The Simple Secret to Creating a More Inclusive and Equitable Classroom

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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

A question I often get from instructors is: How can I make my classroom more inclusive and equitable for all students?

My answer: Get to know your students.

This response usually takes people off guard because they are expecting a checklist of defined things that they can do that will result in an inclusive and equitable classroom. While these types of lists do exist (see here and here), what I have found over time is that what works well in one classroom might not work so well in others. So although I don’t have a definitive answer for what will make your classroom more inclusive and equitable, I do know who will: your students.

Getting to know your students is a simple, but powerful way to create a more inclusive and equitable classroom because it gives you three key things:

1) Awareness of the specific equity issues your students face

As you get to know your students and their unique situations, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, you’ll gain a better understanding of what exactly is getting in the way of their success. You’ll be able to see what the specific equity issues are for your students and the impact this is having on them as learners. This is important, because awareness is the first step toward making positive change.

For example, as I got to know my students, I learned that many of them were parents or guardians of young children and almost all of them had jobs, often involving long commutes. In fact, several students shared with me that between work, school, and home, they were commuting more than four hours a day! Learning this helped me realize that for many students, just making it to class was a huge accomplishment in and of itself, and that when I asked them to do things outside of class time, I was disadvantaging the students who were already overwhelmed with all of the other responsibilities they had. I also noticed that these students tended to express lower self-confidence in their ability to succeed, struggled to complete the course work, didn’t perform as well, and often ended up dropping the course.

2) Targeted ways to make your classroom more equitable and inclusive

Having a better understanding of what the specific equity issues are for your students will help to inform what can be done to create classroom conditions that give them a fair chance and set them up for success, not failure. In other words, once you can see the problem, then the solution becomes clear.

In my case, when I learned how much effort my students were putting into attending classes, it helped me realize that I needed to respect their time in class and give them credit for it. I decided to change my grading scheme to award more points for in-class assignments and reduce the amount of work I expected them to do outside of class. I also set aside class time for students to work together on group projects, instead of expecting them to do this outside of class (which had the added benefit of allowing me to more closely monitor and attend to group dynamics). No longer penalized for having outside responsibilities and seeing value in participating in class, I found that students were more engaged during in-class activities, performed better in the course, and were much less likely to drop.

3) Motivation for taking action

It can be difficult to make changes to your course or teaching practices, but as you become aware of how your students are being disadvantaged and the negative impact this is having on them, it becomes even more difficult to maintain the status quo. Inequities lose their abstraction when you see that there are real people behind them and real lives that are being affected, which can provide strong motivation for doing something to alleviate the problem.

Once I became aware that many of my students did not have much time outside of class to dedicate to my course, I could not longer in good conscience continue to expect this of them. I saw that how I had set up the course was not working for my students and that there was nothing wrong with them—rather, it was my grading scheme and my unrealistic expectations of their availability outside of class that were the problem. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to make changes to my course and grading scheme, but seeing how my students were being negatively affected motivated me to take action.

I realize that my students are not your students and my classroom context is not your classroom context, so the specific equity issues that your students face and how you might best address them will probably look different than the example I shared above. Inclusive and equitable teaching is going to look different in different contexts, and while there is no one right way that works for all classrooms, there is a right way for your classroom. Therefore, the most important thing you can do is to get to know your students.

(And a bonus advantage of getting to know your students is that it will allow you to build trust and rapport with them, which can also help students feel included and supported in the classroom.)

So, how can you get to know your students? Check out this article for 12 strategies you can use, many of which were suggested by students themselves.

Are there any other ways that getting to know students can help you create a more inclusive and equitable classroom, or any strategies you’ve used that you’d like to share? Please include them in the comments below or send me an email—I’d love to hear them!

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