Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Creating Inclusive Classroom Environments through the Implementation of Equitable Teaching Practices

02 Mar 2023 4:06 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Vanessa Woods
(University of California, Santa Barbara)

To truly create equity, a university must make sure that every student, regardless of background, can be successful. However, the reality is that students from groups that have been marginalized in higher education are entering a university that is not designed for them (e.g., needing to navigate the “hidden curriculum;” Laiduc & Covarrubias, 2022), and the responsibility for ensuring success begins with the instructor. My overall objective as an educator is to create learning opportunities that are engaging, meaningful, and motivating to students from diverse backgrounds. I strive to create inclusive learning environments in my courses and to make them relevant to students’ lives.

Combatting the Hidden Curriculum

There are three primary ways I create inclusive learning environments to promote motivation and engagement for all students. First, I create learning environments that include elements set up to combat the hidden curriculum for those students who are from marginalized groups (Laiduc & Covarrubias, 2022). To combat the hidden curriculum, I use explicit welcome and belonging messages in my syllabus, discuss what office hours are for, and continue to message throughout the course to convey this is their space, and my commitment to supporting them in their learning endeavors. The welcome message serves as a statement of community and conveys my appreciation for the strengths students bring into the space, and the belonging message explicitly conveys my belief they can be successful in the course and major. This includes repeated messaging that:

1) students belong in the course and major,

2) students bring important perspectives and ideas to our classroom space,

3) I believe they can be successful in my challenging high-work courses,

4) there are mechanisms for growth and improvement in the course structure,

5) it is normal to sometimes struggle with content, and

6) I am here to guide and coach them through that process.

My teaching messages and practices have been informed by the literature on wise interventions, which underscore the importance of thinking about students' needs in academic settings in order to support students' ability to reframe inferences related to belonging. I embed meeting these needs in messages to motivate diverse students to engage effectively in the course (Laiduc & Covarrubias, 2022). Further, recent scholarship demonstrates that the syllabus can be an important tool to communicate instructor support for equity and inclusion, and as a tool to highlight a student/learner centered design for the course (Fuentes, Zelaya, Madsen, 2021; Richmond et al., 2019). For example, I include the following welcome message in my syllabus:

“Our Course Community– As participants in a required pre major course in Psychological and Brain Sciences we all share an interest in the mind and behavior. I am excited to see where you will take your knowledge of methods in Psychology when you write your research proposal for this course. I value a diverse set of viewpoints and I welcome the strengths and talents you bring to the table as part of our community in this research methods course.”

I also include a belonging message as well that reads:

“You as a Researcher–You belong in Psychological and Brain Sciences and you belong here in this class as an undergraduate researcher. We have complete confidence in your ability to be an active capable member of this course. We also have complete confidence in your ability to develop your research and writing skills, and we are committed to guiding you through this process. Please feel free to discuss these things with Dr. Woods.*”

Additionally, this kind of messaging is woven into my lectures and in the ways I engage the students when talking about the course structure.

Providing Scaffolding for Student Success

The second way I support inclusive classroom environments is to ensure that there are appropriate mechanisms to scaffold students to be successful in the course. I build in assignment scaffolding, revision opportunities, along with both individual and group exams, as well as exam retakes during finals, to ensure students can be supported in their learning. These structures provide different formative opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and contribute to a collaborative and collegial learning environment for students (Ambrose et al., 2010; Boothe et al., 2018). I carefully structure the content and pace of my courses so that students’ knowledge can build incrementally. For example, when writing a research proposal, I have five small assignments that culminate in the students having a draft of their proposal done 2 weeks before it is due. My assignments are developed to both guide the student through the material, foster autonomy, and reinforce working hard to improve with opportunities for revision (e.g., writing, peer review, feedback).

I started recording insight discussions which are small groups of students discussing how they approached difficult course concepts and how they overcame the challenging content and gained insights into effective learning strategies. Informal student feedback (e.g. mid quarter feedback surveys, student discussion posts) suggests students find these insight discussions from their peers very useful; students like knowing that someone else had to struggle to understand a concept (helping to reframe the challenge of the course). On my exams, I ask integrative questions (e.g., authentic assessments) to test the students’ ability to put together information they have learned from different sources, and to apply this knowledge to a novel and real-world situation (Nolan et al., 2020). I design assignments that can foster the development of the students ability to think and practice as psychologists and neuroscientists by using structured peer review (Adler-Kassner & Wardle 2022; Miller-Young & Boman 2017; Woods, Safronova, & Adler-Kassner 2021). Cumulatively, my course practices and assessments give students multiple ways of gaining knowledge and of demonstrating their understanding of course concepts.

Promoting a Welcoming & Engaging Classroom Environment

The third way I support inclusive learning environments that promote belonging is to promote a comfortable, welcoming, and engaging classroom climate that encourages students to actively engage with content and learn from each other (Felten, 2020). When I set up group work, I have sections that promote students getting to know each other, and assign ways for students to have clear roles in the group (e.g., the person who likes dogs the best is the person who scribes for the worksheet, the person who likes Halloween the best is the one who ensures that everyone contributed to the discussion). I try to get to know the students with informal polls and chatting with them before class starts, to build relationships and to get a sense of each unique student. I create an open and warm classroom environment so that students are encouraged to ask questions or to express their point of view, using frequent in class questions that require some discussion. I strive to show cultural competence in my ways of communication to ensure that students who take my courses gain confidence in their abilities, and learn how to study and organize knowledge in meaningful ways (Tanner & Allen, 2017). I model tolerance and openness to opposing viewpoints so that students can feel safe in expressing their ideas and opinions. Specifically, last year I asked the students to help me stop using the phrase “you guys” so I could work on using non-gendered terms, and the class was very supportive in “catching” me and stopping me so I could reframe my language. This also modeled for students that we can make mistakes, while still being active members of the course that belong in the major.

The strategies I have used to promote inclusive learning environments to combat hidden curriculum, including intentional course structure for learning, improvement, and creating a welcoming class climate, have been developed through many discussions with colleagues who value inclusion. My colleagues work to create classroom structures fostering belonging (Wilson et al., 2019), and that includes storytelling to engage students and foster knowledge application to real world situations (Alea Albada, 2022). Further, my inclusive strategies have been influenced by reading work that emphasizes kindness, affirmation, and communal goals (Estrada et al., 2019), and the importance of validating student’s experiences (Rendon, 1994). I was inspired by thoughtful workshops by Kimberly Tanner and Viji Sathy on best classroom practices for equity.

My understanding of how to think about creating inclusive classroom environments includes thinking about the deep teaching practices; self-awareness, empathy, classroom climate, leveraging campus student support service network (Dewsbury, 2019). The growth and energy I have gained come in collaborative spaces and in conversation. I have realized how important it is to get to know your students as people. Consider taking the extra five minutes with a student asking about their hobbies, or goals, or passions, or starting a conversation with a colleague about what can be done to create more inclusion in the spaces you occupy. If we all add one or two small things that can foster inclusion, we can change our teaching and learning practices to promote equity in higher education and create real change.

*Feel free to wordsmith the examples to suit your perspectives for your course, while citing appropriately.


Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (2022). Writing Expertise: A Research-Based Approach to Writing and Learning Across Disciplines. Clearinghouse.

Alea Albada, N. (2022). Try Telling a Story: Why Instructors Share Personal Stories with Students.

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., and Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, M. J., Donnell, K. A., & Hall, D. D. (2018). Applying the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) in the college classroom. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 7(3), n3.

Dewsbury, B. M. (2019). Deep teaching in a college STEM classroom. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 15(1), 169–191.

Estrada, M., Eroy-Reveles, A., & Matsui, J. (2018). The influence of affirming kindness and community on broadening participation in STEM career pathways. Social Issues and Policy Review, 12(1), 258–297.

Felten, P. (2020). Critically reflecting on identities, particularities and relationships in student engagement. In A handbook for student engagement in higher education (pp. 148-154). Routledge.

Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the course syllabus: Considerations for promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79.

Laiduc, G., & Covarrubias, R. (2022). Making meaning of the hidden curriculum: Translating wise interventions to usher university change. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 8(2), 221.

Miller‐Young, J., & Boman, J. (2017). Uncovering ways of thinking, practicing, and being through decoding across disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2017(150), 19-35.

Nolan, S. A., Bakker, H. E., Cranney, J., Hulme, J. A., & Dunn, D. S. (2020). Project assessment: An international perspective. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 6(3), 185.

Rendon, L. I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative higher education, 19(1), 33-51.

Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019). Project Syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6-15.

Tanner, K., & Allen, D. (2007). Cultural competence in the college biology classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6(4), 251-258.

Wilton, M., Gonzalez-Niño, E., McPartlan, P., Terner, Z., Christofferson, R. E., Rothman, J. H. (2019). Improving academic performance, belonging, and retention through increasing structure of an introductory biology course. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18(ar53), 1-13.

Woods, V. E., Safronova, M., & Adler-Kassner, L. (2021). Guiding Students Towards Disciplinary Knowledge With Structured Peer Review Assignments. Journal of Higher Education Theory & Practice, 21(4).

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