Five Ways to Interact Inclusively With Students
[Content taken from Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019). How to make your teaching more inclusive. Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22. https://www-chronicle-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/article/how-to-make-your-teaching-more-inclusive/]
Here are some tips that work for us. We teach small-sized courses as well as large ones filled with hundreds of students seated before us in neat little rows. So don’t even try pulling out excuses like “My course is too large to do any of this” or “My classroom space is not ideal for these techniques.” We hear you, but we’ve seen these strategies pay off in all types of courses and classrooms.
Get comfortable with periods of silence in your classroom
Think-pair-share is a gateway technique to active learning. It’s the versatile little black dress of inclusive teaching. Yet we often shudder when we see it in practice, as faculty members tend to skip right over the thinking part.
There it is, prominently in the name of the technique: think-pair-share. The thinking time is crucial for students to form and own their individual thoughts before pairing off and sharing. Otherwise, you risk seeing some students monopolize the discussion and others, like Vanessa, overwhelmed and left behind. That could cause quiet students to prematurely accept other people’s ideas before considering their own, and lead those dominating the discussion to think their contributions are more valuable. As the instructor, you know that good ideas can come from any student.
Some instructors rush the “thinking” part of this exercise because they get nervous about too much-extended silence. Even five seconds of silence in a classroom can feel like an eternity. Back when one of us (Kelly) was trying out new ways to break up a long lecture, a colleague observing the course said, “You use silence in the classroom so well. I never thought about this as a tool before.”
We urge you to get comfortable with the silence so that all students have the time they need to think. Tell the class, “I’ll give you two minutes to think or write silently, and then I’ll prompt you to pair up with your classmates.” Be prepared to repeat that every time you use this technique. If you know that you feel discomfort with silence (most of us do!), you may want to use a timer to regulate it. And lastly, in using think-pair-share, consider ideas that modify and mix up the “share” element, such as using polls and index cards, or having groups of students share with other nearby groups.
Add structure to small-group discussions
A classwide discussion has its benefits, but not all students have the desire, confidence, or chance to participate. Small groups give students a low-pressure way to vet their ideas with peers. Both of us use this time to walk around the classroom and eavesdrop, often with the goal of affirming the work of a few students who could use a confidence boost.
Yet this technique is not as inclusive as it could be if you leave it to chance that the teams will function well (low structure). Here are some ways to add structure to small-group discussions:
- Assign and rotate roles. Students who are at ease in class discussions, like Michael, have a tendency to take over. By assigning and rotating roles (reporter, skeptic, facilitator), you increase the structure and level the playing field a bit.
- Take time to teach students how to participate in small groups. Be explicit about some of the “rules,” such as exchanging names before they get started and putting away their cellphones or laptops.
- Provide clear instructions on a screen or worksheet. We’ve observed many faculty members give a single oral prompt, but that leaves behind students who have hearing loss, who have learning differences, or who simply need to be reminded about the task at hand. Principle No. 2 about structure applies here, too: Some people need visual cues, but offering them certainly won’t harm the other students. For more advice on this front, read about “universal design for learning.”
- Assign a task to make groups accountable for their work. For example, have groups submit ideas via a worksheet or a shared online document.
Allow anonymous participation
Not all participation and engagement in your course need to be spoken. In an essay in The Chronicle, Sarah Rose Cavanagh reminds us that anxiety is a huge barrier to learning. Students who are introverts, who feel that they don’t belong in a college classroom, or who hold a minority opinion on some issue may need to engage with the class in other modes besides public speaking. For example, some students with conservative viewpoints may be reluctant to participate in a class discussion if they perceive that nearly everyone else has a liberal viewpoint.
Here are two ways to use unspoken, anonymous participation in class:
- A no-tech approach: Offer a prompt and ask students to write an anonymous response on a notecard. Ask them to swap cards, and then swap again. Start a class discussion with a few students reading aloud the card in front of them.
- A tech solution: Choose a classroom-response system (clickers, web-based polling) or a discussion board in which students are anonymous to one another but not to you as the instructor.
Note that both approaches would help Vanessa (our hypothetical student who is reluctant to participate in class), as well as a student with unpopular political views. We recognize that speaking up may be a skill you are trying to cultivate, and these techniques provide a way to build trust and help students gain confidence. Perhaps you are starting to see how the same strategy in an inclusive-teaching toolkit can work to reach a diverse mix of students.
Counteract self-perceptions that stunt student learning
A fixed mindset reveals itself in comments like “I’m not a math person” (uttered more than a few times in the history of higher education). To counter it, one of the simplest things you can do is talk about a growth mindset in class. Your goal: Help students to see that intelligence is not a fixed, predetermined quality but something that can be developed via learning. Students may be particularly receptive after a challenging assignment or a midterm exam. If it doesn’t undermine your expertise, describe a task that you found difficult — maybe learning how to speak a foreign language or how to play the guitar. Convey that learning is hard yet not impossible. One of our favorite words to use on this front is “yet,” as in: “I haven’t learned how to do X well yet, but I’ll get there!”
One of us (Viji) recalls the first time she heard about “impostor syndrome” — the feeling that you don’t belong on a college campus and might be found out as a fraud despite your accomplishments. How reassuring it was to find out that the feeling was common, and even had a name. You don’t have to experience it to sympathize with it. And sometimes feelings of imposter syndrome stem from exclusionary messages in your environment. No matter whether the feeling is internal, external, or both, you simply need to remind students: “You belong here.” If it feels comfortable to do so, share a time when you felt like a fraud. It might help students like Michael who are struggling with the rigors of college, and it won’t hurt those who aren’t. If you’re uneasy discussing your personal experiences in class, consider other ways to communicate that message, such as through your syllabus, emails, or study guides. The key is to be explicit about it.
Connect with students personally
This is a skill you may need to practice. Even if making personal connections with students comes naturally to you, it can be tricky to find the time, identify the appropriate words, and establish boundaries. But it’s worth the risk. Here are some things that work for us:
Use their names. It’s an easy yet powerful way to connect. Years ago, when we led a campus discussion on how to create an inclusive learning environment, we were struck by the simplicity of the requests from students. Many described how meaningful it was when an instructor made eye contact or called them by name. You can try simple hacks like having students use name tents or hang folders over desks with their names in large print. Don’t assume that, just because you won’t learn the names of all of them, you don’t need to learn any of them. Having trouble pronouncing some names? Ask for a phonetic spelling or a recording — a request that is deeply appreciated by those of us with difficult names to pronounce (“How is Viji pronounced?”). Many learning-management systems include that function now.
Model sharing pronouns. On the first day of class and on your syllabus, share your pronouns and invite students to share theirs with you and with peers if they feel comfortable doing so. Students who identify as LGBTQIA will appreciate this welcoming gesture, and all students will see you modeling inclusive methods to avoid assumptions about students’ gender identities.
Fire off a quick note. We use this technique early and often throughout the semester. Send a note congratulating students who were successful on an early exam or paper or who substantially improved. Reach out to those who didn’t do so well and express your willingness to help them. Check in with students who have missed a class or two. Whether through a mass email (now’s a great time to learn how to do a mail merge incorporating a preferred name from your pre-course survey) or individual notes, reach out. The same principle behind learning their names applies here: Just because your notes won’t reach every student doesn’t mean you should abandon sending any.
Acknowledge hard times. Viji started one recent class by saying how grateful she was for her time with students that day because she was experiencing something personally challenging and appreciated the respite. Surprisingly, several students contacted her afterward to express concern. Even more poignantly, they thanked her for not feeling that she had to mask being sad — it provided a model, they said, for how to do the same with their peers. Likewise (and unfortunately), there are events during the academic year that touch our students’ lives. Some are personal and some are societal, and you may feel uncertain about how to express concern without taking a side that may alienate some students. Here’s a useful phrase you might keep in your back pocket: “I know this can be a tough time, and I want you to know I’m thinking about you.”