Fostering an Inclusive Classroom: A Practical Guide

Ah, the summer season has begun! I love this time of year, yes for the sun and the beach and baseball games and long, lazy summer reading, but also because it gets me thinking about new beginnings. I’ve always operated on a school-year calendar mindset, so if you’re like me, you’re probably reflecting on the successes and shortcomings of the past year, preparing for the upcoming fall semester, or maybe even launching into a new summer semester now. As campuses become more diverse, fostering an inclusive learning environment becomes increasingly important, yet the prospect of how to do so can be daunting. So where to start?

First, recognize that there is not just one way to create an inclusive classroom. Often, the most effective tactics you use may be discipline-, regional-, campus-, or classroom-specific. Inclusive teaching is a student-oriented mindset, a way of thinking that challenges you to maximize opportunities for all students to connect with you, the course material, and each other.

Second, being proactive before a semester begins can save you a lot of time, headaches, and conflict down the road. Set aside some dedicated time to critically evaluate your course structure, curriculum, assignments, and language choices before ever interacting with your students. Consider which voices, perspectives, and examples are prominent in your class materials, and ask yourself which ones are missing and why. Try to diversify the mode of content representation (lectures, videos, readings, discussions, hands-on activities, etc.) and/or assessments types (verbal vs. diagrammed, written vs. spoken, group vs. individual, online vs. in-class, etc.). Recognize the limits of your own culture-bound assumptions, and, if possible, ask for feedback from a colleague whose background differs from your own.

Third, know that you don’t have to change everything all at once. If you are developing an entirely new course/preparation, you’ll have less time to commit to these endeavors than you might for a course you’ve taught a few times already. Recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than completely overwhelming yourself and your students to the point of ineffectiveness (Trust me, I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty!)

Below, I have included some practical ways to make a classroom more inclusive, but this list is far from comprehensive. As always, feedback is much appreciated!

Part 1: Course Structure and Student Feedback

These strategies require the largest time commitment to design and implement, but they are well worth the effort.

  • Provide opportunities for collaborative learning in the classroom. Active learning activities can better engage diverse students, and this promotes inclusivity by allowing students from diverse backgrounds to interact with one another. Furthermore, heterogeneous groups are usually better problem-solvers than homogeneous ones.
  • Implement a variety of learning activity types in order to reach different kinds of learners. Use poll questions, case studies, think-pair-share, jigsaws, hands-on activities, oral and written assignments, etc.
  • Select texts/readings whose language is gender-neutral or stereotype-free, and if you run across a problem after the fact, point out the text’s shortcomings in class and give students the opportunity to discuss it.
  • Promote a growth mindset. The language you use in the classroom can have a surprising impact on student success, even when you try to be encouraging. How many of us have said to our students before a test, “You all are so smart. I know you can do this!”? It sounds innocent enough, but this language conveys that “being smart” determines success rather than hard work. Students with this fixed mindset are more likely to give up when confronted with a challenge because they don’t think they are smart/good/talented enough to succeed. Therefore, when we encourage our students before an assessment or give them feedback afterwards, we must always address their effort and their work, rather than assigning attributes (positive or negative) to them as people.
  • Convey the same level of confidence in the abilities of all your students. Set high expectations that you believe all students can achieve, emphasizing the importance of hard work and effort. Perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining high expectations for every student, even those who have performed poorly in the past. However, assuming a student just can’t cut it based on one low exam grade may be as damaging as assuming a student isn’t fit due to their race, gender, background, etc.
  • Be evenhanded in praising your students. Don’t go overboard as it makes students feel like you don’t expect it of them.

Part 2: Combating Implicit Bias

Every one of us harbors biases, including implicit biases that form outside of our conscious awareness. In some cases, our implicit biases may even run counter to our conscious values. This matters in the classroom because implicit bias can trigger self-fulfilling prophecies by changing stereotyped groups’ behaviors to conform to stereotypes, even when the stereotype was initially untrue. Attempting to suppress our biases is likely to be counterproductive, so we must employ other strategies to ensure fairness to all our students.

  • Become aware of your own biases, by assessing them with tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test ( or by self-reflection. Ask yourself: Do I interact with men and women in ways that create double standards? Do I assume that members of one group will need extra help in the classroom – or alternatively, that they will outperform others? Do I undervalue comments made by individuals with a different accent than my own?
  • Learn about cultures different than your own. Read authors with diverse backgrounds. Express a genuine interest in other cultural traditions. Exposure to different groups increases your empathy towards them.
  • Take extra care to evaluate students on individual bases rather than social categorization / group membership. Issues related to group identity may be especially enhanced on college campuses because this is often the first time for students to affirm their identity and/or join single-identity organizations / groups.
  • Recognize the complexity of diversity. No person has just one identity. We all belong to multiple groups, and differences within groups may be as great as those across groups.
  • Promote interactions in the classroom between different social groups. Even if you choose to let students form their own groups in class, mix it up with jigsaw activities, for example.
  • Use counter-stereotypic examples in your lectures, case studies, and exams.
  • Employ fair grading practices, such as clearly-defined rubrics, anonymous grading, grading question by question instead of student by student, and utilize activities with some group points and some individual points.

Part 3: Day-to-Day Classroom Culture

These suggestions fall under the “biggest bang for your buck” category. They don’t require much time to implement, but they can go a long way to making your students feel more welcome in your classroom.

  • Use diverse images, names, examples, analogies, perspectives, and cultural references in your teaching. Keep this in mind when you choose pictures/cartoons for your lectures, prepare in-class or take-home activities, and write quiz/test questions. Ask yourself if the examples you are using are only familiar or relevant to someone with your background. If so, challenge yourself to make it accessible to a wider audience.
  • Pay attention to your terminology and be willing to adjust based on new information. This may be country-, region-, or campus-specific, and it may change over time (e.g. “minority” vs. “historically underrepresented”). When in doubt, be more specific rather than less (e.g. “Korean” instead of “Asian”; “Navajo” instead of “Native American”).
  • Use inclusive and non-gendered language whenever possible (e.g. “significant other/partner” instead of “boyfriend/husband,” “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” “parenting” instead of “mothering”).
  • Make a concerted effort to learn your students’ names AND pronunciations. Even if it takes you a few tries, it is a meaningful way to show your students you care about them as individuals.
  • Highlight the important historical and current contributions to your field made by scientists belonging to underrepresented groups.
  • Limit barriers to learning. You will likely have a list of your own, but here are a few I’ve compiled:
    • Provide lecture materials before class so that students can take notes on them during class.
    • Use a microphone to make sure all students can hear you clearly.
    • Consider using Dyslexie font on your slides to make it easier for dyslexic students to read them.
    • Speak slowly and limit your use of contractions so that non-native-English speakers can understand you more easily.
    • Write bullet points on the board that remain there for the whole class period, including the main points for that lecture, important dates coming up, and key assignments.
    • Be sensitive to students whose first language is not English and don’t punish them unnecessarily for misusing idioms.

As a final parting message, always try to be mindful of your students’ needs, but know that you don’t have everything figured out at the outset. Make time to reevaluate your approach, class materials, and activities to see where improvements can be made. Challenge yourself to continually improve and hone better practices. Listen to your students, and be mindful with the feedback you ask them to give you in mid-semester and/or course evaluations.

For more information, I recommend the following resources:

  1. Davis, BG. “Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom.” Tools for Teaching (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. p 57 – 71. Print.
  2. Eredics, Nicole. “16 Inclusive Education Blogs You Need to Know About!” The Inclusive Class, 2016 July 27.
  3. Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C. “Diversity.” Scientific Teaching. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2007. p 65 – 82. Print.
  4. “Instructional Strategies: Inclusive Teaching and Learning.” The University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center.

Laura Weise Cross is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Millersville University, beginning in the fall of 2019, where she will be teaching courses in Introductory Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Nutrition. Laura received a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Pathology from the University of North Carolina. She recently completed her post-doctoral training in the Department of Cell Biology & Physiology at the University of New Mexico, where she studied the molecular mechanisms of hypoxia-induced pulmonary hypertension. Laura’s research is especially focused on how hypoxia leads to structural remodeling of the pulmonary vessel wall, which is characterized by excessive vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation and migration. She looks forward to engaging undergraduate students in these projects in her new research lab.

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