Creating an Inclusive Classroom

The following guidelines and resources for creating an inclusive classroom were developed for DU faculty by the Center for Multicultural Excellence.

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One of the current salient topics in higher education is the increasing diversification of our institutions of higher learning and the conceptualization, understanding, and management of campus diversity.  Enrollment data continue to suggest that the student demographics of colleges and universities continue to change. Today, it is not uncommon to find a variety of groups on college campuses including women, men, Asians, African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, gay men, lesbians, bisexual individuals, international students, re-entry students, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, individuals from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and many other categories of students.  The University of Denver is no different than other institutions of higher learning.  In addition to having approximately 16% students of color, the multiplicity of important and valued groups mentioned above also form part of the University’s diverse student body.

The Diverse College Classroom

When considering campus diversity, it is clear that a diverse campus presents both challenges and opportunities.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the college classroom.

When considering the challenges that diversity presents in the college classroom, there are many documented cases of faculty and students continuing to experience conflict and tension related to the different views and backgrounds represented in the classroom. Examples of these types of conflict include a heterosexual student exclaiming in class that gays and lesbians do not have a right to exist and refers to the bible to support her argument. Or a faculty member asking the only Chicano in the classroom to educate the rest of the class on the topic of Mexican immigration patterns, a topic with which the student is not very familiar.  Similarly, three male students continuously disrupting the class by directing sexist comments at a teaching assistant and a White student threatening an African American female over her views on affirmative action are also examples of the challenges that diversity poses in the college classroom. Add to these incidents of cultural and personal misunderstandings, institutional discrimination, inadequate or no training for faculty on issues of diversity in the classroom, and lack of preparation of students for engaging in productive classroom discussions and what emerges is a picture of tense college campuses and classrooms waiting to be disrupted as a result of these and other incidents.

Create a Safe Space and Welcoming Environment

On the positive side, there are instances where faculty have used and are using diversity in the classroom as an opportunity or asset to enhance teaching and learning.  Examples of this include an instructor who organizes a fishbowl discussion of male students to discuss their attitudes toward women after a student makes a controversial remark in class. Or a faculty member teaching students about the difference between a debate and a dialogue in order to have productive expressions of free speech and thereby enhancing the learning process. And finally, students receiving and learning about ground rules for classroom discussions related to respect, free speech, and personalizing the issues are also examples of using diversity as a tool for achieving educational outcomes.  In sum, the prospects of diversity involve using the multiple perspectives, cultures, languages, and other characteristics that different social identities bring to the class as an asset or a tool to create greater understanding and knowledge about these issues. We acknowledge that this task is not easy and requires special skills and techniques.

A safe and welcoming classroom is defined as an environment in which all students feel comfortable in expressing themselves and participating fully in the educational process

One of the critical components of a successful classroom that maximizes the educational benefits to all students is safe space and a welcoming environment. A hostile and tense classroom can be very unproductive for the educational growth and development of all students.

Both students and faculty have a role and responsibility in creating a safe and welcoming classroom environment. The following are suggested guidelines specifically for faculty and teaching assistants who wish to 1) insure that the broadest range of opinions and ideas on topics are expressed in the classroom in a manner that generates constructive dialogue (rather than destructive discussions) and 2) maintain and protect the dignity of all students and the groups to which they belong.   Instructors are not required to adopt the suggested rules.  However, those wishing to do so can make them explicit by placing them in the course syllabus and/or reviewing them during the first day of class.

Establish Ground Rules

Establishing strong expectations with students at the beginning (i.e., the first day of class) about the type of conduct and climate that the faculty member expects is crucial for creating a welcoming classroom environment.  As part of the process of creating norms, ground rules for conduct and dialogue can be helpful in honoring both free speech and the dignity, respect, and worth of everyone in the classroom.

Establishing ground rules for conduct and dialogue in the classroom can be extremely helpful in both. This can be accomplished by establishing strong expectations from the very beginning about how class discussions will proceed, particularly those involving controversial and difficult topics.  Explicitly stating the norms for dialogue will establish a climate of understanding about how to engage in difficult discussions. These guidelines are suggestions only and by no means required or comprehensive.

The point is that strong expectations about how dialogue in the classroom will take place should be established by an instructor prior to involving the students in difficult or controversial discussions.

