Strategies for Inclusive Teaching:

Foster Equitable Class Participation

There are many ways to participate in class. Equitable class participation does not necessarily mean that all students are expected to participate in the same way, or even the same amount. Rather, the goal is to make sure that students are able to participate in class in ways that will help them achieve the learning goals for the course, and that no one is kept from participating as a result of the way the course is taught.

Student engagement in class is greatly influenced by the expectations that instructors set for classroom behavior, teaching strategies that are employed, and ways student interactions are structured during class. Strategies to set the stage for more equitable class participation include the following.

Through these steps, instructors help align students’ expectations with instructor intentions to ensure that all students recognize their presence in class is valued, and their contributions to class are welcome.

Foster Equitable Class Participation

Plan Ahead for Class Participation

It may seem to go without saying that instructors should plan ahead, but we find that many instructors think of planning in terms of what they will be teaching, and often think of participation as something that spontaneously arises during class. However, equitable class participation rarely happens by accident.

Making decisions about class participation in advance, and making them explicit to students, can go a long way toward aligning student expectations with instructor goals for more equitable class participation. Here is a range of possibilities to consider when planning ahead:

Goals for Participation – possibilities include:

  • discovering new material
  • exploring different perspectives
  • inviting students to relate relevant experiences

Types of Participation – possibilities include:

  • large group discussion
  • small group activities
  • face-to-face or online

Student Preparation – possibilities include:

  • reading assignments
  • reflective writing
  • small group work to prepare for large group interaction

Facilitating Participation – possibilities include:

  • managing "wait time" in a discussion
  • acknowledging student contributions
  • incorporating student input into following instruction

Assessment of Participation – possibilities include:

  • communicating expectations to students
  • providing assessment criteria
  • providing clear feedback

Related Resources

Active Learning

More and Better Class Participation. CIDR Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 4(1)

Strategies for Inclusive Teaching. Chapter 2 of Teaching for Inclusion, a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

Teaching through Discussion. CIDR Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 2(3)

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Foster Equitable Class Participation

Use the First Day of Class to Set Expectations

One way for instructors to communicate expectations is to add a statement to the syllabus and talk with the students on the first day of class about the role of participation in the course.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation

Look for Opportunities to Invite Participation

Here are a few examples of ways to invite student participation:

  • Give students time to formulate questions or responses. The wait time will often seem longer to you than it does to students, so be sure to give them enough time to catch up, think through the issue, and put their thoughts into words.
  • Acknowledge all contributions, even if they aren't what you were looking for. In questions of fact, point out what's partially right in a wrong answer, as well as where it goes off-track.
  • Remind students that questions are welcome, and that the person who asks a question is doing a favor for all the other students who are silently wondering the same thing.
  • Require students to visit TAs' or instructor's office hours once every two weeks.
  • Use group activities or pair work. Students who are hesitant to speak in front of the full class are often willing to contribute to smaller groups of classmates.
  • Give specific tasks and instructions so each person has a role in the group.
  • Look for opportunities for you to interact with individual students in addition to the interactions that are possible in front of all the other students; for example, before and after class, in the transition to group work, or while groups are working.
  • Select people a day to summarize key points from previous day, bring up a question from the chapter, or comment on other work that they can prepare outside of class time.
  • Acknowledge other forms of participation; for example, contributions to the class discussion list, comments made in journals, or ideas that you overhear mentioned in small groups which don't get reported to the larger group.
  • Consider calling on students by name, but keep in mind that being called on can be both motivating and intimidating. Be sure students have had a change to prepare for answering the question, and that they are given a reasonable amount of time to formulate a response.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation

Provide Feedback

Provide feedback on the nature and quality of participation you observe in the course. Instructors can let students know what their participation is adding to the course, and if they need to make changes in their patterns of participation. This feedback can help the instructor align students’ expectations by communicating how the instructor perceives their work, rather than relying solely on self-assessment or assumptions based on experiences in other courses.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation

Seek Feedback

Seek feedback from students on their perceptions of participation in the course. Do they perceive that they have opportunities to participate, or value ways in which participation contributes to their learning? This feedback can help the instructor align teaching practices with student perceptions of their opportunities to participate, rather than relying solely on inferences from student behavior or facial expressions.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation

Honor Student Diversity

Students can easily think they are not welcome in a class when they hear comments that seem to reveal or perpetuate stereotypes that they don't share. Even an impersonal comment not directed at students in the course can become a distraction that prevents students from engaging in the class, as one student notes, "One day the professor started class with a joke about people with accents. Chances are he didn't mean anything by it, but it's all I thought about for the whole hour. I might as well have stayed home for all I was able to pay attention to the lecture."

