Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

Whether it’s meeting one-on-one with a student who is considering a major, or the rush that comes from seeing a classroom engaged in learning, these positive interactions with students reaffirm our decision to prepare for teaching and scholarship. Previous sections have already addressed ways in which you can establish positive interactions with your students via email, office hours, well-prepared class meetings, and prompt testing feedback. This section addresses creating an overall inclusive learning environment where all students feel valued.

How Can You Teach Inclusively? Quick Tips

Be reflective as you teach. How might an assignment affect a student from another culture? Are you primarily using examples that only reflect the experience of some of your students?
Critically examine your course from multiple points. Include materials that represent various perspectives accurately (consider gender, nationality, ethnicity, age, sexuality, political affiliation, socio-economic status, ability, linguistic background, etc.).
Include issues of diversity as part of the learning goals of your course.
Be sure your class is accessible to all students, whether physically or electronically (e.g., close-captioning on videos).
Take the time to assess the classroom climate with formative feedback from your students throughout the semester.

Teaching a Diverse Classroom

Students from the University of Georgia encompass many backgrounds. The section below is intended to serve as a brief guide for creating an inclusive environment in a diverse classroom. For further advice, please reach out to the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Teaching International Students

In addition to the typical experiences of all students, international students may have other concerns on their mind including learning English as a second language, adapting to a new culture, or working with immigration services. All of these situations can add an extra burden for international students. The following list, adapted from University of San Diego, Office of International Students and Scholars, gives practical tips for teaching undergraduate international students.

Be proactive in communicating with international students. Even a short conversation after class about the student’s home country can help the student feel more comfortable and can build rapport. Do your best to learn how to pronounce students’ names, even if it takes a few attempts.
Normalize “office hours” on the first day of class as most international students are reluctant to visit faculty offices unless they are compelled to do so. Keep in mind that in many parts of the world, professors and students rarely interact directly so some international students may seem initially distant or avoidant.
Check–in with students after assigning group work and offer suggestions. Clear group/individual expectations are also helpful as international students may not be accustomed to cooperating in an academic environment.
Talk to students individually about participation and encourage students to share their unique perspectives. However, do not call on a student to share an opinion and serve as a spokesperson for their culture or country without checking that it is ok before class.
Be conscious of discussions/topics that presume a nuanced understanding of American history and politics. International students will often nod along in agreement although they may not follow the discussion.
Recognize that language proficiency is not usually their primary barrier to academic success; many international students struggle more with academic writing and the volume of reading assigned. Help international students to prioritize readings and refer students to campus resources (e.g., Division of Academic Enhancement, the UGA Writing Center) for more help.
Clarify your expectations on class policies including attendance requirements, homework submissions, etc. If you notice an international student missing a deadline or arriving late to class consistently, use these situations as teachable moments and emphasize the importance of promptness and deadlines in the United States. Remember that international students are going through a process of cultural adjustment. Classroom culture is only one of the many ways they have to confront cultural differences every day
Provide examples of successful coursework. Often international students struggle to understand what qualifies as an “A” paper or presentation. Providing samples of “A” work can help international students to track their progress and to identify areas where they need improvement.
Avoid idiomatic English and common phrases (e.g., “An arm and a leg”).

There are two offices on campus that primarily support international students. The Department of International Student Life (http://isl.uga.edu), housed within the Division of Student Affairs, and Immigration Services, housed within the Office of International Education (http://international.uga.edu/issis/) are helpful to be familiar with if you are teaching international students.

First-year Undergraduates

If you are a TA or LA for an introductory course it is likely that many of your students will be first-year undergraduates. Supporting first-year undergraduates in your classroom can not only enhance their learning in your course but can enhance learning throughout their college career. The following tips can help all of your students and especially your first-year students.

Encourage your students to seek help from you and the university. Encourage them to seek help from you by being clear about office hours and being available through email. You can list university resources on your syllabus (e.g., UGA Health Center, Division of Academic Enhancement) or bring them up as needed.
Teach general learning strategies to students. Learning in high school may have required your students to use simple strategies such as rote memorization. Teach your students more complex strategies for deeper learning. These could include creating concept maps or writing their own study questions for exams. This moves students away from just knowing the correct answer and more towards why an answer is correct. Ask students who are struggling how they are studying and work with students to come up with better strategies as needed.
Provide feedback to your students as often as you can. If students are struggling to transition to college learning they can not work to improve without understanding what needs to change. Providing this feedback quickly while they still have the assignment fresh in their mind is much better than delaying a week or more to give feedback.

