Faculty and students exploring a Physics experiment

Creating an Inclusive Classroom

Diversity is about embracing all the ways in which we differ. Typical diversity dimensions include but are not limited to race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical ability, and sexual orientation. Your role as an instructor (i.e., faculty member, teaching assistant, undergraduate associate) is to create an inclusive classroom where all students feel engaged, feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions, are encouraged to explore different perspectives, and are respectful of you and each other.

The following tips are taken from Barbara Gross Davis’ chapter entitled “Diversity and Complexity in the Classroom: Considerations of Race, Ethnicity and Gender” in her excellent book, Tools for Teaching. There is no universal solution. You should try a variety of tactics and see what works for your classroom.

  • Recognize any biases or stereotypes you may have absorbed.
  • Treat each student as an individual, and respect each student for who they are.
  • Rectify any language patterns or case examples that exclude or demean any groups.
  • Do your best to be sensitive to terminology that refers to specific ethnic and cultural groups as it changes.
  • Get a sense of how students feel about the cultural climate in your classroom. Tell them that you want to hear from them if any aspect of the course is making them uncomfortable.
  • Introduce discussions of diversity at department meetings.
  • Become more informed about the history and culture of groups other than your own.
  • Convey the same level of respect and confidence in the abilities of all your students.
  • Don’t try to “protect” any group of students. Don’t refrain from criticizing the performance of individual students in your class on account of their ethnicity or gender. And be evenhanded in how you acknowledge students’ good work.
  • Whenever possible, select texts and readings whose language is gender-neutral and free of stereotypes, or cite the shortcomings of material that does not meet these criteria.
  • Aim for an inclusive curriculum that reflects the perspectives and experiences of a pluralistic society.
  • Do not assume that all students will recognize cultural, literary, or historical references familiar to you.
  • Bring in guest lecturers to foster diversity in your class.
  • Give assignments and exams that recognize students’ diverse backgrounds and special interests.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learningexternal link at Harvard University suggests the following:

  • Get to know each student individually. Learn their names and how to pronounce them correctly.
  • Ask and acknowledge each student’s thoughts about the subject. Accept all views as worthy of consideration. This practice lets students know from the very beginning that their thoughts have a place in the classroom, that there are differences and that the differences are welcomed.
  • Present all sides of an issue.
  • Ask students to research the position they’re least comfortable with and come prepared to articulate a defense of that posture.
  • Be open and friendly in and outside of class.

Syllabus

  • If relevant, consider including multiple voices, perspectives, and scholarship.
  • Include ground rules for classroom behavior and discussion such as being respectful to each other, listening actively to understand different points of views, and to engage in constructive dialogue. You may want to discuss this on the first day and invite students to add to the ground rules for the class for the rest of the semester.
  • Check the religious holidays before assigning dates for your tests and exams. Your students will appreciate your sensitivity to the different faiths in the classroom.
  • Have a variety of ways to present your course material and prepare an array of assignments and methods of assessing your students' work to facilitate learning for each and every one of your students.
  • Make sure that all class material is accessible for all students.
  • Include also a statement about accommodation for students with disabilities.

Monitoring Your Behavior and Language

  • Take note of your own ethnocentrism and preconceptions towards different groups of people. If left unchecked, these biases may become self-fulfilling prophecies with your students.
  • Be aware of how you communicate to your students, both verbally and in your body language.
    • Discard usage of outdated terms such as Orientals to describe Asians or Asian-Americans. If you are using older reading material, explain to your students about the change in terminology.
    • Use a gender neutral term if you are referring to both genders.

    • Refrain from using examples that reinforce common stereotypes. Using “he” when referring to engineers or “she” when referring to secretaries plays into the traditional stereotypes of these professions.
    • Pay attention to your assumption of a shared point of view with your students. Assuming that everyone goes to church on Sundays, for e.g., is insensitive to your Muslim students who attend Friday services at the mosque.
    • Minimize regional expressions and idioms in your lectures. Students from a different region or culture may miss your point all together. For example, if you have many international students in your class, and you use the idiom, “well, it’s all water under the bridge now,” it is highly unlikely that they will know what it means.
    • Pay attention to your eye contact with students. Do you subconsciously favor certain students over others?
    • Do not ask individual students to speak on behalf of the groups that you assume they belong to. This is not fair to the student and discounts the student’s unique individuality.