  • In order to create a climate for open and honest dialogue and to encourage the broadest range of viewpoints, it is important for class participants to treat each other with respect.  Name calling, accusations, verbal attacks, sarcasm, and other negative exchanges are counter productive to successful teaching and learning about topics.
  • The purpose of class discussions is to generate greater understanding about different topics. The expression of the broadest range of ideas, including dissenting views, accomplishes this goal. However, in expressing viewpoints, students should try to raise questions and comments in way that will promote learning, rather than defensiveness and conflict in other students. Thus, questions and comments should be asked or stated in such a way that will promote greater insight into and awareness of topics as opposed to anger and conflict.

Example of a question that may put students on the defensive: Why do you insist on calling yourself Hispanic? That’s wrong. It seems to me that Latino is the correct term? Can you explain to me why you insist on using the term Hispanic?

Example of a non-defensive question: I don’t understand. What is the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino?

  • Learning is both about sharing different views and actively listening to those with different views.  Students in this class are expected to do both.  Learning is maximized when many different viewpoints are expressed in the classroom.
  • Keep the discussion and comments on the topic, not on the individual.  Don’t personalize the dialogue. Rather than personalizing the dialogue, please direct challenging comments or questions to the instructor or the entire class.
  • Remember that it is OK to disagree with each other.  Let’s agree to disagree. The purpose of dialogue and discussion is not to reach a consensus, nor to convince each other of different viewpoints. Rather, the purpose of dialogue in the classroom is to reach higher levels of learning by examining different viewpoints and opinions.
  • Everyone is expected to share.  Keep in mind that the role of the instructor is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard in class.

Recommended Language for your Syllabus

Instructors are not required to adopt this suggested language.  However, those wishing to do so can make ground rules explicit by placing them in the course syllabus and/or reviewing them during the first day of class.

Suggested Ground rules for Dialogue

  1. Respect Each Other. In order to create a climate for open and honest dialogue and to encourage the broadest range of viewpoints, it is important for class participants to treat each other with respect.  Name calling, accusations, verbal attacks, sarcasm, and other negative exchanges are counter productive to successful teaching and learning about topics.
  2. Discuss with the Purpose of Generating Greater Understanding. The purpose of class discussions is to generate greater understanding about different topics. The expression of the broadest range of ideas, including dissenting views, accomplishes this goal. However, in expressing viewpoints, students should try to raise questions and comments in way that will promote learning, rather than defensiveness and conflict in other students. Thus, questions and comments should be asked or stated in such a way that will promote greater insight into and awareness of topics as opposed to anger and conflict.
  3. Don’t Personalize the Dialogue. Keep the discussion and comments on the topic, not on the individual.  Don’t personalize the dialogue. Rather than personalizing the dialogue, please direct challenging comments or questions to the instructor or the entire class.
  4. Agree to Disagree. Remember that it is OK to disagree with each other.  Let’s agree to disagree. The purpose of dialogue and discussion is not to reach a consensus, nor to convince each other of different viewpoints. Rather, the purpose of dialogue in the classroom is to reach higher levels of learning by examining different viewpoints and opinions.
  5. Participate and Share. Everyone is expected to share.  Keep in mind that the role of the instructor is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard in class.

Tips for Creating an Inclusive Classroom

  • Create opportunities to get to know your students.
  • Engage with your students in respectful and collaborative ways.
  • Be accessible and encourage students to meet with you during office hours.
  • Ask students to indicate their preferred name and ask them privately for help with pronounciation.
  • Ask students to notify you of any accommodation needs by the end of the first week of class (and keep accommodation needs private).
  • Be aware of, and briefly explain, cultural references you use in class.
  • Identify the purpose of assignments beforehand and allow time for reflection and closure afterwards.
  • Mix up groups so that multiple perspectives are heard and students are not left out.
  • Speak clearly and use a reasonable rate of speed.
  • Develop classroom materials that explore multiple perspectives on the topic.
  • Incorporate multicultural examples, materials, and visual aids when possible.
  • When making up examples use diverse names and cultural references.
  • Encourage students to make personal connections with the content and share those when appropriate.
  • Be explicit about assumed norms such as plagiarism, citation style, and exactly what kind of help students are permitted to use in their assignments.
  • Require drafts of assignments and provide feedback along the way.
  • Consider alternative ways for students to fulfill participation requirements when appropriate.
  • Be aware of your own identity and how you portray yourself in class.
  • Be aware of your own assumptions about students based on surnames or skin tone.
  • Keep expectations high – hold students accountable while allowing them to be successful!

Who to contact?

Additional Resources

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