First-Generation Students

First-generation describes college students whose parents’ highest level of schooling did not include college. As the first in their family to attend college, these students are more likely to struggle to succeed in college compared to students whose parents did attend college.  In addition to the tips mentioned above on teaching all new college students, there are two specific ways you can help first generation college students succeed.

Be clear about classroom expectations and assignments. Be sure to state the task, purpose of the task, and criteria for how you will evaluate their work. This transparency can overcome the lack of implicit knowledge about how college courses work.
Be approachable to your students. Be clear that you are available by email and when and where your office hours will be held. Let your students know how you prefer to be addressed (e.g., first name, last name, instructor, Mr., Ms.). This will make students more likely to reach out to you to clear up any confusion or concerns.

Please visit http://ctl.uga.edu/pages/first-generation-students for more information about the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholars Program and mentors for first-generation students.

Transfer Students

When teaching transfer students it is important to keep in mind many of your students may not have taken the same pre-requisites for your course. The best way to determine the background knowledge of all of your students is to ask. Starting the course with an ungraded pre-test on the concepts you expect them to know can help guide the first few weeks of class and the rest of the semester. Be sure to either spend time in class discussing concepts that not all of your students know or provide students with materials so they can review the content on their own. The tips above on first-generation students can also be applied to teaching your transfer students. 

Non-traditional Students

At UGA a Nontraditional applicant must meet all of the following criteria:

Out of high school for at least five years (high school class graduated at least five years ago)
High school diploma from an accredited high school or satisfactory completion of GED
Fewer than 30 transferable hours of college credit
Be a resident of the Athens-Clarke County Community

Be mindful that not all students have recently graduated high school. They come with a variety of life experiences and different background knowledge. Be sure to use examples and language that all your students will understand. Avoid idiomatic English (e.g., “once in a blue moon”) or short abbreviations unless you can be sure all students know what you are referring to. It is also important to diversify the references you use to make all students feel included.

Students in Distress

When a student is in distress there are several ways to reach out in a caring way. The only risk is in doing nothing at all. As a TA you may have more one-on-one interactions with your students than the professor, and they may feel open to confiding in you. The University Health Center offers a guide for Faculty and Staff Concerned About Students. It is important to remember safety first, always call campus police (706-542-2200) or 911 in an emergency situation.  If you are unsure whether the situation requires immediate, rapid intervention, call Counseling & Psychiatric Services (CAPS) at 706-542-2273 and ask to speak with the walk-in or on-call clinician. Be prepared to provide your name, position at UGA, and brief but specific information about the reason(s) you are contacting CAPS. You will also be asked to provide the student’s name and other identifying information. This guide from the Office of the Dean of Students shares many resources at UGA for Responding to Student Needs.

Student Veterans

The Center for Teaching and Learning has resources for meeting the needs of our student veterans. Please visit: http://ctl.uga.edu/pages/student-veterans.

LGBTQ+ Students

LGBTQ+ refers to students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other identities. In past years, higher education has made great improvements in creating safe, inclusive for all students, including LGBTQ+ students. However, there are still barriers to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ students.  The University of Georgia is committed to maintaining a learning environment that is free of bias, prejudice, and harassment for all students, including LGBTQ+ students. The following are some ways to be an active participant in creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students.

  1. The pronouns and terms that people use to identify themselves vary from person to person. The easiest way to find out how your students prefer to be acknowledged is to ask students for their preferred name and pronouns on the first day of class.
  2. Stay up to date on LGBTQ+ issues. Including issues relevant to all students shows not only your interest in all of your students but can help make students feel welcome.
  3. Be aware of the unisex restroom locations on campus.
  4. Confront discriminatory remarks, including slights and slurs you overhear. Students may use terms like “fag”, “dyke”, and “that’s so gay” without thinking. Let them know that such speech is unacceptable not only in your classroom but on the UGA campus.
  5. It is ok to make mistakes. Referring to a student with the wrong pronoun or not calling out an inappropriate comment can happen. Just remember to address the situation then move on.

The Safe Space program at UGA is a three and a half hour training for faculty, staff, and students who are interested in learning about gender and sexual identity, homophobia, heterosexism, and how they can provide support and work toward being an ally for the LGBT community. Click here to register to attend a Safe Space training session.

Students and faculty looking for support, resources, or education can contact the University of Georgia's LGBT Resource Center.

Students with Disabilities

The University of Georgia seeks to provide students with disabilities the opportunity to fully participate in educational programs and services. In keeping with this philosophy, it is University policy that students with documented disabilities receive reasonable accommodations through access to classroom information. The Disability Resource Center, an affiliate of the University's Division of Student Affairs, can be reached at 706-542-8719 and supplies transportation and other services for students with disabilities. The following information is taken from the Disability Resource Center page on Teaching Students with Disabilities.

