Without realizing it, your current course structure may unintentionally exclude certain students. Think about those without a partner when classmates are asked to pair up. Or perhaps those who can’t attend a synchronous online class due to Internet access or employment conflicts. Or, arguably the most pervasive, the students who simply don’t feel comfortable responding aloud in a large class setting. 

At our webinar, Dr. Viji Sathy and Dr. Kelly Hogan, award-winning educators and authors of Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, shared their guiding principles to make your course design and class environment more inclusive—without the additional time commitment on your part. We’ve summarized their advice below.

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Inclusive teaching principles

No matter the role you hold at your institution, your discipline or the size of your class, ask yourself this simple question before setting a class policy: who is being left out as a result of this approach? Dr. Sathy and Dr. Hogan offer three core principles to empower all students and simultaneously counteract messages of exclusion that they may receive implicitly or explicitly.

  1. Inclusive teaching is a mindset: Start small by examining how your students may feel when participating in class. Who volunteers? Many times, students won’t feel comfortable answering aloud because of the pressure they place on themselves to be correct. 
  2. The more structure, the better for all students: The authors remind us that additional structure benefits ALL students, not just those who may need some extra support. “Many students may not know how to organize their notes. It’s why you could provide guided reading questions to help students key in on the main ideas in their textbook, all while giving them a sense of what your expectations are,” says Dr. Hogan.
  3. Too little structure leaves too many students behind: Loosely structured lessons can translate to poor student performance. By telling students to “turn to a neighbor and discuss [some topic],” you may unintentionally exclude certain students from participating. Instead, Dr. Sathy and Dr. Hogan recommend assigning groups with specific roles so that all students feel like they belong.

How to add structure to your course design and class environment

The authors make it clear that ‘course design’ and ‘class environment’ cannot be used interchangeably. Course design refers to the objectives, opportunities for practice and problems that students must complete. Class environment denotes the climate in which students are expected to engage with you and their peers. They share six ways you can structure your course design and class environment to give all students a voice.

  1. Be goal oriented: Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of your lesson? It’s also important to balance content delivery with skill–building to help students apply your course material to upper-year courses and their careers. “Think of your students as partners and ask them what would be helpful to them when forming your objectives. Work backwards from there,” Dr. Sathy recommends.
  2. Practice, practice, practice: Make low-stakes quizzes your new friend. By evaluating students multiple times in a low-pressure way, you’ll be able to eliminate the chance of them seeing material for the first time on an exam. Ensure learners are adequately prepared for larger tests by running polls with questions that are likely to be found on your exam—what the authors deem ‘typical test questions.’ Students will also get an idea of the level of depth needed to solve specific problems well in advance.
  3. Gauge and adjust as you go: Students may nod their heads in agreement when you’re presenting new information. But how do you know if they truly comprehend your subject matter? The authors recommend using informal surveys to help you identify what you might stop, start and continue doing to accelerate student success. “We crowdsource what our final project might be, which is different every semester. Invite students into the discussion and ask, ‘what ways do you want to show me you understand this work?,’” says Dr. Sathy.
  4. Be explicitly welcoming from day one: Use the early days of your course to connect with students personally. Begin by learning the correct pronunciation of the names of your students, model sharing pronouns and check in with those who may have missed two consecutive classes. You may also send an encouraging note to students after they complete a test or exam, reminding them that they belong.
  5. Don’t assume everyone is comfortable: Be sure to create participation and engagement policies that play to the strengths of extroverts and introverts. Your introverted students likely have equally meaningful contributions to make, but may not feel comfortable speaking out in a large auditorium. An easy fix: run anonymous discussions using an engagement platform like Top Hat.
  6. Intersperse techniques: Vary the format in which you engage and assess students. You might begin class with a large group discussion and end your lecture with a think-pair-share exercise. No matter how you choose to measure learning, make sure your questions, answers and reasoning are available to review after the fact to help students effectively study.

How your colleagues embrace inclusive teaching

Throughout their webinar, Dr. Sathy and Dr. Hogan invited attendees to share ways they create more inclusive class structures. You’ll want to take note of these innovative techniques your peers use to empower all students. For more resources on inclusive teaching, check out Dr. Sathy and Dr. Hogan’s website.

How have you incorporated more practice toward a course objective to boost student success?How have you structured group interactions to be more effective?
“I share a questionnaire before and mid-course to have a good idea of how the students are doing.”“Assigning roles that rotate for various group assignments: leader, designer, critic, presenter. I use a deck of cards to get students into groups—for example, all ‘6s’ in one group.”
“Buddy quizzes with speed dating—have class time where the students take turns quizzing each other in pairs and then switching after a period of time.”“For starters, I tell them they should spend the first two minutes introducing themselves, what their major is, what they like to do, to get them comfortable working with a new person they might not know. Then of course structured activities with lots of directions.”
“I have students discuss reading assignments with short audio recordings on a discussion board.”“I have a ‘no-fault’ dissolution policy. If a group dynamic isn’t working, it can be dissolved. But then each new solo or subset is responsible for producing their own full project.”
“Two parts of an exam: one closed and one open book and open discussion.”“I create shared documents with questions for each group so they have something tangible to save after the class and to report from.”
“Additional problem sets on our LMS with super detailed responses for incorrect responses—students aren’t penalized for wrong answers. The goal is to have them learn from mistakes.”“When they select teams, I have them first divide up based on whether or not they can work on the project on the weekends or weekdays. Common times are hard to find for students, especially when they work part- or full-time.”
“My students write participation goals at the beginning of the course and at the end, they write a reflection on how they met those goals.”“At the beginning of the semester, students fill out a survey so I can gather info to help assign groups (e.g., commuter / athlete / honors / experience with Excel, etc.).”
“Renaming “office hours” to “student support hours” and framing it as “study hall” with both the instructor and classmates—a chance to work together on an assignment or reading and get answers to questions.”“In my class, they get a mistake bonus on their participation for the day if they say something wrong. That emphasizes that being wrong is part of learning.”

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