Getting Started

An inclusive classroom invites and allows students to fully participate in the learning experience.[1] It also can increase participation and academic performance.[2] The initial steps outlined below can help you create more inclusive classroom environments.

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Watch this video on the value of a diverse curriculum
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Create an Inclusive Syllabus

In addition to outlining the overall structure of your course, a syllabus gives you an opportunity to convey your expectations for inclusivity.

Along with information about texts and topics, the syllabus may also convey your expectations on course interactions and what you want students to know, learn to do, and appreciate by the end of the course. A comprehensive syllabus is important for students to have in order to understand what they need to do in order to succeed.

Share your expectations

Clearly stating learning outcomes, assessment criteria, participation expectations, group work, and office hour information can help all students. Being transparent about these expectations is especially helpful for learners without prior knowledge of the University's expectations. It also can help normalize the University experience for students.[3] Some suggestions to consider incorporating into your syllabi include:

  • Be transparent about the structure of your course. Write and explain specific, measurable, active, achievable, relevant, and transparent (SMAART) learning goals for the course. Link these learning goals to course assessments.
  • Publish your office hours and encourage students to meet with you at least once during the quarter.
  • Share your expectations on student behavior during discussions, group work, and/or lab interactions.
  • Explain your assessment criteria, including the weights of assignments and opportunities for improvement.

Make texts accessible

Consider including the ISBN numbers with your textbook titles. This addition will allow students with disabilities to find versions that fit their needs. It also allows students to find lower-cost texts.

Use your syllabus to welcome students

Diversity and disability statements show that you value and respect diversity and create a sense of belonging for underrepresented students.[4] A diversity statement also emphasizes an understanding that difference is a necessary precursor to cultivating an atmosphere of open intellectual exchange[5] and let students understand the climate you hope to achieve. 


Appreciation for Diversity

The University of Chicago believes that a culture of rigorous inquiry demands an environment where diverse perspectives, experiences, individuals, and ideas inform intellectual exchange and engagement. I concur with this commitment and also believe that we have the highest quality interactions and can creatively solve more problems when we recognize and share our diversity. I thus expect to maintain a productive learning environment based on open communication, mutual respect, and non-discrimination. I view the diversity that students bring to this class as a resource, strength, and benefit. It is my intent to present materials and activities that are respectful of diversity. Any suggestions for promoting a positive and open environment will be appreciated and given serious consideration.

Students with Disabilities

I recognize that students in this class include people with a wide range of visible and invisible disabilities—cognitive, learning, emotional, psychological, and physical, and I welcome all students of various backgrounds and abilities. If there are circumstances that make our learning environment and activities difficult, please contact Student Disability Services at 773.702.6000, or to explore reasonable accommodations.

Students in Need

Graduate students facing challenges securing food or housing who believe this may affect their performance in the course are urged to contact Student Support Services at 773.702.5710 for support. Students in the College may contact the Center for College Student Success at 773.702.1234.

Reduce Anonymity

Consider getting to know your students in order to help them better connect with you and each other. Here are some things to try in class:

  • Introduce yourself on the first day of class.
  • Explain why you teach this course and why you chose your discipline to investigate the world, which helps students orient themselves to your discipline and your academic passions.
  • Learn students' names, how they like to be referred to, how to pronounce their names, and one of their interests relevant to the course. Think about incorporating students’ interests into your lectures and examples. This can help students connect new concepts to their prior knowledge and experiences.
  • Collect information about why students are taking the class and their experience with the subject matter. Refer to this information when you interact with students and use it to set an appropriate level for your lectures.
  • Make yourself available to students by arriving early for class, staying a little late, and encouraging students to see you during office hours.

Assess Student Backgrounds

Students enter our classrooms with varying skills, knowledge, values, and social and emotional experiences that influence how they engage in learning. Try to understand some of their starting points.

Students’ knowledge of disciplinary content and skills can differ greatly. For example, an International Baccalaureate student may have a different experience with higher-level chemistry than an Advanced Placement student. Also, an international graduate student who has lived in the United States for less than a year may have a different level of English speaking skills than students who have lived in this country their whole lives. It is thus helpful to assess students’ backgrounds.

In addition, students arrive with various experiences that can impact the way they learn and how they interact in the classroom. For example, whether they interrupt or wait to be acknowledged could be due to lessons learned from adults at home. Some students may answer questions with lengthy responses because they attended small schools and are used to interactive teaching, while other students who went to large high schools may respond briefly.

Learn more about students by offering to talk with them during office hours or organizing a class activity that allows students to provide autobiographical information.

Set Classroom Norms

Consider setting classroom norms to create a productive atmosphere.