Types of disabilities commonly found among university students are both visible and hidden. Disabilities can be physical, cognitive, or psychological. Examples include the following: Acquired brain injuries, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, blind and low vision, chronic illnesses, deaf and hard of hearing, learning disabilities, mobility impairments, and psychological disorders.

The DRC provides faculty with recommendations regarding the appropriate provision of academic adjustments for students in the classroom. While professors are expected to make reasonable accommodations, they are never asked to lower academic standards or provide adjustments that are excessive or contradictory to stated course objectives. If appropriate academic adjustments are not provided by faculty, many students with disabilities will be at an academic disadvantage.

Academic accommodations may entail assisting students in finding note takers or arranging testing accommodations. More sophisticated requests might involve converting a textbook into alternative media or installing assistive software at a computer lab. The accommodations recommended will vary according to the student's individual needs.

If professors need assistance, want additional information on how to accommodate students with disabilities, or require consultation on teaching and testing techniques, please contact a disability coordinator at 706-542-8719.

Student Teacher Interactions

Problems between students and faculty are relatively rare in the positive educational environment that prevails at the University of Georgia, but such conflicts do arise. For instance, academic dishonesty may generate disciplinary problems, overly assertive students may inadvertently create disruptive classroom situations, or troubled students may become problem students because of their need for counseling. Teaching and learning occur in a dynamic setting in which tensions of a moment may create misunderstanding and trigger charges of poor instruction, grading inequalities, harassment, or prejudicial treatment. Adherence to established University policies and procedures is essential in trying to prevent problems of these kinds and in dealing with them when they do arise.

Avoiding Student-Teacher Problems

Student-teacher problems can generally be classified in two categories: those of an academic nature and those of a disruptive nature. Many academic problems can be prevented simply by developing a thorough syllabus and sticking to it. In addition to the routine information, such as course content and schedule, required textbooks and outside assignments, the syllabus should contain a clear statement of the standards you will impose regarding such matters as attendance, grading, and academic honesty. Your students have a right to know from the start why you feel these matters are important to the quality of their education.

Information and Communication

Cheating, plagiarism, and disorderly conduct are terms which are not difficult for students to understand, but it is very important that their interpretations of these terms coincide with yours. It is vitally important that your understanding and application of these terms be consistent with established University policies. The Academic Honesty Policy must appear on all university syllabi. Information regarding the University’s position on student rights and responsibilities is included in the University of Georgia Student Handbook, which is published annually by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. Information regarding the University’s Academic Honesty Policy may be obtained for distribution to students from the Office of the Vice President for Instruction. You are encouraged to review copies with your students at the beginning of each semester.

Confrontation and Resolution

Certain problems, such as concern over an exam grade or the relevance of an assignment can often be resolved by discussing the matter with the individual. If a confrontation occurs in a public place, it is generally advisable to attempt to move the discussion to a more appropriate setting, such as your office. If it appears that you may not be able to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner or if it seems that the problem may escalate into an inflammatory conflict, confer with your graduate coordinator or department head as soon as possible regarding further action. In any emergency situation or if you feel unsafe always call the University Police immediately at (706)- 542-2200 or 911.

Resources and Action

In the event of more serious problems, it may be necessary to take immediate action of a more direct nature. For instance, in cases of suspected academic dishonesty, you may wish to contact the Office of the Vice President for Instruction for advice or assistance. In cases of suspected drug abuse or emotional disturbance, you may wish to contact the University Health Center at (706)-542-1162 or Counseling and Psychological Services at (706)- 542-2273. In the event of violence or illegal activity of any sort, call the University Police immediately at (706)- 542-2200 or 911. Inform your department head of any such action as soon as possible and immediately record any pertinent factual information for your possible further use.

Planning and Prevention

To minimize the possibility of personal liability and to protect the students’ rights, avoid any judgmental statements, accusations, or public remarks, written or verbal, regarding a problem to anyone. In addition to your faculty supervisor and department head, the appropriate University officials have a legitimate need to be fully informed of such matters. These agencies employ trained personnel with experience in handling such problems to the best interests of all involved, and their operations function to release the teaching staff to focus upon the primary responsibility of helping students learn.

Consequently, it is in your best interest to be informed about and immediately handle any serious problems through appropriate channels. These measures will establish your actions as a matter of record and may open avenues of advice and assistance regarding questions of student rights, teacher responsibility, and/or liability for further actions. Meanwhile, to minimize the possibility of problems, familiarize yourself with all applicable policies relating to students’ rights to privacy, equal opportunity, and so forth.

