For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Inclusive Class Climate

Fostering belonging

Not all students feel at home in academia: many question their place in our classes, disciplines, and higher education in general. Helping students feel respected and valued can go a long way towards mitigating belonging uncertainty and promoting student success. Perceptions of belonging influence multiple aspects of the academic experience, including adjustment, motivation, engagement, grades, and retention.

We can help students strengthen their sense of belonging in a number of ways:

  • Curating diverse course content and providing counter-stereotypical role models
  • Using correct student names and pronouns
  • Expressing interest in student contributions and progress
  • Modeling inclusive language
  • Employing identity safety cues (ISCs) to signal acceptance and counter identity threats
  • Appropriately acknowledging difference and anticipating sensitive issues
  • Encouraging peer-to-peer activities to help build support networks and foster community connections

Check out this related teaching tip on intentional inclusion. [requires Sharepoint Login]

Communicating high expectations and clear pathways to success

Students do better when instructors communicate faith in their abilities with regularity and enthusiasm. We can communicate belief in students’ capacity to meet high expectations in a number of ways: on the syllabus; in whole-class announcements; in individual communications; in the framing of assignments, assessments, and feedback; in reflection prompts and metacognitive assignments (a brief future-facing “How I earned an A in this course” reflection essay assigned on the first day of class is a popular example). We can also help students rise to high standards by providing scaffolded assignments, clear instructions, and regular formative feedback. Underscoring that everyone in the class can achieve course learning goals with appropriate work strategies and practice helps students understand and meet academic expectations.

Normalizing struggles and promoting growth mindset

Learning is difficult, and struggle is an inevitable part of learning. Unaware of these facts, novices often misinterpret setbacks as evidence that they do not belong in our courses, disciplines, or institutions. We can mitigate these feelings by normalizing struggles and assuring students that their experiences are part of the learning process. Sharing stories of struggle and failure from peers, faculty, and other disciplinary experts can help novices understand difficulties and setbacks as an inevitable part of the learning process. This is especially important for students who lack access to support networks that might help them persist in face of academic challenges.

Student perceptions of self-efficacy and belonging can be strengthened if students understand that their academic capacities and intelligence are not fixed but pliable—and therefore capable of development and growth. Promoting what researchers refer to as a growth mindset can help students who otherwise might attribute their academic struggles to lack of innate ability rather than lack of effective study strategies and habits. It can also help high-performing students whose sense of self-worth depends on receiving high marks. These students often avoid intellectual challenges or lose motivation when unexpected academic struggles challenge their self-image as “good” students. Actively countering fixed mindsets can relieve the pressures students place on themselves, encourage intellectual risk-taking, and foster authentic intellectual growth. Instructors can promote a growth mindset in a number of ways:

  • Designing assignments that reward risk-taking
  • Providing ample opportunities for low-stakes practice
  • Providing ongoing formative feedback
  • Rewarding progress in assessment schemes
  • Normalizing struggle and setbacks
  • Encouraging revision
  • Encouraging metacognitive reflection

Check out this related teaching tip on psychologically attuned language. [requires Sharepoint Login]

Countering bias

Many students continue to experience discrimination in academia, from historically-established systemic barriers to participation, to epistemic bias inherent in educational materials and pedagogical frameworks, to micro- and macro-aggressions perpetuated (advertently or inadvertently) by peers or instructors. In order to counter bias more effectively, we can reflect on our own positionality within social and academic structures, and continue educating ourselves on potential and actual discriminatory barriers faced by students. Instructors should counter bias in higher education by:

  • Avoiding discriminatory materials, language, and frameworks
  • Learning about implicit bias and how it can harm students regardless of intention
  • Being aware of internalized barriers like stereotype threat and impostor syndrome
  • Signaling support and directing students to anti-discriminatory campus resources
  • Setting up ground rules for respectful interactions
  • Responding directly to incidents of bias (including micro-insults and micro-invalidations) 
  • Working to transform academic institutions towards greater equity and access

Next: structure and transparency