Diversity for Beginners: Easy First Steps Toward More Inclusive Courses

By Cynthia DeRoma

Diversity and inclusion matter not just for equal opportunity considerations, but also for academic outcomes. Scholars who feel the objectivity of their field preempts them from having to worry about issues of inclusion should be aware that recent research has been showing positive correlations between diversity and academic success. For example, Steffens et al. (2015) showed how contact with multiple identities leads to enhanced creativity. Freeman & Huang (2014) found that papers authored by teams of greater ethnic diversity were more likely to be published in higher-impact journals and were cited more often than those written by more ethnically homogeneous groups. Verdin et al. (2016) report that “increasing the number of underrepresented students in engineering allows all members of the field to draw from innovative perspectives towards problem solving, improve engineering outcomes, and address the issue of equal access to all.” 

photo of author Cynthia DeRoma
Cynthia DeRoma is a Lector in the English Language Program, Center for Language Study at Yale University and works with the Faculty Development team at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. At UConn, she has worked as an adjunct professor in the Departments of English and Linguistics. She has also been involved in several diversity-related projects and initiatives at UConn.

Because of their importance, the number of resources on diversity and inclusion can be overwhelming to the point of discouragement. Even if I am willing to integrate these matters into my course planning, where do I even start? What follows is a two-part list of measures all of us can adopt. Level-1 steps are quicker, easier ideas that you can start using right away as you plan your very next course. Level-2 steps are more long-term suggestions to consider as you make diversity and inclusion part and parcel of your teaching.

Before any steps – the mindset

As instructors, we want our students to succeed if they’re willing to put the work into it. They need to know that. Here are three beliefs that are crucial for engagement and success in a course:
1) “I matter” – regardless of who I am, where I come from, my beliefs, my limitations or peculiarities, my instructor acknowledges that I am here.
2) “What I learn in this course matters” – regardless of how hard, abstract, or distant it looks, it will have a direct or indirect impact in my life.
3) “If I work hard, I can do it” – the system is fair, the rules are clear, and I can get help if I need it.
A big goal of considering diversity and inclusion in planning our courses is to make sure every one of our students can truly hold these three beliefs. And that’s what the steps that follow will aim at.

Level 1 Steps

These are suggestions that do not require a lot of effort or planning. You can start adopting one or two or all of them right away. If you recognize something you already do, think of how it helps foster one or more of the three beliefs above. These steps should not be seen as adding to our workloads, but as ways of actually making our jobs easier as we create more welcoming environments to everyone.

Show an interest in finding out who your students are

Even before the semester starts, you can use a Google form or HuskyCT to ask your students to tell you about themselves. Depending on the size of your class, you can do just multiple-choice or one-line answers (e.g. preferred name, intended major, where you are from, age group, etc.) or ask them to write a paragraph or even include a picture. Encourage students to do it, but leave the option to skip questions they don’t want to answer.

List your pronouns, ask students for their pronouns

My name is Cynthia, which to me is clearly female and this happens to be my gender. Lucky me. However, not all names are that obvious to everyone. Moreover, some people would rather use a gender-neutral pronoun like they or one that does not match their “official” gender. These students constantly have to explain themselves about something that, to a “Cynthia” like me, is never an issue. Listing your pronouns, even if they are obvious, and asking students to list theirs, levels the playing field and makes it a normal practice for everyone. It also signals to gender-non-conforming students that you welcome them. Include your pronouns in your email signatures too.

Start monitoring who’s participating more

Even if you’re not sure how to get more students to speak more in your class, it’s important to start start noticing the kind of student who always speaks and the kind that never speaks in your classes. Is there a pattern? Are you calling on a certain kind of student more than others?

Consider everyone’s access to materials

Find out the price of textbooks and other materials you need. Are there other options? Try to let students know early what materials they will need (e.g. by contacting enrolled students prior to beginning of semester or having your textbook adoptions listed at the bookstore) so they can try to buy them used. Let them know if they really need online codes or if older editions are acceptable. Consider Open Educational Resources. If you are need the use of specific electronic devices or online work, help students figure out what to do if they they don’t have access to devices or certain technologies. Remind them that they can loan certain devices from most school libraries.

Offer varying instruction modes

Not every teaching method works for everyone. When you vary your modes of instruction (e.g. lectures, projects, group work, community service, etc.), there is a higher chance you will reach more students. Above all, give your students opportunities to truly engage with the material. There is vast research on the benefits of active learning. Schedule a consultation with someone from your teaching center to go over your teaching strategies.

Connect to students’ previous experience

There are many ways of experiencing and making sense of the world, not all of which are preferred in the academic world for several reasons. Consider how you can access not only previous knowledge, but also previous strategies of getting to this knowledge. If this sounds daunting, save it as a Level-2 step and start by showing interest in incorporating their personal stories and examples that relate to your course’s content and objectives.

Start making your syllabus more inclusive and welcoming

Your syllabus communicates so much more than dates and course content. Here is some quick inclusive content that you can easily add to any syllabus (these are UConn specific so non-UConn instructors are encouraged to find the equivalents at their schools):

Make criteria absolutely transparent

An increased sense of trust in the fairness of the evaluation process comes from knowing exactly where a grade comes from. For each assignment, spell out all criteria as clearly as you can. For example, what counts more, creativity or strict use of the methods or materials from the course? Do you need outside sources? Rubrics can be helpful in that sense, but, if you think a rubric is too restrictive for the kind of work you are assigning, make your learning outcomes very explicit and, if possible, give examples of successful previous work.

Within your limits, be flexible

Decide what is strictly non-negotiable in your course and where you can offer some flexibility. This is particularly important if you are dealing with students that are considered “non-traditional” and might have full-time jobs and families. For example, you can grant a deadline extension upon request if you know it will not compromise the whole class’s workflow. Think of how technology can assist you in being flexible. You can offer to record or livestream an important class for a student who had to stay home with a sick child. A student might be able to make up for participation by conducting a small side-project. A student can use video-conference on their device to have a fellow student participate remotely. You can offer virtual office hours. A useful strategy is to offer to drop the lowest one or two grades from homework, class assignments, or quizzes, so you don’t even have to offer makeups or extensions.

Show you care and are available

Availability doesn’t just mean listing one or two office hours per week. Some students are reluctant to ask for help (they might think it’s a sign of weakness, fear being judged, be anxious around perceived authority figures, be shy…). One way to show you care about their opinion is to ask for it and respond.  You can ask for quick feedback at the end of every class, or once a week, or once every two weeks. Here are some ideas: minute papers (student have about one minute to respond to a question about the class), clearest/muddiest points of the class/week, 3-2-1 journals (3 things you learned, 2 personal connections, 1 question). You don’t have to read everything every time, but take a look and respond to some of their concerns. This will show that you are indeed paying attention to them.

Level 2 Steps

These are steps that might require some longer-term personal and professional development and might depend on buy-in from your department or colleagues. In spite of requiring some work initially, they should not be seen as burdens or extra work in the name of political correctness, but rather as initiatives that will benefit the students and ultimately the department as a whole.

Think of different ways for students to show what they’ve learned

People who became instructors tend to have been successful students and sometimes take for granted what it took to make it. Some students are the first ones in their family to go to college, or they’ve been away from school for a long time, or they come from a different educational tradition.

Try to diversify the components of your final grade beyond multiple-choice exams and encourage colleagues to do the same. Consider homework, online discussion posts, projects, etc. Explore new possibilities. Some instructors have used social media posts and phone pictures or screenshots as ways of documenting how students are applying content from the course into the world outside the classroom.

Learn more about intercultural communication

We interpret people’s messages, attitudes, and behaviors through the filter of our own experience, depending on our culture or upbringing. Learning to predict how other people’s filters work can be a lifelong challenge. There are many resources on intercultural communication out there to give us the tools to do that. One place – but by no means the only one – to start is here: https://www.truenorthintercultural.com/blog .