Most people respond even more strongly to stereotypes directed at them. Social identities are strongly held, but people also want to be recognized as individuals -- as members of certain social groups, and also as unique individuals within those groups. For this reason, students can easily conclude their participation is not welcome if either dimension of identify is overemphasized or disregarded.

Instructors may inadvertently communicate disrespect for other types of student diversity as well. Students may get this message if their commitments to family, work or other obligations are dismissed as unimportant in comparison to course work. They may also get this sense if instructors respond to student disabilities, language or cultural differences, or struggles with the course content in ways that suggest they are not interested in helping students meet these possible challenges to learning.

Beyond avoiding direct expressions of stereotypes and being careful not to disregard students’ life experiences, an instructor can take a number of specific steps to help foster equitable class participation by honoring student diversity.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Develop a Broad Repertoire of Cases and Examples

Instructors can communicate indirectly (by the examples given, the scholars cited, or the problems identified as important) that some perspectives on this work or more valid than others. If validity appears somehow to be judged on identity preferences rather than on the merit of the work being discussed, then students can easily conclude that the instructor is unfairly excluding views that may matter greatly to the students.

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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Set the Stage for Potentially Sensitive Material

Rather than assuming that all material can be presented as value-neutral, instructors can anticipate material that may lead to heated discussions. The goal is ensure that controversy is handled in a way that doesn’t cause some students to conclude that their perspectives are automatically discounted by the instructor or by other students. One approach is to establish Ground Rules for class discussion, providing a common reference point for reminding students of mutually agreed upon ways of interacting in class respectfully.

Before handling potentially sensitive material.

  • Acknowledge that students may have strong personal opinions about the material.
  • Work with students to set ground rules for discussion. Many instructors find it helpful to have the students develop the ground rules they want to operate by. Others provide ground rules that include items such as:
    • Remind them you expect them to treat each other with respect.
    • Ask that they "question the quality of the argument offered. Not the validity of each other's personal beliefs"
    • Speak from experience and avoid generalizations about other groups of people.
    • Share air time
    • Listen respectfully to different perspectives
    • No blaming and no scapegoating
    • Focus on own learning. not winning arguments.
  • Plan to be the "Devil’s Advocate." The discussion may become ‘lopsided’ for a variety of reasons. If the discussion is not well rounded, you need to offer the underrepresented point of view, regardless of your personal views on the matter.

Related Readings

Arizona State University Intergroup Relations Center:

Dealing with Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom, by Kathleen McKinney, Illinois State University

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, from the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University

Practical Strategies to Reduce or Eliminate Student Incivility, from the article, Reducing Incivility in the University / College Classroom, by Patrick J. Morrissette

Responding to Distressed Students, from the University of California at Santa Barbara


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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Respond Promptly to Discriminatory Remarks

An instructor’s failure to respond promptly to discriminatory remarks or other kinds of disruptive behavior may be seen as tacit approval of the comment or behavior.

Related Readings

How do you handle a sexist, racist or other excluding or pejorative comment from a member of your class? Comments from Instructors at York University

Responses to Negative Discrimination, from the University of Minnesota Diversity Toolkit

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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Do Not Diminish Students' Strong Reactions to Negative Comments

A comment that may be intended as value-neutral or simply descriptive may sound very different to students who have been the targets of discrimination, and these students may react in ways that are surprising to people who have not had similar experiences. Bell et al. (1997) noted, "Dominant group members … are often oblivious to the effects of their language ... and in fact are often shocked to realize this effect. Thus the potential for breakdown in communication, hurt feelings, defensiveness, and recriminations is high." (p. 302)

Related Readings

For further discussion and additional resources, see Related Readings under Set the Stage for Potentially Sensitive Material (above)

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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Do Not Ask a Student to Represent an Entire Category of People

Asking students to speak on behalf of entire groups often rests on unstated assumptions about students’ identification with these groups, asks students to make unsupported generalizations about them, and puts students in the position of being valued for membership in a group rather than for individual abilities or ideas.

The Cardinal Rule, proposed by Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, is

  1. Learn as much about and become as sensitive as you can to racial, ethnic, and cultural groups other than your own. At the same time:
  2. NEVER make assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups he or she belongs to. Treat each student first and foremost as an individual. Get to know students individually. (Teaching in a Racially Diverse Classroom)


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Foster Equitable Class Participation > Honor Student Diversity

Responding to Problems

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may still get reports that some students feel excluded from participation. These situations may suggest 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:

  • Ask yourself: Is there a pattern to the ways in which students be come silent? For example do students shut up after certain other student talk? Do certain kinds of questions seem to foster or inhibit participation? Is there a specific group that participates or does not participate?
  • 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.

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