that may arise in the traditional classroom.

In doing so, a student’s cultural experiences become a stepping stone to achieving greater learning outcomes. This teaching style aims to bridge the gap between the experiences of the educator and the student, ensuring that equity, diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of your teaching philosophy. Below, we discuss the importance of culturally responsive teaching and offer some strategies and attitudinal changes for you to consider.

Table of Contents

  1. What is culturally responsive teaching?
  2. Why is culturally responsive teaching important?
  3. How to embrace a culturally responsive mindset as a professor
  4. Culturally responsive instructional techniques to meet your students’ needs
  5. Culturally responsive teaching is a vital part of today’s classroom
  6. References

What is culturally responsive teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching, or culturally relevant teaching, allows educators to celebrate and acknowledge the cultural backgrounds of all students. This form of teaching lets educators—in both K-12 public schools and higher education—create curricula that validate and highlight a wide range of identities, ethnicities and cultures. 

Culturally relevant pedagogy was first introduced by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She called for a new form of diverse teaching that would engage and celebrate students’ cultures that are traditionally left out of higher education. Geneva Gay, Professor of Education and Associate of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle, later developed the term ‘culturally responsive teaching,’ as a means of emphasizing the practical changes that need to be made in the classroom. Gay calls on educators to make changes on the instructional level, the student-teacher level and urges instructors to create an equitable classroom climate to improve learning outcomes.1

Instructors who embrace a culturally responsive mindset have a great socio-cultural consciousness and work to affirm the viewpoints of all students. More importantly, these educators have a greater understanding of how their students learn, as well as a grasp of their prior learning experiences.2 Instructors can then use this knowledge to form a curriculum that responds to the unique lived experiences of their cohort. Culturally responsive teaching should be employed in elementary through high school and in higher education.

Why is culturally responsive teaching important?

From a neuroscience perspective, culturally responsive pedagogy forms the foundation for student success. For instance, the human brain is wired to make connections. Students bring their background knowledge to the virtual classroom. Culturally responsive teaching allows them to make connections between their ‘old’ knowledge and their ‘new’ knowledge. Professors are able to maximize academic achievement by embracing the unique backgrounds of students.3

Educators can cultivate a sense of belonging by representing all cultures and backgrounds in their class. A student who sees their ethnicity represented in course readings, case studies and other instructional design elements is likely to feel empowered and seen. Lindsay Tan, Top Hat customer and Associate Professor and Program Coordinator in Interior Design at Auburn University, underscores the value that an equity-minded approach can have on today’s learners. “Black design is judged on white terms. Queer design is judged in terms of its opposition to ‘normal’ design. As a values-driven educator, I’m focused on giving all my students the tools and confidence to succeed on their own terms,” she shares.

Build an equitable learning community online. Get advice and instructional strategies from professors like Lindsay Tan in our Ultimate Guide to Creating Community. Download the free guide here.

How to embrace a culturally responsive mindset as a professor

Auditing and assessing your own mindsets and instructional practices is the first step in forming a culturally responsive environment. Question your own assumptions and evaluate your pre-existing beliefs and attitudes to create meaningful change. Here are some strategies to help you become a more equity-minded teacher.

1. Recognize your implicit biases

Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes that we hold towards groups of people—or the stereotypes that we associate with them without realizing. Everyone holds implicit biases. Recognize your own by taking a test offered by Project Implicit, an initiative from Harvard University. Being aware of your biases can help you act as a better support system for your diverse group of learners.

2. Assess student backgrounds and barriers to success

Student inequities have been increasingly spotlighted with the move to online learning. Not everyone has the basic means of connecting to virtual classes. Students will benefit from a safe space dedicated to sharing their learning styles, lives outside of the classroom, barriers to learning and academic priorities. A student interest inventory, a form dedicated to gathering personal and academic information, can help you design your curriculum accordingly. 

3. Continue to learn about culturally responsive teaching yourself

Explore resources to deepen your understanding of culturally responsive teaching. Seek out research-based examples of culturally responsive pedagogy that reflect the backgrounds of the students in your class. Whether it’s books, webinars or courses, your efforts to brush up on this critical pedagogy will only help you form a stronger, more equitable learning experience. Consider getting started by familiarizing yourself with The Leading Equity Center’s three, free self-paced modules that will help you create individualized learning experiences. You’ll also learn how to keep equity at the forefront of your teaching practice when in an online learning environment.

Culturally responsive instructional techniques to meet your students’ needs

It’s one thing to speak about using culturally responsive teaching methods in the classroom. It’s another thing to implement these equitable practices in your course. The following list will give you some instructional ideas for implementing these equity-driven practices in your online, blended or face-to-face college classroom.

1. Invite a guest speaker

Students from different cultures and minority groups have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the curriculum when an instructor brings in a guest speaker. For example, a speaker of color can talk to an economics or business class, offering insights into this industry from, for instance, a Latinx point of view. Bringing a guest speaker into a college classroom can make a huge difference in student engagement levels. Since no one teacher can be everything to all students, this practice levels the playing field and acknowledges students’ backgrounds and identities.