Acknowledge your own beliefs and biases

As much as we might pride ourselves in being rational beings, we all have hidden, underlying forces that unconsciously guide our reactions to certain groups of people. Digging deeper into these forces can be unsettling, but very revealing and a great first step in becoming a more effective instructor. If you’ve never taken a Project Implicit test, here is the link: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

Watch your and your students’ language

Excluding language, which reflects and reinforces social values, is pervasive around us. Be mindful of how you refer (or fail to refer) to people and groups. Do you always use “he” when talking about a generic person in an example? Are you and students using potentially offensive words, intentionally or not?

Be more representative in your materials and examples

Look at your syllabus and materials and notice if all or most of the references are to work produced by one kind of population (mainly white males). Can you incorporate work produced by a more diverse population? Sometimes we can’t find anything right away, but, once again, think of first steps. Even just mentioning a news article or written by more diverse populations helps. Actively look for examples, stories, content that involves different genders, cultures, and ethnicities.

Prepare for difficult conversations

You might be ready to embrace more diversity in your courses and curricula, but are your students, colleagues, and department? Unfortunately, attempts to diversify can be met with pushback in and outside the classroom. If you believe in what you’re doing, be ready to justify it. Moreover, some issues can generate uncomfortable conversations. Familiarize yourself with strategies to navigate these kind of situations, like the LARA model (Listen-Affirm-Respond-Add Information). Here’s an introduction: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/AM17/Difficult%20Dialogue%20Handout%201.pdf

Become familiar with UDL

UDL stands for Universal Design for Learning and refers to providing equal access to instructional materials and resources to all students regardless of level of ability. For example, if you use a video, will students who are blind or deaf be able to learn from it? There is a lot of technology to help with that. Here is a list of resources from UConn’s CSD: https://csd.uconn.edu/instructional-strategies/ and here is a quick guide from UConn’s ecampus for keeping Web pages accessible: https://aurora.uconn.edu/2016/03/03/accessibility/.

Get and give support through the community

You don’t have to go it alone! Here are some ideas:

Go beyond your own courses and yourself
Learn more about the extra hurdles certain populations have to cross and how we can be more flexible. Here are some examples: international students and the extra bureaucracy they have to navigate, how long financial aid takes to kick in before students can buy books, access to technology, family concerns, fears of being “outed” in class discussions.

In your department, think about how duties are assigned to different faculty members and TAs. Is everyone being offered the same opportunities? Are there any trends towards certain groups of TAs being consistently just assigned grading duties vs. teaching /research opportunities? 

Also, consider how diverse your own department is. How about your discipline as a whole? The university? Use your role in the university to help raise awareness of unconscious biases and to share information and research about the impact of diversity in your field.

Final considerations

For an introduction to the topic, these lists of steps might have ended up being longer than you expected. However, remember that the idea is not to do everything at once. Identify the ideas that you can incorporate right away and try them out. If you’ve already tried some of them, go for one or two new ones. Every little step counts. The main point is to create and foster a mindset of caring about every student that can guide our teaching practices.

Finally, there is so much on the topic that had to be left out. If you have suggestions, comments, or concerns, please reach out to cynthia.deroma@uconn.edu.

References and other suggested resources

Columbia University’s Inclusive Teaching Guide: https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/inclusive-teaching-guide/

University of Michigan’s Inclusive Teaching Strategies: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/multicultural-teaching/inclusive-teaching-strategies

Responding to micro-aggressions with micro-resistance: https://podnetwork.org/diversity-committee-white-paper/

University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education: https://cue.usc.edu/ . In particular, look at their Equity Scorecard tool: https://cue.usc.edu/tools/the-equity-scorecard/

Freeman, Richard & Huang, Wei. (2014) “Collaborating With People Like Me: Ethnic co-authorship within the US.” National Bureau for Economic Research Working Paper No. 19905. https://www.nber.org/papers/w19905

Steffens, Niklas K. & Gocłowska, Małgorzata & Cruwys, Tegan & D Galinsky, Adam. (2015) “How Multiple Social Identities Are Related to Creativity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 42. 10.1177/0146167215619875.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286165515_How_Multiple_Social_Identities_Are_Related_to_Creativity

Verdin, Dina; Godwin, Allison; and Capobianco, Brenda. (2016) “Systematic Review of the Funds of Knowledge Framework in STEM Education” (2016). School of Engineering Education Graduate Student Series. Paper 59. http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/enegs/59