Inclusive Pedagogy

There is much to say about the broad approach to teaching called "inclusive pedagogy," so this white paper will be limited to a few best practices based on research--others' and my own collaborations.  You'll find plenty of additional resources at the bottom of the page,


Inclusive pedagogy may call to mind the UW System's attention to Inclusive Excellence. Worth noting is that both define "diversity" inclusively, encompassing "individual differences (e.g. personality, learning styles, and life experiences) and group/social differences (e.g. race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability as well as cultural, political, religious, or other affiliations) that can be engaged in the service of learning."
and future VTLC white papers and programs will address specific issues that fall under the idea of teaching in ways that include and accommodate the experiences of the increasingly varied students that enter our classrooms. Also, the first VTLC podcast was related to teaching more inclusively, and the VTLC's first workshop (available March 28) will focus on teaching in ways that help the students most at risk of making a successful transition to college-level academic learning.  

Best Practices in Pedagogy:  Teaching Inclusively

Approaching the Classroom & the Students

First, listen to last week's podcast with Cyndi Kernahan and/or see her handout about social psychologists' work on "stereotype threat," or the "apprehension people feel when performing a task in which their group is stereotyped as lacking ability" and the accompanying "fear that they'll fulfill the stereotype" in others' minds (Steele 1997, 1999).  Without understanding how this phenomenon applies to many students of color, women in math/science/engineering, non-traditional aged students in traditional settings, and probably by extension first-generation college students on college campuses, LGBTQ students in heteronormative settings, et al., we are more apt to make the accidental missteps that alienate and overwhelm these students.  Near the end of the podcast and her handout, Cyndi offers recommendations that will help minimize this threat to these students' sense of belonging in class and their success in high-stakes performances.  

Shaun R. Harper (2009), supporting a point Cyndi made in the podcast, discourages what some see as the ideal approach: color-blindness.  He claims  that it "denies the unique experiential realities" and any "qualitative differences in the experiences" of students coming from varied backgrounds and instead encourages educators to think about the difference between "equality (treating all students the same) and equity (giving students what they need to accrue the same outcome as others in a particular context)" (42). Over time, we learn that all of our students aren't the same: they bring different histories, worries, lives, levels of preparedness, expectations, experiences, and pre- and misconceptions into our classrooms.  If we walk into the classroom with a goal of equity, we recognize and begin to teach in ways that accommodate rather than ignore those differences.

Similar to the notions of color-blindness and equality (both of which presume sameness and ignore the different experiences of our students, experiences that affect their learning) is Craig E. Nelson's 1996 point about neutrality, which--as a biologist--he confesses to have subscribed to until he read the research even back in the early 1990s.  Not one for mincing words, Nelson admits that "much of what I took as neutral teaching practice actually functions to keep our courses less accessible to students from non-traditional backgrounds....  ([A]lmost) all traditionally taught courses are unintentionally but nevertheless deeply biased in ways that make substantial differences in performance for many students" (165). 

Planning Class Activities
After Nelson's epiphany (above), he incorporated a few significant practices into how he designed and taught his courses, very briefly summarized with the article's page numbers where you'll find fuller explanations:
    • "Take control of the social systems" of the classroom to help the students achieve (166).  For instance, if certain groups of students are used to working and studying alone, but peer groups have been shown to improve retention and performance, create structured peer or study groups.  Teach students to approach learning as a collaborative, social activity, rather than a solitary one.
    • Avoid "fixed, one-shot deadlines" when possible because they rely more on the student's social class background than on what the student has learned (169-171).
    • Explicitly teach disciplinary discourse (167-169). What it means to read, write, respond to essay questions, discuss, argue, supply evidence, etc.--these all differ by discipline.  When we don’t make these moves explicit and teach students what they mean, what they look like, and how to practice them, we leave students in the dark—unless they come to the course already familiar with academic cultures and disciplinary conventions.
A 2009 study (Chick, Karis, and Kernahan) analyzed students' reflective writings about their own learning about race in a variety of disciplines and then compared these results with an established quantitative survey about racial attitudes.  Despite the focus of this study on teaching racial issues, since less pedagogical research has been done on other types of diversity (for now), its findings are useful in thinking about how we teach in ways that embrace broader conceptions of diversity and inclusivity.  The study's recommendations include the following practices, again briefly summarized with page numbers for fuller explanations:
  • class discussions that specifically involve expressing multiple perspectives (14)
  • class discussions that specifically encourage the expression of students' cognitive and affective processes, or what they're thinking and feeling about what they're learning (14)
  • opportunities to practice and experience empathy with others, including the discussion types noted above, as well as the use of narratives or anecdotes to supplement and "humanize" facts, theories, and quantitative information (15)
  • activities that encourage metacognitive and meta-affective practice, or those that allow students to think through and articulate what they're thinking and feeling, such as preparatory materials that outline common or  "normal" responses, opportunities for reflection in class discussions (perhaps anonymous) or private journals, et al.  (15-17)

Best Practices in Selecting Content: Teaching Inclusivity

Thinking about Course Content
If you teach any content related to diversity, the Chick, Karis, and Kernahan study may also be useful in thinking about what kind of content you select.  The students in a variety of disciplines reported that the topics, assignments, and texts that "helped them learn most" included themes that "challenged, revised, or rendered more complex what [they] had previously assumed" (Chick, Karis, and Kernahan 13). Think about the content you select.  Does it simply confirm students' assumptions and expectations about the topic, or does at least some of it challenge them?  Perhaps even juxtapose both types--creating a "conversation" between students' expectations and what challenges them, or what Gerald Graff has called "teaching the conflicts."

This study also identified a few obstacles--both cognitive and affective--that students may experience in their learning process (9-12).  The recommendations listed above for this study help respond to these obstacles:
  • Dualistic thinking and oversimplification of complex issues or ideas (cognitive practices recognized as fairly typical of traditional-aged college students by cognitive psychology, as explained in the VTLC's first white paper on Cognitive Development)
  • The absence of a process for dealing with the emotions that often arise in response to subject matter that challenges their expectations and comfort zones 

For Further Study, Reflection, and/or Discussion

Reflect, Respond, or Interact

How does this white paper encourage you to think about the conventional concept of "diversity"? How do you see this broader conception of diversity in your classrooms?  What practices listed here will you try in your class, and how so?

To respond to the idea of inclusive pedagogy, feel free to send your thoughts to You can also interact with the content and each other more directly on this VoiceThread page.  (Need a VoiceThread tutorial?  Go here.)