Inclusion & Class Climate

What does inclusive teaching mean?

One of TEP’s Belonging keynote speakers, University of San Francisco Professor of Law Rhonda Magee, defines inclusive teaching:

At the level of the classroom, inclusivity refers to the philosophy and pedagogy of engaging and valuing every student, and seeking to enhance the relational dynamics of the class as a whole, by intentionally attending not merely to the intellectual but also to the social and emotional climate of the classroom. In recognition of the fact that our classrooms exist and are constructed within broad cultural, social and political contexts, and that higher education has not traditionally been equally accessible or welcoming to all, the aim is to enlist each teacher in the ongoing work of making each classroom maximally effective as a learning space for each and every student, and for the class as a whole. Classrooms grounded in inclusivity are classrooms where each student encounters not only a course, but a classroom environment that has been intentionally shaped to enhance his or her sense of inclusion and safety, and a teacher, regardless of the subject matter, who is committed to the principles and practices of inclusivity. [1] 

T. Hudson Jordan—in this case, writing about business success—defines inclusion as realizing the promise of diversity to do something better: “inclusion puts the concept and practice of diversity into action by creating an environment of involvement, respect, and connection—where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed” [2]. In the classroom, too, inclusion and excellence go hand in hand.

How can I make my class more inclusive? 


In course planning, one might begin by asking oneself four clusters of questions [3]:

Who am I?  What assumptions do I bring to my teaching; what assumptions do I make about students? How has my own background shaped or enabled my intellectual journey? Do I find ways for my students to know me as a person with hopes, curiosities, even failures? Do they understand how to, and feel invited to, address and talk with me?

Who are my students? How will I find out? Do I know at least some of my students’ names? What strengths, experiences, and anxieties do they bring to our work together? Can I make a place for those strengths and experiences to be clear assets in my classroom? Can I relieve students’ fears? What are my students’ own goals for their learning? How do they learn well? Do they feel anonymous? Like they don’t belong in my classroom? How can I counteract those feelings and build their sense of connection and agency? (Contact TEP for ideas about how to gather this information in ways that are efficient for faculty and empowering for students. For example, we have a sharable question bank for pre-class student surveys in Qualtrics.)

What content and information will I convey? Does my course material reflect the diversity of the field, including the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of its scholars and practitioners? More broadly, do I present knowledge as evolving and developed through heterogeneous conversation and contestation? Or are “non-traditional” topics and voices marginalized? Do I build a bridge between my content and my students’ lives—underscoring its possible urgency or beauty or value for them? Do I explicitly break down the process of expert thinking to invite them in?

What teaching methods will I employ? Am I using a range of strategies and modes of student engagement? What values do my methods signal to students? Do I draw on different kinds of talents and experiences my students bring to the class? Am I giving students low-stakes chances to practice, receive feedback, and reflect, and do I adjust my approach to respond to trends in their understanding?

Also in the course planning stages, it’s important to articulate key student learning objectives (LOs) of the course and ensure all activities and assignments align with them. TEP often encourages faculty not only to consider “cognitive” goals for student learning—what will my students know—but also affective, integrative, and metacognitive goals (will my students come to care about something more; how will students connect what we’re learning to their wider lives and communities; how are they being asked to reflect on and build agency toward their own learning?) [4].

It’s possible that the skills and aptitudes of an inclusive classroom are an essential part of what students are there to learn. If so, be explicit with students about those goals and think creatively about how to link assignments and activities to them. For example, in TEP’s inclusive course design workshop, we worked with sample LOs like:

I want my students to… 

  • participate in evidence-based dialogue about emotional and socially urgent topics. 
  • build an honest, but also patient, classroom community that supports individual and collective growth through dialogue. 
  • be attentive to the impacts of a range of perspectives on the ultimate quality of class and public conversations. 
  • develop capacity for self scrutiny—the trust in oneself to examine where their beliefs and assumptions come from, and the ability to change beliefs and assumptions in light of new evidence. 
  • practice empathetic listening as a response to the stories of others, including published autobiographical accounts and accounts of peers. 

Naming these goals could give students a more sophisticated lens for understanding, say, the purpose of class discussion or the enormous and transferable value of some of what they’re practicing.

