One of our TCU mottos is “You Belong Here” because we want all members of the TCU community to feel welcome and included on campus. Inclusive teaching provides instructors with the pedagogical tools necessary to ensure that students feel like they belong and can succeed in their classes. Inclusive teaching values students’ backgrounds and experiences and makes space for a multiplicity of learning styles and identities in the classroom.
After surveying the literature on inclusive teaching, I developed four principles of inclusive teaching to apply to my teaching at TCU. These principles, which draw heavily on those outlined in The Guide to Inclusive Teaching at Columbia, are as follows:
- Inclusive teaching fosters student-centered active learning.
- Inclusive teaching provides explicit goals and outcomes for student learning, as well as scaffolding and feedback to support students throughout their learning processes.
- Inclusive teaching prioritizes content and pedagogy that value diverse perspectives.
- Inclusive teaching encourages self-reflection, sharing, and collaboration among faculty.
These principles are important because they help all students succeed, not just those students who are best prepared for college learning in general—or for our particular classes. Indeed, studies show that inclusive teaching fosters students’ sense of belonging, engagement, and persistence in their fields of study and sets them up for success. Inclusive teaching also supports the recommendations made in TCU’s Vision in Action Report, which include commitments to “foster a diverse and inclusive university for all,” “provide a highly engaging and inclusive TCU experience,” and “encourage student success through an integrated and holistic student-support model.”
One important aspect of inclusive teaching is fostering students’ sense of belonging in the class. Here are a few ideas about how to create a course that communicates “You Belong Here” to students.
- Consider disciplinary assumptions about content and pedagogy, as well as your own cultural frame of reference. As instructors, we make decisions about what and how to teach based on our own disciplinary norms and life experiences. What assumptions underlie our choices about what and how we teach? How might those assumptions positively or negatively affect students’ engagement in the course? What choices can we make regarding our course content and pedagogy that optimizes students’ ability to meet the course learning outcomes? Being explicit with ourselves about our own assumptions and values allows us to both explore ways we can be more inclusive and teach students how to meet our expectations for their behavior and scholarship.
- Meet students where they are. In order to foster students’ understanding of and participation in scholarly conversations within and across disciplines, it helps to get to know them early in the semester. One way to do that is by assigning a Getting-to-Know-You questionnaire that asks for information about students’ goals and aspirations for the course and their time at TCU, their strengths and weaknesses as students, their commitments outside of our class, etc. I asked students to complete a “Getting-to-Know-You” questionnaire for the first time this semester, and I learned a great deal about them that shaped my pedagogy and my interactions with individual students. What’s more, many students mentioned that they appreciated my effort to learn about them and their learning styles. Since students’ prior knowledge of and attitudes about course content plays such an important role in their learning, it can also be important to assess what students know, don’t know, or misunderstand about course material. Such an assessment could include a multiple-choice test, a clicker exercise, free-writing prompts, or a short essay. Understanding where students begin as a group helps us to think explicitly about how to help all students meet the course learning outcomes.
- Sequence assignments and concepts strategically. Students can easily become overwhelmed by how much they have to learn or do in order to complete a particular assignment—or to make it through the entire semester. One effective antidote to student concerns and springboard for student learning is to sequence assignments so that each one provides a building block for what follows. Being explicit with students about the step-by-step processes for their learning helps them feel more comfortable with the scope of particular projects and the course as a whole while also maximizing their learning.
- Teach students how to talk to each other about diversity and social justice. Teaching students how to talk with each other about diversity and social justice has been the most difficult aspect of teaching for me. I’ve had to begin by learning for myself how to talk about challenging topics—and by recognizing that I will always be a learner in this area. Incorporating TCU’s Intentional Dialogue training into my course has become a vital part of my classes because the training provides us with TCU’s shared skills and values for effective communication. I also ask students to develop community agreements for class discussion at the beginning of the semester. Both processes take time, but they model for students the value and importance of community dialogue, which includes listening carefully and understanding what others have to say.
- Create assignments for diverse learning styles. Over the past several semesters, I’ve been working to develop assignments that allow students to demonstrate mastery over course material in various ways. I have extensive training as a writing teacher, and I’m a firm believer in the vital role that writing plays in student learning. But not all students are confident writers, and many students’ fear about writing assignments can impact their ability to communicate what they have learned, regardless of whether or not they are actually competent writers. This semester, my co-teacher Jane Mantey and I asked students to complete reading reflections on the majority of texts in our Intersectional Activism and Social Justice class. Some of the students excelled at the reading responses, but others struggled. At Jane’s suggestion, we told students that they could submit an essay, a PowerPoint presentation, or an audio or video recording of their responses to the course texts. Once students were given a choice of medium, the number of students who demonstrated mastery over the material increased dramatically. Our students are still demonstrating the learning outcomes, even if they aren’t doing it in the way I initially considered to be the “best” way.
Making the switch to inclusive teaching doesn’t require an “all-or-nothing” approach. I’ve been incorporating these teaching strategies into my classes slowly over time as I have become more comfortable with this pedagogical approach. For more information about inclusive teaching, consider downloading the Guide to Inclusive Teaching at Columbia or signing up for the Columbia University Inclusive Teaching MOOC. They are both worth your time!