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July 27, 2017

Teaching at Pitt

Welcoming Inclusivity in Your Teaching

During Pitt’s Year of Diversity, more than 200 events covered important topics from college affordability to advancing diversity research with student, faculty, and staff involvement. One way to further the impact of the Year of Diversity is to take the ideas and techniques and apply them in your courses — with active, intentional and ongoing engagement that increases awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication and empathic understanding of diversity issues, including complex systems and individuals of power and privilege.

Diversity + Active, Intentional, Ongoing Engagement = Inclusiveness

Research confirms that a student who feels included and actively engaged in a course will be more likely to meet learning objectives. Consider being more inclusive in the classroom before the start of the academic year:

Begin with Self

Ask yourself, “What are my identities and biases (implicit and explicit), and how do they relate to my students?” Implicit bias is an unconscious and relatively prejudiced judgment and social behavior. Explicit bias refers to attitudes and beliefs that one consciously has about a person or a group.

Consider taking an inventory of these identities and biases using a Self-Identity Pie Chart at Identity and Belonging or the popular online “Project Implicit” inventories. What you discover there may confirm what you already know — but you may also be surprised. The point here is neither to engage in self-congratulation nor self-condemnation, but rather gather information, which you can use strategically to determine which educational practices to sustain, and which to modify, discard or replace.

Build Inclusivity in Course Design

Research suggests that faculty members who engaged in diversity curriculum development efforts felt reinvigorated in their intellectual life, enriching their courses, their areas of research and their relationships with colleagues (Branche, Mullennix, & Cohn, 2007). So begin with revising the course syllabus.

A syllabus is a detailed, descriptive document that outlines course topics and defines expectations and responsibilities. It is also an opportunity for you to convey both your expectations of your students, as well as what they can expect from you and the course environment.

You can do this by:

  • Using gender-neutral pronouns so there’s no implication of grammatical or biological gender such as male or female (e.g., oneself, they, them)
  • Avoiding overuse of (unexplained) cultural references, which limits understanding and participation to a specific culture (e.g., sports metaphors, pop culture)
  • Providing guidelines (ground rules) for appropriate terminology and class discussions to establish a respectful, civil tone (e.g., always use a respectful tone, no name-calling or other character attacks, ask question when you do not understand)
  • Updating your course so that a broad range of perspectives is included not only in content, but also in authorship
  • Adding an inclusivity or diversity statement, indicating your commitment to welcoming diversity in your classroom (e.g., University of Central Florida Teaching and Learning Resources)

Plan for Challenges to Inclusivity

Are there times at which it would be helpful to ask students to engage in self-reflection about their own identities? What if a student (or students) says something offensive or exclusionary in class? Will you simply move on, or will you address it, knowing that your other students might be distracted from your course learning objectives?

Common strategies include (Landis, 2008):

  • Asking what other students think about the comment: Be prepared to moderate this difficult discussion if it becomes hostile. (e.g., Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom)
  • Asking the challenging student (civilly) for rationale (e.g., “Why do you think that?” “What is your evidence?”)
  • Stopping for a break. Sometimes, the atmosphere in a classroom has become so unwelcoming that it is necessary to pause. Remember, it is also about managing ourselves as well as finding a teaching opportunity to help learners. (e.g., During this time, you might speak privately with the student in question; do a Pause for Reflection strategy with a 3-minute writing on a notecard or Post-It to address the open discussion.)


Finally, the staff at the University Center for Teaching and Learning are here to assist you in your endeavors to make your classroom more inclusive. We will be happy to listen to your concerns and goals for your classes and to provide you with suggestions to help you make your class a welcoming one from the first day of classes through the end of the semester.


Branche, J., Mullennix, J. & Cohn, E. (Eds.). (2007). Diversity across the curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education. Bolton, Massachusetts: Anker Publishing.

Landis, K. (Ed). (2008). Start talking: A handbook for engaging difficulty dialogues in higher education.   Alaska: University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.


Charline Rowland is the new diversity program coordinator in the University Center for Teaching and Learning. She can be reached at

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