Accusations of Sexual Harassment and/or Prejudicial Treatment

At a university, the teacher dons many different hats. On any given day, an instructor might serve as an intellectual guide, counselor, mentor, and advisor. Teachers wield a tremendous influence in their students’ lives, and their authority extends well beyond the confines of the classroom. As such, the University of Georgia believes that a sexual or romantic relationship between a teacher and a student, even where consensual, is not compatible with the other roles a teacher must play, and therefore should be avoided.

The University prohibits these relationships. Accusations of sexual harassment and/or of prejudicial treatment probably rank among the most difficult problems a teacher may encounter. These are certainly serious matters if the charges are warranted, and they also can cause great concern for the teacher if falsely accused. As with other problems, it is very important to remember that the University has established policies and procedures for handling inflammatory matters and the more quickly you can get a serious problem into official channels, the better. If you should encounter difficulties, however, remember these suggestions: keep calm and act promptly to move the matter into proper channels; act in good faith at all times; and defend yourself through the established channels. For more information, see the Equal Opportunity Office Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy.

Consensual Relationships in Regard to Sexual Harassment

When one party has a professional relationship toward the other, or stands in a position of authority over the other, even an apparently consensual sexual relationship may lead to sexual harassment or other breaches of professional obligations. The University prohibits all faculty and staff, including graduate assistants, from pursuing or engaging in dating or sexual relationships with any student whom they currently supervise, teach, or evaluate in any way.

Employees are prohibited from having a dating or sexual relationship where one employee supervises, evaluates, or in any other way directly affects the terms and conditions of the other employee’s employment.  This provision applies to both student and non-student employees.  Any employee who supervises, evaluates or in any other way directly affects the terms and conditions of another employee must immediately disclose the existence of a dating or sexual relationship to his/her immediate supervisor.

Individuals who violate the consensual relationship prohibition are subject to disciplinary action under this Policy, up to and including termination.

For more information see the Equal Opportunity Office Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy.

Classroom Management

In the classroom, order is generally the rule when teacher and student are engaged in meaningful learning activities; therefore, teachers who are well-prepared, receptive to their students’ needs and interests, and confident of the worth and relevance of the subject they teach should have little cause for concern about the classroom atmosphere. Despite the best preparations, however, some class sessions will fail to hold all the students’ interest; but this inattentiveness seldom results in serious problems--unless the teacher
overreacts to the situation.

Student Inattention

In cases of simple student restlessness or inattentiveness, it may be tempting to try to regain student attention and participation by such methods as admonishing those who are inattentive or reminding them to pay attention since the material will be on the next test. But it is generally better to give students the benefit of the doubt and give yourself time to look for possible causes of the problem. Perhaps the material you were presenting was too basic or too advanced for the students, or maybe you needed to involve the students more, or perhaps the class could not see the relevance of the material to the rest of your course. Whatever the possible cause, it is important to assess the situation calmly, take whatever remedial action may be necessary, and try for a better class at the next session. Throughout the course, your conscientious attempt to involve your students and to make the material you present interesting, relevant, and comprehensible will greatly increase the probability of a productive classroom atmosphere.

Student Disruption

In the unlikely event that a student should deliberately or inadvertently disrupt the class, it is especially important to deal with the matter in a calm, courteous manner. Report the matter to your graduate coordinator and ask for guidance on any further action. In the case of persistent unruliness and most certainly in the case of actual or threatened violence, report the matter immediately to the University Police at (706) 542- 2200 or 911.

You are the teacher in the classroom. Your role as instructor is to preserve the learning environment. In addition to protecting any classroom debate from becoming an attack on any particular individual, keeping a cool head in the classroom when challenged preserves your students’ trust and respect in you as teacher. When possible, look for the teachable moment in an argument. For example, what is the value in hearing opposing viewpoints or challenging commonly held stereotypes? Is there a way to use the content of the argument to serve your teaching goals? Or is student learning best served by defusing the tension and swiftly refocusing students?

When a discussion between students becomes more heated than you would like, you can use the following strategies to transform arguments into productive debate:

When a student challenges or criticizes you, take the following steps to stay calm and find some value in the exchange:

In general, make your response as calm as possible and avoid making an issue out of a small incident. Try to use any conflict in the classroom as an opportunity to further your teaching goals: it may be possible to use an argument to clarify material, model critical thinking, skills, foster open-mindedness, and enhance students’ trust in you.