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Inclusive Teaching is Effective Teaching

To ensure that every student can succeed in our diverse, interdependent world, college instructors—indeed, all educators—must ensure that their instructional practices are inclusive. This NEA Thriving in Academe guide provides guidance around the critical teaching competency of inclusive teaching.
Illustration of entwined hands with a dozen multi-colored, emoji-style faces
Published: November 18, 2022

Key Takeaways

  1. Consider what you teach. If courses are designed based on the contributions and perspectives of individuals solely from a majority group, are they then truly built for inclusion?
  2. Affordability and accessibility also play a large role in inclusive teaching. Some students might be able to purchase course materials with financial ease, while others may not.
  3. An inclusive instructor recognizes that learners enter their course with varying knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and that knowing their starting points is necessary for effective instruction.

Students who enroll in colleges and universities can experience exclusion within learning environments. Some might face biases that result in fewer opportunities and psychological harm, while others lack the privilege of mentors. Learning systems might not be adequately built to support students with disabilities, and some courses might not be inclusively designed to meet the institution’s diversity of learners, resulting in students feeling they don’t belong.

Traditionally, much of higher education was built on exclusionary practices—with learners blamed for not assimilating into spaces that weren't designed for them. There is a need for introspective reflection in higher ed. And, given our deeply entrenched history of exclusion, making change may be like trying to climb a tall mountain. Yet there is hope. If educators and their institutions truly value the work of educating a diverse student population, instructors will ensure their instructional practices are inclusive. Diversity without inclusion will always fail to deliver on its promise.

How to Teach Inclusively

Inclusive teaching—in other words, instruction that is equitable and facilitates a welcoming environment for a diversity of learners—has always been critical. Currently the magnitude of its importance to higher education is being recognized. In my work, I encounter instructors across institutions eager to discuss what inclusive teaching practices can look like in their courses.

Each small step that an instructor takes—such as calling a student correctly by their name; giving affirmation to counter the effects of stereotype threat in learners subject to stigma pressures; connecting students with opportunities that support their development; taking time to check in with learners; and using growth mindset language such as “What can you try next time?”—can make all the difference to students who have not previously had such support. Inclusive instructors teach every student in the room, whether that space is online or on a physical campus.

Here are some other issues to keep in mind:

Course content. What is taught can affect course climate and positively influence students’ sense of belonging. If course content relies mostly on the contributions and perspectives of individuals from a majority group, are those courses truly built for inclusion? Even fields that are technical or scientific in nature have contributors from a variety of demographic backgrounds, including race or gender. Or, those contributors may have contributed to solving problems that are global or diverse in nature. Highlighting their contributions is important. When students learn about the positive contributions of individuals who share their social identities, their sense of belonging and self-efficacy increases. Furthermore, when students learn how to work with a variety of peers, they become better prepared for working in diverse teams later in their careers.

Affordability and access. Courses’ affordability and accessibility also play a large role in inclusive teaching. For example, some students might be able to purchase course materials with financial ease. Inclusive instructors keep in mind that their textbooks and other sources must be chosen with a diversity of learners in mind. Courses should also be accessible to students with disabilities and other medical conditions. We all need to take a hard look at the practices and principles employed in higher ed to make sure that we are not excluding our learners.

The science of learning. The application of basic principles, based on the science of how people learn, is also critical for inclusion. An inclusive instructor recognizes that learners enter their course with varying knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and that knowing their starting points is necessary for effective instruction. Low-stakes, ongoing assessments of student learning can provide integral feedback about their learning progress. Such opportunities are even more significant for students who haven't been afforded previous opportunities to learn similar or foundational information or skills.

An appropriate learning analogy is that of a GPS. Students might have different starting points in a course and they might also take different paths to reach their goals, which I consider provisional destinations as learning is an ongoing process. The feedback students receive through practice and low-stakes assessment (their GPS guide) can help them stay on the aligned path even if they start to deviate. In other words, one wrong turn should not hinder their arrival at their temporary destinations. In practicality, this means that when courses are based on just a few high-stakes assessments that do not account for learner diversity and growth, they can be exclusionary and so, when we create environments that enable students’ equitable engagement with their knowledge, course content, peers and instructors, we enable inclusive teaching practice.

Rewards Abound!

While I have explored inclusion as being mostly enacted by instructors, it is truly a partnership between teachers and learners. Students still need to engage in the course environments designed for inclusion to maximize their full potential. As in most multi-agent partnerships, successful inclusive-teaching approaches depend on an interplay of multiple factors, such as student characteristics, instructor attributes and philosophies of teaching, as well as course qualities, among others.

Rewards abound when inclusive teaching is effectively implemented. Consider the life-changing impacts experienced when a mentee achieves more than they imagined, when a first-generation college student graduates, when a learner struggling with life challenges such as the passing of a family member completes their degree and academic requirements, or when a student who felt they did not belong in higher ed simply finds the support and care needed.

Inclusive teaching has always been effective teaching and is even more critical as we battle a pandemic, mental health crises, enrollment and retention challenges, and social unrest. If we truly want a diversity of students to thrive in higher education, then we must make inclusive teaching imperative.

Meet Tracie Addy

Tracie Addy is co-author of What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching, one of Stylus Publishing’s best selling books. Dr. Addy is associate dean of teaching and learning and director of the Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship at Lafayette College. You can follow Dr. Addy on Twitter @TracieAddy.

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