UW-Madison students come from all walks of life. A classroom on campus is bound to feature students with different interests, socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ethnicities or levels of college preparedness — and the list goes on.
The ability to accommodate a variety of students in a classroom can be a challenge for any university. While the idea of inclusive teaching is not a new phenomenon, it has become increasingly necessary in recent years within higher education.
Inclusive teaching is “creating a learning environment in which students from diverse backgrounds have equal access to learn,” explained Emma Prendergast, a graduate student philosophy instructor.
It’s a practice and philosophical way of thinking about teaching that has become more popular in the last five years, according to John Zumbrunnen, department chair of political science.
Aaron Granat, a Communication Arts professor at UW-Madison recalled the emphasis on inclusive teaching during his 2008 TA orientation. The discussions had focused on the importance of teaching in a way that avoids marginalizing or alienating students.
As a professor, Granat tries to “teach the material in a way that is very sensitive to a range of backgrounds and concerns of all the students in the course [with] the goal that every student feels welcomed and supported and represented in the development of the course curriculum.”
Inclusive teaching at UW-Madison
While inclusive teaching can mean different things to each professor, all methods center around students’ needs.
One way to incorporate inclusive teaching into a classroom is through the sources and materials in the curriculum.
“Take a look at the syllabus once you've created it and the material you're going to cover and think about [if] there [is] a variety of voices on your syllabus,” Zumbrunnen said.
Granat agreed that trying to acknowledge all students is a good step and explained that he tries to do so through the clips he shows in lecture.
“I try my best to curate a broad selection of examples that represents diversity of characters, environments [and] situations,” he said.
Freshman Hannah Lerner said her liberal arts professors use sources from different perspectives — but certain courses may be better designed for varied sources than others.
“I feel like some of the sources my professors have used have just been really formal textbooks with just facts like economics or something along those lines,” Lerner said.
Professors also try other ways to make every student count, like using the classroom community to both them and their students’ advantage.
“During lecture I would have everybody turn to a neighbor and discuss,” Prendergast said. “That's a kind of inclusive teaching strategy because it gives all students an opportunity to process and discuss an idea out loud.”
Additionally, accommodating the specific needs of students is just as important as conscious consideration of course content and environment.
“You really have to be thinking about the variety of learning styles out there, as well,” said Zumbrunnen.
This could mean varying the style of lecture, discussion and other ways of learning the curriculum so students have a chance to engage in whichever learning style works best for them, Zumbrunnen explained.
Accommodating students also requires being aware of when students have a barrier preventing them from being successful and having a willingness to work with them to overcome it, Prendergast added.
In some departments, teachers are held accountable for making their class environment as inclusive as possible.
Communication Arts professors — who often rely on examples from the media as a large part of their curriculum — debrief with their supervisors at the end of each semester and inclusive teaching is always a large part of these discussions, Granat said.
“From an objective standpoint, there is more room for improvements,” Granat said. “It's a continual progression, it’s something that we always need to have in mind.”
While inclusivity is a common topic across the university, Zumbrunnen estimated that around half the faculty are consciously thinking about inclusive teaching.
“That isn't to say the rest of people are being exclusionary or that they don't care about inclusive teaching, it often is just a matter of they haven't yet gotten the pedagogical tools in place to help them be more inclusive,” he said.
Zumbrunnen clarified professional development can be key to providing these tools by encouraging professors to adopt inclusive strategies in their teaching.
Virtual inclusivity: The transition online
Students are nearing the end of the academic year and the end of a month-and-a-half of online learning in which almost everything characterizing the traditional classroom had to change.
Inclusive teaching — which often relies on a welcoming, diverse classroom setting — was no exception.
“The way that we measured inclusiveness [has] start[ed] to gear towards the student’s technological capabilities,” Granat said, regarding the shift online which began late March.
In this unprecedented crisis, being inclusive requires professors to have a deeper understanding of students’ personal situations.
The considerations professors have made to try to achieve this largely manifests in their choice of whether to format their course in a synchronous or asynchronous way.
Synchronous means presenting material at one time with all students together, while asynchronous entails posting material and leaving it online for students to engage with on their own schedule.
Prendergast, for one, believed an asynchronous class would be more accessible for her students.
“People have gone home, some people are in different time zones now, some have sketchy Wi-Fi, poor technology or a work schedule — or they've gone home to a difficult home life,” Prendergast explained.
Flexibility, for both teachers and students during this uncertain time, seems to be crucial.
“I can't rely on everyone being available at the same time and so I think given those circumstances we needed to come up with a structure for the course that maximizes flexibility,” said Granat, who has also adopted an asynchronous format for his class throughout COVID-19.
In addition to readjusting their class format, instructors have doubled down on resources they are providing to ensure students’ different learning styles are accounted for.
“You do things like try to make sure that when you post a lecture online, you also post written lecture notes or a transcript,” Zumbrunnen said. “Just for students who need the written version as well as being able to listen to it.”
At UW-Madison, some professors have been going out of their way for their students.
“My teachers all feel so bad. One of my professors sends us an email every week checking in on how we are all doing with everything which is really nice,” Lerner said.
Checking in and working through the less than ideal situation has been important to professors and students alike.
“I've been trying to tell my colleagues: let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Zumbrunnen said. “We know this isn't going to be perfect and what we're trying to do is provide solid learning experiences for the rest of this term.”
Now more than ever, it seems inclusive teaching comes down to the mutually beneficial relationship between student and teacher, according to Pendergast.
“I think there's a real need right now to be flexible and believe our students when they say I couldn't get it done by this day for a good reason,” Prendergast said. “And not questioning students when they say this is a struggle for me and I need help right now.”
Whether in a classroom or not, inclusive teaching has become a key part of academics not only impacting student’s experience but the education system as a whole.
“So far we think of it as not just having a diverse group of people in the classroom,” said Zumbrunnen, “but also as a more fundamental effort to structure everything we do [in] education with inclusivity in mind.”