Creating Inclusive Classrooms

Note: Please check our expanding set of faculty workshops on our Events Calendar page, review our Grant funding opportunities supporting inclusive teaching, and watch for asynchronous opportunities such as our First-Year Five program.

George Mason University takes pride in the diversity of our university community. We aim to create an environment at Mason, in our classrooms and beyond, that is inclusive, inspirational, and focused on the needs of those we serve. Mason faculty are encouraged to adopt and adapt strategies for pedagogical inclusivity that fit with their courses and discipline.

The strategies described below can support faculty across a range of classrooms and in a wide range of discussions. For resources that may help you in responding specifically to recent events, please see our list at the bottom of the page.

Please view the Mason Diversity Statement for more information.

Why engage in inclusive pedagogies?

“Even though some of us might wish to conceptualize our classrooms as culturally neutral or might choose to ignore the cultural dimensions, students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development…. Therefore, it is important that the pedagogical strategies we employ in the classroom reflect an understanding of social identity development so that we can anticipate the tensions that might occur in the classroom and be proactive about them” (Ambrose et. al., 2010, p. 169-170).

Attentiveness to social identity development is important on any campus and in any context; however, it is particularly important at Mason for two reasons:

  1. The wide-ranging diversity of our student body (race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, age, ability status, veteran status, first generation, non-native speakers, immigration status, etc.) and
  2. Relative to our student body, the lack of diversity among our instructional faculty.

A large body of research on inclusive teaching suggests that inclusive pedagogies are effective and that learning outcomes for students are improved when all students feel visible, valued, safe, and welcomed in the classroom.