TEP offers its Inclusive Teaching Syllabus Annotation Activity as a tool to see how the very architecture of the course—its faculty contact details, policies, activity, and feedback sequencing, etc.—might reflect a commitment to inclusive teaching.

Building class community 

The course planning ideas above begin to set the stage for a class in which students feel known, the content is compelling and approachable, and the goals for student learning are clear. Simple, doable teaching practices like administering pre-class student surveys, playing “icebreakers,” and articulating clear, meaningful learning goals (and with them, a shared purpose) can begin to build a sense of the class—even a large class—as community. 

Beyond that, establishing reliable class rituals and standards as a way of strengthening that community’s ability to work together. For example, some faculty facilitate a discussion early in the term about discussion itself: what makes discussion productive; how to treat each other when different views inevitably emerge; how to proceed if the conversation becomes heated; etc. Some instructors even type these up as a guide for the class and return to it, reflect on it, even revise it at different moments in the term. 

For example, UO Composition Program’s Avinnash Tiwari “slows down” class discussion of a controversial text by asking participants to summarize the previous respondent’s point first, then cite a line from the text when articulating their own idea or question. In this way, the class listens actively to each of its members and to the text itself; moreover, the class creates a way of talking together that is special to the class and distinct from other ways of interacting—a ritual of the community. 

Structured activities like group work with roles (critic, proponent, visualizer, researcher, etc.) that draw on students’ strengths, or like “jigsaws” that ask students to develop expertise on pieces of problems/puzzles, then “teach” their groups, or even rotate as visiting experts to other groups, may also help students come to appreciate and rely on one another. To boost students’ attentiveness to one another and sense of the class itself as a resource, some faculty are even experimenting with asking students to cite a peer’s discussion comments in an essay or recount peer comments as credit-bearing questions on quizzes and exams. 

Conducting class 

For faculty members, inclusive teaching can mean a small but powerful, even joyful, shift of focus from course content alone toward the human presence of the students who are with us. This can mean practicing some “immediacy behaviors”—smiling, making eye contact, calling students by name, removing physical barriers between oneself and one’s students, occasionally praising student comments or work, etc. [8]. And inclusive teaching can mean drawing from a rich set of examples, case studies, and images that work across cultures, ages, and socioeconomic groups; explaining American idioms for international students; asking about and using preferred names and pronouns; and continuing to check in with students about their learning and sense of the class climate [9]. Indeed, class climate is not peripheral to student learning: “a negative climate may impede student learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize students learning” [10]

TEP’s Jason Schreiner explains that inclusive teaching can also mean skilled facilitation of class discussion, particularly around sensitive or controversial issues. In addition to setting and returning to discussion guidelines, faculty can help students find their footing on new ground by articulating a sense of the goal or purpose of individual class discussions (i.e. why you think it’s important for the class to address an issue) and establishing a common starting point (like a passage from a text, image, scenario, or data set). 

See TEP's Strategies for Engaging with Difficult Topics, Strong Emotions, and Challenging Moments in the Classroom packet.

Faculty and GEs teaching controversial issues should be well prepared to address misinformation (what are the rates of incarceration by race in this country; how does gender affect pay); to name the tools their discipline or field of study offers the group as it approaches difficult questions (in other words, to prompt students beyond “what do you think?” toward “how does X shed light on Y?” or “what does the text challenge us to see?” or “what questions would a political scientist ask about this?”); and to actively facilitate the conversation. We may need to prompt students to clarify their positions, depersonalize potentially offensive comments, and validate or challenge comments. To this end, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning offers short scripts like: 

  • “I heard you saying Y; is that what you meant to say?” (clarify) 
  • “the proposal that such-and-such …. what does it leave out?”; “When I hear these words, I respond like this…” “Many people share this perspective. What might their reasons be?” And then: “And why might others disagree or object to this position?” (depersonalize from an individual speaker) 
  • When appropriate, validate [and challenge] the student’s contribution. You might say, “Thank you for raising that perspective. It’s widely held, and you provide us an opportunity to talk about it—and for me to explain why we’re challenging such a perspective in this class.” Or “You’re clearly thinking very seriously about this topic and raising important questions we need to think carefully about.” 

