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Small Change: Tone & the Inclusive Classroom

26 Sep Image is of a square cardboard box with the word "suggestion" written on the two visible sides.

“Inclusive Classroom: Some Practices to Consider” is a resource developed by
the UMichigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching

In any discipline, instructors can take deliberate steps to ensure that all students feel welcomed and valued as part of the learning community. The following five general practices can be adapted to create an intentionally inclusive environment in any class.

Clarify expectations & goals for interactions

  • Clarify the instructor’s and students’ respective roles in shaping and guiding discussion. What are their responsibilities, what are yours? When and why might these shift?
  • Clarify your pedagogical aims for the ways students will consider course material relative to their own lived experiences. When, how much, and in what ways are students encouraged to share from their own experiences?
  • Provide discussion guidelines, or collaboratively generate them with your students. See examples at
  • Highlight the importance of respecting others’ perspectives, avoiding generalizations, and being careful not to ask other students to ‘represent’ a group you perceive them to belong to.
  • Ask students to write a ‘learning contract’ where they spell out their responsibilities and expectations for themselves as well as the sorts of professionalism they expect from you and their peers.

Build class rapport & community

  • Incorporate peer learning in your class, using pairs and groups in meaningful ways to enhance learning and provide practice with key skills and concepts.
  • Give students regular opportunities to reflect upon ways their learning has been enhanced by interaction with classmates. This could be as simple as asking them to reflect on their learning at the end of a session with the question, “What do you learn from someone else in today’s class?”
  • Use icebreakers throughout the semester. These can be activities or questions that are directly pertinent to course learning goals but give students opportunities to share from their individual experience.
  • Learn students’ names, use them, and encourage other students to use them. In large classes, this could include using name cards or nametags for at least the first several meetings.

Model inclusive language 

  • While speaking in class, mark as particular to only some students experiences that many may assume are shared by all (e.g., living in a house, being cared for by two parents, regularly taking vacations). You can use phrases such as, “For those of you who have been on an airplane,” or “If you grew up with siblings to whom you were biologically related…” This can help normalize and destigmatize experiences that are possible points of marginalization for your students.
  • On group assignments, acknowledge that some students will need to schedule around work or religious commitments that may take place at various points in the weekend. Propose ways to overcome transportation hurdles for those without access to a car.
  • On your syllabus: Include a statement inviting students to speak with you about possible accommodations for physical or learning disabilities. Include a note about the University policy on religious holidays. Refer to breaks by their seasonal names (e.g., “winter break,” not “Christmas break”).

Develop awareness of multiple & (in)visible identities  

This can take pressure off underrepresented students to play the role of those who “have” race, sexual orientation, a concern with ability, etc.

  • Carefully choose your examples (for illustrating course concepts) to be meaningful to students with a range of backgrounds, and acknowledge that not all students will share the same points of reference. For instance, if you’re using a sports example or analogy, you might acknowledge possible international backgrounds by prefacing it with, “In this example, “football” means U.S. football, not what Americans call soccer…”
  • Where comfortable and appropriate to course material, use your own identities to explain how one’s background can affect one’s engagement with course material, especially if there are ways you can complicate or unsettle common expectations.
  • Invite everyone in the room to think about how their experience has been shaped by their identities. For instance:  In turning to course content that raises questions about sexuality, you might launch discussion by asking students to reflect individually on: “Do you have a label for your sexual orientation? Where did you learn it? Why do you use it? Do you label your sexuality different in different settings? How permanent or true do those labels feel?” Similar questions could be asked about race. The importance here is that all students think about the same questions.

Address tensions & patterns of interaction 

This can help prevent conflicts from escalating and normalize respectful, productive disagreement in the classroom.

  • Name uncomfortable moments as such. You might say, “This topic is clearly raising some discomfort. I want to acknowledge that as we move into talking about it further.” Or “I sense a lot of big emotion in the room right now. Let’s figure out why this subject /these comments are having such an impact.”
  • Respectfully challenge student comments when they marginalize or devalue another group’s or student’s perspective or experience. You might say, “Let’s consider what perspectives that generalization leaves out.” Or “You might not realize how those words sound, but here’s what I hear when you say them….”
  • Periodically ask students to share anonymous feedback about classroom dynamics or about their individual participation patterns.
  • As necessary, remind students of class discussion guidelines and expectations for respectful classroom interactions.
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