These diverse learning opportunities help students embrace their cultural identities. Teachers who embrace culturally responsive teaching methods help students of different cultures form pathways to academic success. By seeing themselves represented in the classroom, students are likely to feel a greater sense of belonging. The pedagogy behind this teaching method embraces multicultural education and helps educators mitigate some of the inequities that other teaching methods—such as formal tests—cannot address quite as well.

As a result, in a culturally diverse classroom, student engagement goes up as diverse learners receive instruction that builds on their pre-existing knowledge and cultural point of view. In other words, a student’s cultural experiences become a stepping stone to learning—not a hindrance. While all students would benefit from this style of teaching, it is especially helpful for students of color and other minority students to hear from someone who looks like them.

A student’s cultural experiences become a stepping stone to learning—not a hindrance.

2. Adopt different teaching methods

The sage-on-the stage lecture model—where instructors lecture for chunks of time without active student involvement—doesn’t effectively promote engagement. Culturally responsive teaching embraces gamification, art creation, or working on puzzles, video or audio projects—such as podcasts—and more.

Some teaching methods—gamification in particular—appeal to almost all students. For instance, being able to earn badges or to level up in a math game may make the lesson more inclusive, but the appeal of this instructional method is broader than that. In this context, and with many students identifying with gaming culture, educators have a chance to actively engage all learners.

Introducing gamification and other teaching tools allows instructors to address the broader classroom culture, making the lessons more relevant—and fun—for everyone involved. Culturally responsive teachers understand this, which in turn, allows them to create a more culturally-informed classroom. This type of classroom setting minimizes cultural differences and reduces biases that may exist in some curricula.

Additionally, introducing a wide variety of films, TV shows, books and other media allows all students to feel like they’re being represented in their classroom lectures. It’s critical to choose media that creates a positive representation of a culture. The same principle applies to course readings. Ensure you diversify your syllabus by incorporating scholars of all ethnicities in your reading list. It’s also just as critical to choose media that is in languages other than English. Such teaching practices allow educators to reach diverse learners, including English language learners (ELL).

3. Embrace learning environments created by students

Effective teaching methods don’t always have to stem from teachers. Students who take an active part in their own learning have a much more empowering learning experience. In an academic context, students who teach a subject to their peers are more likely to better comprehend the material by way of problem solving in groups. In a non-academic context, student-student learning can help create the essential peer connections and interactions that have been strained with online learning.

Practically speaking, this method also offers a workaround for implicit bias in teaching. Incorporating a wide variety of teachers—representative of different races, sexual orientations, cultures and religions—in one setting means that a teacher’s unknown biases cannot get in the way of effective instruction. The fact that students are teaching some of the time allows educators to see beyond their immediate frame of reference.

Peer-peer learning is also a way for students to infuse their own cultural knowledge into the classroom environment. Small group activities and even flipped classroom models can be employed to foster collaborative learning environments.

4. Get to know your students

If educators want to employ responsive pedagogy and more expansive teaching strategies, it’s critical that they get to know each of their students personally. This will allow professors to adapt their instructional materials to make the learning process inclusive of accommodations, preferences and prior experiences in students’ lives. As mentioned earlier, a student interest inventory can be useful in gathering academic and non-academic tastes and experiences. This all-encompassing form can help you better understand your students’ socioeconomic status and financial barriers, any accessibility challenges they may have and more.

5. Extend the learning beyond your classroom

What happens outside of your classroom is just as important as what happens inside. Contextualize your learning units or material with real world examples or case studies. Enhance relevancy and meaning for everyone in your class by addressing social justice issues in an action-oriented way. This could mean offering resources or even information on how to get involved with activism (such as GoFundMe links) to ensure these conversations continue outside of class. Additionally, provide students with supplementary material to review on their own time should they wish, creating an all-encompassing learning process—one that’s made up of reviewing, retrieving and reflecting.

Culturally responsive teaching is a vital part of today’s classroom

In a classroom full of diverse student populations, culturally relevant teaching (CRT) levels the playing field. Lessons become centered on maximizing students’ innate abilities, as well as responding to the cultural knowledge they come into the classroom with.

This pedagogical approach works from a neurological standpoint, allowing students to make connections between what they’re learning and what they already know. The end result is that students are much more engaged in the learning process and are ultimately able to experience higher levels of academic achievement.

With culturally responsive teaching, students’ cultural identities become their strength in the classroom. Lessons are inherently more empowering when students see themselves reflected in the course material and thus feel like they belong in class—a goal all educators should strive to achieve in today’s learning environment.

Putting community at the forefront keeps students engaged and enrolled. Download our free community guide packed with activities, strategies and advice on how to deliver an equitable learning experience for all students.


  1. Understanding Culturally Responsive Teaching. (n.d.). New America.
  2. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Towards Equity and Inclusivity in Ontario Schools. (n.d.). The Learning Exchange.
  3. Culturally Responsive Teaching: What You Need to Know. (n.d.). Understood.

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