How do I create an inclusive learning environment?
Much of the work of creating an inclusive learning environment begins before the start of the class. This is when you set the tone for the course and build a space that is welcoming for all students. However, keep in mind it is an ongoing process.
Recognize that power dynamics are always present in the classroom, stemming from your position as an instructor and the various identities of everyone in the room. This may impact who feels most comfortable in the learning environment.
We have choices to make in course design and our day-to-day teaching that provide opportunities for interaction and community building.
Active/intentional engagement and relationship building with students are key for learning.
Transparency in our pedagogical decisions and assignments is essential for relationship and community building.
Be mindful. Since early 2020, students have been experiencing unprecedented stress and anxiety levels, so being flexible and understanding help to improve the learning environment.
Prior to the First Day of Class
Get to know your students, help them know you, and help them know each other.
Consider giving students a pre-course survey to learn more about them and their hopes for the course.
Get the roster, so you can begin to get to know your students ahead of the first class.
Give your students some information about yourself – introduction video, welcome email or message before the first day.
Have students introduce themselves online or through “bio cards” for both large and small classes. Allow students to share pronouns if they choose.
Learn and use student names. Make sure everyone learns the proper pronunciation.
Use office hours as an opportunity to get to know your students early in the semester, and for them to get to know you. If you have a large class, you can meet students in groups. Some faculty have found it valuable to require students to attend office hours as a way to get to know them and to clarify the purpose of office hours.
If possible, make sure the physical classroom space is accessible and accommodates everyone. Here is a resource page from the StAAR center to support faculty in making their courses more accessible.
Some students work – don’t assume everyone’s schedule is flexible and try to be accommodating.
The First Day of Class
Spend less time planning to review details on the first day, and more time creating a relationship – connection is key.
Greet students as they enter the class.
Facilitate an introductory exercise to introduce students to the type of work they will do in the course.
Set ground rules for conversation together.
Be clear about expectations in the class.
Community Learning Agreements or Ground Rules for Discussion
Ground rules are a very important component of creating an inclusive climate. When possible, it helps to have students help generate them, but make sure everyone understands what is meant. You can always add some as well. It is also important to pay particular attention to how and when ground rules are being used to protect oppressive ideologies. For example, a common ground rule is to assume good intentions. This ground rule privileges the intention of the person making a comment rather than considering the harm caused by the comment (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2014). Below is a suggested method for helping students create their own ground rules:
Ask students to think about the best group discussions they have been a part of, and reflect on what made these discussions so satisfying.
Next, ask students to think about the worst group discussions in which they have participated and reflect on what made these discussions so unsatisfactory.
For each of the positive characteristics identified, ask students to suggest three things the group could do to ensure that these characteristics are present.
For each of the negative characteristics identified, ask students to suggest three things the group could do to ensure that these characteristics are not present.
Use students’ suggestions to draft a set of ground rules to which you all agree, and distribute them in writing.
Periodically, ask the class to reflect on whether the ground rules established at the beginning of the semester are working, and make adjustments as necessary. Consider making reflections anonymous and asking directly about the inclusivity of the classroom environment.