To Build More Inclusive Learning Environments, Listen to Students
Giving students agency and voice can help them feel more welcome.
Opinion by Tracie Marcella Addy
During a roundtable discussion at a recent conference, my co-facilitators and I invited participants to think quietly about a time when they either felt as if they did or did not belong, or were not treated equitably. This reflective task preceded a conversation on inclusive teaching, instruction that promotes a sense of belonging and is equitable for a diverse student body. The activity invited participants to make personal connections with the topic prior to delving deeper into its significance in learning environments. It also brought to the forefront how feeling included is something we can experience in various social settings—and that we may not be aware when others feel excluded in such spaces.
Similarly, our students may have unheard experiences and perspectives on inclusion from which we can gain insights to design more equitable and welcoming STEM learning opportunities. Listening to student voices is critical for effective inclusive instruction.
A variety of instructional strategies can interweave student voices within courses and curricula to advance inclusive teaching efforts. As feasible, giving students agency to incorporate topics or projects into a course can enhance equity and engagement. For example, instructors can allow students to add readings of interest or related topics to the syllabus or encourage learners to make choices in how they complete assignments, such as a final product in a project-based learning activity.
At the beginning of the course, allowing learners to voluntarily and anonymously share details about themselves can build community and send a message to all students that they are valued. I and my team developed the “Who’s in Class?” form (https://bit.ly/3dIzXdH) in collaboration with students, faculty, and staff members. It provides students with an outlet to share information about themselves as well as to offer their perspectives on inclusion. Instructors receive the information in aggregate to protect student privacy.
With a better understanding of the makeup of their classes, and often in partnership with their center for teaching and learning or other support office, instructors can tailor their inclusion efforts for a particular course. Students’ responses can help instructors modify small aspects to make the class more equitable and welcoming. For example, some instructors who discovered through the form that students in their class had difficulty purchasing course materials chose resources that were open access or made copies available. Additionally, instructors were often surprised by the number of hours students worked in outside employment. With that knowledge, they typically put more careful thought into course workload and assignment deadlines.
Facilitating opportunities for students to cocreate guidelines for class discussions or for group activities and projects is another way to incorporate student voices. Learners can share criteria, such as their fellow students meeting group deadlines, that would enable them to be successful in accomplishing the goals of the activity. Students can also set expectations for meeting outside of class for group projects, as well as for their individual roles and responsibilities when completing activities.
Inclusion requires ongoing intentional actions throughout a course. Giving students opportunities to share feedback on the class’s inclusiveness through an anonymous survey, available throughout the semester, can also generate helpful information. Students can be invited to offer suggestions for improvement that would enhance the inclusivity of the course. At midterm, students can be asked to anonymously share whether the course is inclusive, and the instructor can make modifications as needed.
Using their voices beyond the course level, students can also provide valuable feedback on departmental curricula. Enabling learners to give their perspectives on the diversity and breadth of content in the curriculum can be an insightful exercise. Revisions that take into account students’ perspectives have the potential to lead to improved and more equitable learning experiences and help students better identify with the course material.
While requiring humility and vulnerability, learner-centered approaches incorporating students’ voices can help us develop more inclusive STEM classes. No time is better than the present to get started.
Tracie Marcella Addy is the associate dean of teaching and learning and director of the Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship at Lafayette College, where she partners with instructors across all divisions and ranks on their teaching efforts. In addition to her center work, she actively publishes, and is a coauthor of the book What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching.
This piece was adapted from “Let’s Not Underestimate the Power of Student Voice,” a guest blog post for ASEE’s Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Read it online: https://bit.ly/3sCBgPF.