Identify small changes that can have great impact
  1. Make sure that your syllabus is written in non-sexist, gender inclusive terms. For example, use the phrase first-year student versus freshmanhumankind rather than mankind, etc.
  2. Acknowledge the unseen. Students are diverse in ways that may not be visible (e.g., race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disabilities, and more).
  3. Use an interfaith calendar of religious holidays when planning tests, assignments, or project due dates.
  4. Make the effort to ensure that everyone can pronounce each others’ names—faculty and students—correctly. Some faculty find it useful to use notecards or table tents with phonetic spelling. On a globally minded campus, this honors everyone’s cultural identity.
  5. Strive for inclusive language that does not assume Eurocentric name forms. For example, use family name rather than last name or given name versus Christian name.
  6. Ask students to share what name and pronoun is consistent with their gender identity and expression and then honor that information. This gender pronouns guide may be helpful if this is less familiar to you.
  7. When writing test and quiz questions and creating or adopting assignments—case studies, word problems, scenarios, etc.—use examples that showcase inclusivity with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, individuals’ names, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.
  8. When presenting images of people, use examples that showcase inclusivity with respect to visible cues regarding gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, ability, size, age, etc. (Try this resource from Walls.IO to find diverse free stock photos.)
  9. When lecturing, avoid exclusionary phrases such as, “Everyone knows…,” “It is easy to imagine…,” or “Certainly the answer is obvious….” These phrases assume a shared cultural context and can function to silence or discourage students from asking questions.
  10. Assume that all students will not recognize cultural, literary, or historical references familiar to you.
Prepare yourself and your students in advance for complex conversations
  1. Share with your students that you value creating an inclusive learning experience to support their learning. One way to do this is to have one or more statements on your syllabus that you discuss the first week of class. Examples include the Women and Gender Studies Diversity/Inclusion statement and the School of Integrative Studies Celebrating our Diversity statement.
  2. Establish rules and guidelines — or work with students during the first weeks to co-create guidelines and norms — for an inclusive and respectful classroom.
  3. Listen for and respond to racist, sexist, homophobic, or insensitive comments. Be aware that faculty set the tone in the classroom and students may assume faculty agree with or do not care about the impact of the problematic comments that are dismissed or ignored.
    1. Let students know that you will interrupt a response or conversation that is discriminatory or hurtful.
    2. Prepare your strategy, and even rehearse your words, ahead of time, so that they come easily to you: (e.g., “Ali, I want to pause right here, because I heard you say ____ and that idea / language / approach is discriminatory because ___.”)
  4. If a difficult classroom conversation develops based on challenging, sensitive, or uncomfortable topics, pause. Faculty can “hit pause” on the conversation and encourage students to write down their thoughts about the topic. Pausing can allow students and faculty to think, reflect, and consider thoughtful responses.
  5. Be aware of your own identities, experiences, beliefs, and stereotypes and how you “show up” in the classroom. Be willing to acknowledge your own oversights or errors.
  6. Assess your conscious and unconscious biases about students based on dress, surname, gender, or race. If you are interested, Harvard University’s Project Implicit has a range of brief tests designed to assess implicit bias for many issues, including race, sexual orientation, weight, religion, disability, skin-tone, and more.
  7. Assume that no student can speak as a representative of their race or culture.
Plan your course to be deliberately inclusive in design, engagement, and assessment
Background: ReDesign the Structure
Course Design and FramingState your course learning outcomes in accessible language that relates learning to a larger community and/or professional context
Align, and explain the alignment of, each assignment or activity in terms that connect to learning outcomes and larger contexts
Use “universal design for learning” (UDL) to ensure that students have multiple access points to learning opportunities
Course ContentAdapt readings, examples, case studies, videos, and/or invited speakers to obviously represent multiple identities and perspectives
Include readings, examples, case studies, videos, and/or invited speakers that directly connect key concepts to larger community and/or professional contexts
Select readings and examples that present a strengths-based world view and approach to diversity and difference
Course InteractionsPublish, model, and discuss with students your (and their) expectations about interactive behaviors that support learning, full participation, and belonging
Prepare Q&A or discussion approaches that help you regularly notice, invite, and hear from most or all students
Create group activities that provide clear instructions and structures to support—and maximize the value of—inclusive participation
Course Assignments & GradingUse transparent assignment design approaches so that students always know the purpose, tasks, models, and criteria for their work
Provide structured, formative steps and tasks for all students that support larger assignments or exams
Provide frequent feedback to students about their learning
Monitor, where possible, student performance across key identity groups to reveal and adapt to any achievement or retention gaps
Present course material and engage students in ways that are deliberately inclusive
Foreground: ReDesign the Learning Experience
Course Design and FramingState in your course materials the anti-racist and inclusive goals you are striving toward, and why you selected them; regularly identify inclusive adaptations or policies
Adapt course policies to do less unnecessary policing/penalizing of student behavior, especially when the behavior does not demonstrably lower student learning in your course
Invite student feedback regularly on how you are accomplishing those goals
Course ContentProvide materials and opportunities for students to “learn how to learn” in your field, from study tips to incentives for peer group participation to reflective assignments like exam wrappers or self-evaluations
Provide materials and/or create opportunities to directly address the historical and/or current structures of racism or other bias relevant to the field
Support students in learning to critique deficit-based or exclusionary texts, approaches, and/or professional frameworks in the course/field
Course InteractionsCreate opportunities to learn about the expectations and needs of each individual student, and provide multiple pathways to access your assistance
Learn to identify common microaggressions, monitor your own interactions for them, and rehearse your approach to intervening with students as needed
Directly affirm “growth mindset” approaches, and identify ways to reframe failures as expected (this material is challenging for all) not personal
Course Assignments & GradingDesign assignments that allow students to demonstrate what they have learned more than penalizing them for isolated errors or oversights
Create structured options for collaborations, revisions, re-takes, extensions, and/or low-score drops to maximize student opportunities for learning
Avoid grading approaches that penalize different approaches (e.g., language use, process sequences, solutions proposed) unless they substantially interfere with student learning or performance on this task or your assessment thereof
Additional Resources

Stearns Center’s Online Teaching Coaching Newsletter Summer 2021 issues focus on inclusive teaching in online spaces.

This short video provides a thorough, student-centered explanation of microaggressions and how to avoid or respond to them in the classroom.

Building Inclusive Classrooms and Inclusive Teaching Strategies, Cornell University, Center for Teaching Excellence

Create an Inclusive Learning Environment, Carnegie Mellon, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence

Creating Inclusive College Classrooms, University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Of note, they have also developed an Inclusive Teaching Strategies Checklist for reflecting on your teaching practice.

How to Make Your Teaching More InclusiveChronicle for Higher Education

EDIT Media 10 Best Practices, EDIT Media Project (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Teaching Media)

Gender-Inclusive and Non-Sexist Language Guidelines and Resources, University of Pittsburgh, Advice for Classrooms and Other Spaces

Teaching in Racially Diverse College Classrooms, Harvard University, Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, University of Delaware, Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning