Strategies for Inclusive Teaching:

Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

Research has shown that a significant way to support student learning is for the instructor to convey the expectation that students are capable of learning. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine student confidence with simple comments, seemingly unwarranted criticism, or non-verbal behavior that comes across as unwelcoming -- whether these things are directed at specific students in the class or at groups of people not even present in the classroom.

A number of strategies are available to help faculty implement this initiative.

Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

Communicate Expectations for Success

Several studies have indicated that when faculty proactively communicate high expectations for success and identify ways in which individual students can meet those expectations, then the learning environment is viewed more fairly -- helping counter students' previous experiences of bias in the classrooms.

There are countless ways to communicate to students that you think they are capable of learning. Here are a few brief examples of ways to communicate expectations for success:

  • Communicate goals for learning in the course, and show how classes, assignments, and projects are designed to help students achieve those goals. That is, success is based on student ability and effort, not solely on identity or previous life experience.
  • Acknowledge the reality of the challenges that students are perceiving. Comments that minimize challenges, perhaps even with the intention of encouraging students (for example, "It's easy to see ...") can give the impression that something is wrong with students who find the material difficult. As a result, they may get the impression that requests for help are not welcome, or that it will be held against them later if they ask for help now.
  • Check in with your students to find out what they think they are learning and what might help them learn more effectively. For example, ask students to write briefly, at the end of a class period, one thing they learned and one thing they are still confused about from that day.

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Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

Consider Students' Prior Knowledge

Early in the course instructors can identify students’ relevant prior knowledge, perhaps by giving an ungraded diagnostic test or surveying them about previous experiences, in order to help identify challenges students can legitimately expect to encounter when they first try to learn the material.

Based on this information, instructors can acknowledge the challenges of the course, and that students can expect to find it difficult at times -- not necessarily because students are doing something wrong or the instructor is teaching poorly, but because it is a difficult subject to master. Hearing an instructor openly acknowledging these challenges can give students more confidence to face challenges and raise questions.

This information will also help you determine what additional resources students may need to access (for example, office hours, e-mail help from instructors or each other, study centers), and communicate to students how to take advantage of these resources.

Related Readings

Do You Know Where Your Students Are? Speaking of Teaching, 4(2), from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University

What They Don't Know Can Hurt Them: The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning, by Marilla Svinicki, University of Texas

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Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

Orient Students to Ways of Teaching in the Course

In many courses, students are learning not only the content of the course, but also how to be successful students. You can assist them in their efforts to meet your high expectations for the course by helping them learn strategies for successful studying, class preparation, and participation. You can also assist students by making sure assignment guidelines and grading criteria are clearly understood, and by reminding them of the resources available for help when they need it. For suggestions and resources on giving students strategies for successful learning, see Support Student Success.

The same approach to teaching can be interpreted differently by different people; for example, quick, intense interactions might be engaging for some, but intimidating for others; open-ended discussions might stimulate some students' thinking, but leave others feeling lost. Thus it can be very helpful to align student perceptions of class activities with the instructor’s by showing how a particular way of teaching contributes to course learning goals. When instructors are explicit about their decisions and their alignment with course goals, then teaching is no longer simply a matter of the instructor’s personal style or what has been done in the past, and students have a clearer sense of how to meet expectations.

Related Readings

Designing a Course. CIDR Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 2(1)
  • Other Resources for Course and Syllabus Design
  • Preparing for the First Day of Class. CIDR Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 1(3)


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    Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

    Communicate How Diversity Will Be Valued in the Course

    Instructors can explicitly state their respect for diversity and their intentions to treat all students fairly. Determine how you will communicate to students how you value diversity, and how student diversity can contribute to their learning experience in your course. For example,

    • Include in your syllabus a statement of your course goals as pertains to diversity.
    • Provide examples of how you hope to recognize diversity in course. Possibilities include the use of examples, perspectives represented in course materials, and activities which bring together different experiences, strategies, and perspectives.
    • Let students know how they can contact you to express their concerns regarding the classroom climate, whether in person, by email, or at various points in the course when you plan to collect student feedback

    Related Readings

    Achieving Diversity: Guidelines for Enhancing Pluralism and Unity, from the University of Washington Task Force on Pluralism and Unity

    Creating Inclusive College Classrooms, from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan.

    Diversity and Complexity in the Classroom: Considerations of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, from Tools for Teaching, by Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkeley.

    Teaching for Inclusion, a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

    Teaching in a Racially Diverse Classroom, from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University

    See also Plan for Diversity in Teaching.


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    Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

    Use Inclusive Language

    The words used to introduce material and provide examples have powerful effects on student perceptions of whether the instructor is fairly considering all students. It may seem to instructors that specific wording has little overall effect on the point being made. However, the language that is used signals to students who the instructor has in mind when talking about the subject matter. For example, if the instructor, most of the students, and all of the examples are referenced with the pronoun "he," then it can be easy for students to conclude that the instructor thinks women don’t belong in a serious discussion of the subject matter.

    Just as individuals tend to develop their identity with time and experience, similarly social groups change go through changes in their indentity. As social groups develop their identity their preferred terminology may also change. Read or listen to discussions around campus to pick up this new terminology.

    Related Resources

    "Do's" and "Don'ts" of Inclusive Language


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    Communicate Respect, Fairness, and High Expectations

    Responding to Problems

    Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may still get reports that students perceive a lack of respect or fairness. Situations may point to a real need for change, or they may point to a misperception on the part of the students. In either case, it is important to get more information, and to formulate a response. Some options include:

    • Discuss the situation with a peer or colleague who may have insights from teaching similar courses or helping students who have struggled with similar issues.
    • Openly discuss the topic with students. Let them know you understand that some students are have raised this concern, and discuss with them ways that you will respond to it.
    • If there are changes you intend to make, let students know what the intended changes are and later, ask for their feedback on how helpful the changes have been.
    • Remind students of the course learning objectives, and review with them how your ways of teaching are contributing toward those objectives.


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    site last updated: February 1, 2008
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