UO Environmental Studies’ Julie Bacon, for example, suggests articulating potentially problematic arguments oneself (which Bacon does playfully with the refrain “You might be thinking “But Julie…”) in order to diffuse them or provide more information as a starting point. Activities like role-playing the positions of various stakeholders or participating in a “believing and doubting game” can encourage students to lend themselves intellectually to new ideas and arguments [11]. Building in time for reflection in writing, before, after, or even during discussion can invite students into deeper engagement with the topic at hand and provide a record of their thinking for them to return to later. 

According to Sociologist Jack Meizrow, “transformative” learning “transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change” [10]. Meizrow outlined 10 stages of transformative learning, beginning with encountering a “disorienting dilemma” and advancing through stages associated with reintegrating new perspectives.  

Faculty might consider creating an assignment framework for students to work through emotions associated with disorientation and explore and even adopt new perspectives, like journaling assignments. Role-plays, letters to past or future selves or to past or future community institutions may also be very valuable as UO faculty support students in deep, rigorous, even transformative learning experiences. 

Teaching in Turbulent Times 

Beyond the proactive and responsive strategies for teaching inclusively and setting and maintaining a productive classroom climate outlined above, TEP and its campus partners provide guidance and support for faculty and graduate student instructors navigating teaching in a nationally divisive context.  

Please see Classroom Disruptions FAQs: Policy and Advice, Sample Responses and Classroom scenarios from Teaching in Turbulent Times Workshops, including TEP reflections. And these listings detail the support resources and team around your teaching work.


Works Cited 

[1] Magee, Rhonda V. “The Way of ColorInsight: Understanding Race and Law Effectively Through Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices.” Forthcoming in The Georgetown Law Journal of Modern Critical Race Perspectives, Spring 2016. Draft December 20, 2015. 

[2] Jordan, T. Hudson. “Moving from Diversity to Inclusion.” Profiles in Diversity Journal. 

[3] Adapted from Marchesani, Linda S. and Maurianne Adams. “Dynamics of Diversity in the Teaching-Learning Process: A Faculty Development Model for Analysis and Action.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 52 (Winter 1992): 9-20. The authors cite an unpublished paper by B. W. Jackson as the source of this model. 

[4] In Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass 2003), L. Dee Fink articulates a taxonomy for significant learning that includes foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn. 

[5] Story, Molly, et al. The Universal Design File: Designing for People of All Ages and Abilities. Raliegh, North Carolina State University, Center for Universal Design. 1998  

[6] Burgstahler, Sheryl. “Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.” Seattle, University of Washington, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology Center. 

[7] Kelly, Kevin. “Fostering Inclusion with Universal Design for Learning.” Diversity and Democracy, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 2014. AAC&U. 

[8] LeFebvre, Luke and Mike Allen. “Teacher Immediacy and Student Learning: An Examination of Lecture/Laboratory and Self-Contained Course Sections.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 14, no. 2, May 2014, pp 29-45. 

[9] Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence recommends passing out index cards and asking: 

  • I feel comfortable participating in this course: a) always b) often c) sometimes d) rarely e) never. 
  • One or two things that would make me feel more comfortable in this class would be: 

[10] Susan Ambrose et. al, How Learning Works,  157, citing Pascarella and Terezini, 1991. 

[11] an idea developed by Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers (Oxford UP 1973) 

[12 ] Meizrow’s stages are: (1) Experiencing disorienting dilemmas; (2) Undergoing self examination; (3) Conducting a critical assessment of internalized assumptions and feeling a sense of alienation from traditional social expectations; (4) Relating discontent to the similar experiences of others—recognizing that the problem is shared; (5) Exploring options for new ways of acting; (6) Building competence and confidence in new roles; (7) Planning a course of action; (8) Acquiring the knowledge and skills for implementing a new course of action; (9) Trying on new roles and assessing; (10) Reintegrating into society with a new perspective. 

[13] Meizrow qtd. in Cranton, Patricia. “Transformative Learning Theory,” from Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2006.