Create guidelines for discussions, participation, and interaction in order to signal to students that their contributions are key to engagement in learning. Help students understand that classroom discussions provide an opportunity for them to develop communication skills and learn the value of collective exploration.

If there is time, create norms with students. If not, state classroom norms on your syllabus and/or present your principles of conduct on the first day. When setting norms with students, consider these elements:

  • Share your expectations for participation. Explain the role of collaborative learning, lectures, lab groups, and/or discussions.
  • Establish rules of classroom engagement with your students. Do you want students to raise their hands, speak freely, refer to each other by name, or introduce themselves before making a comment?
  • Decide together how disagreements will be handled.
  • Explain how you would like to be addressed and invite students to do the same.

You can also share some principles with students, discuss what each of the principles mean, and explain how they will be exercised in your course. Here is an example of a set of three principles that can be discussed with students on the first day:

  • Be respectful by actively listening, seeking to understand comments, and critiquing ideas (not people).
  • Be engaged by sharing your knowledge, coming prepared, and cooperatively working with your colleagues. 
  • Exercise intellectual curiosity and humility by asking questions, taking risks, and acknowledging times when you do not know an answer.

Communicate That All People Can Learn

In your policies, language, and approaches, try communicating that all people can learn.

Growth and fixed mindsets are a concepts developed more than 30 years ago by psychologist Carol Dweck, and they describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When people believe that they are unable to learn something (for example, a belief that "I'm not good at math"), they may fail to try. However, when people recognize that they can get smarter, they will likely put in extra time and effort that can lead to higher achievement. Dweck argues that students’ intellectual abilities thus can be developed by understanding the malleability of intelligence, identifying challenges, applying the right strategies, and persisting through difficulties. You can specifically promote a growth mindset by:

  • Explaining to students what it takes to perform well in the class.
  • Sharing that success is developed over time.
  • Providing opportunities to practice new skills and concepts.
  • Giving constructive feedback.

Attend to Terminology

Try using terms for groups of people that are currently accurate and inclusive of various identities. 

  • Learn how to refer to different demographic groups. For example, many people prefer the term people of color to minorities. African American may be a preferred term, while Caribbean or African students may want to be called Black. American students of Mexican ancestry may prefer Chicano/a, and others may prefer Hispanic or Latina/o/x.[6] Some students with disabilities prefer to be listed as a person first (i.e., person with bipolar disorder) and others identify with a disability (deaf person).
  • Whenever possible, use non-gendered terms. For example, refer to folkspeople, and actors instead of menwomen, and actresses.
  • Use parallel terms. For example, if you say men, then also say women and not girls.
  • When referring to religion, use specific names of places of worship

Welcome Diverse Perspectives

Every student varies in their understanding and acceptance of difference. Try to find ways to welcome their different paths and paces.

Each student is navigating different aspects of intellectual and emotional development and is not necessarily equipped to welcome multiple sources of knowledge and experience. You, as the instructor, can nudge movement along the arcs of development by signaling what is expected in the classroom.

Consider including some of these syllabus statements:

  • The University of Chicago believes that a culture of rigorous inquiry demands an environment where diverse perspectives, experiences, individuals, and ideas inform intellectual exchange and engagement. I concur with that commitment and expect to maintain a productive learning environment based upon open communication, mutual respect, and non-discrimination. Any suggestions as to how to further such a positive and open environment in the is class will be appreciated and given serious consideration.
  • Anonymous feedback is always an option.

Monitor the Climate

You may periodically ask students whether the classroom supports their learning and adjust as needed.

During the third and eighth weeks of the quarter, consider asking students for anonymous responses to questions such as:

  • Do you find that all students are called upon equally to participate in our course?
  • What makes it easy or difficult for you to contribute your ideas to discussions, projects, and group/lab activities in this class?
  • Do you think your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, or migrant status affects your interactions with the instructor, TA, or students in this class? How?
  • Do you have suggestions for encouraging open and candid interactions?

Through your syllabus, content, and learning activities, you can engage in inclusive pedagogical strategies at various levels. Consider these ways of approaching your course and activities with inclusivity in mind.

How can I make the learning environment more inclusive?

How can I make course design, syllabi, and curricular choices more inclusive?

How can I make learning interactions and activities (discussions, lectures, and labs) more inclusive?

How can I learn more about my biases and mitigate any negative impact?

  1. Hotchkins, B.K. & Dancy, T.E. (2015)
  2. Koshino, K. (2016)
  3. Davis, 2009
  4. Steele, 2010
  5. Plaut et al., 2009
  6. Gundemir et al., 2017