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Blog » Designing Inclusivity into Your Course

Rita Margarida Magalhaes and Rebecca Johnson -- At the heart of an equitable and inclusive classroom environment is the belief that all students have a right to learn and that students are welcome as they are, without the need to code switch or out themselves. You can communicate this belief to students through classroom policies and intentional design choices. The approaches to inclusive design and policy setting in this post are informed by Universal Design for Learning and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. The strategies presented here are not meant to be exhaustive. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a broad framework that provides guidance on course design, media and materials, and accessibility and policy. Identify practices and policies that make sense for your class and your students. If the suggestions we've made here don't suit you or your class, take a look at the UDL on Campus site to find many, many more evidence-based suggestions and guidelines.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) recognizes that how learners live in the world and who they are should be recognized and activated in the classroom. Having a personal connection to the subject matter provides a powerful motivation for learners. Incorporating culturally responsive pedagogy into your class is less a matter of checking items off a list than it is a shift to the way we think about instructor/learner roles. That said, you can begin practicing culturally responsive pedagogy with some simple tweaks to your instructional practice. The suggestions below are aligned with both UDL and CRP. At the end of this post, you'll find links to additional resources and publications.

Inclusive Course Policies

The more detailed and explicit you are about the course, and particularly about the expectations and policies that affect your students, the more likely students will be to rise to the challenge. Students bring with them their experiences of being students in a variety of classrooms. Help them understand how to be a successful member of the learning community in your class. Describe briefly for students in clear language how you think learning works and how you have designed the class to align with these ideas. Let them know how the assignments and assessments you have designed will help them learn. Be explicit about how you will grade. Be clear, be succinct.

Consider asking the students about their expectations of you and the class. This can clarify some misconceptions and will create a greater sense of belonging.

Co-constructing Course Policies and Class Norms

Asking students to work with you to develop class policies is an excellent way of involving and engaging students in the life of the class. This is particularly important when class work is mediated by technology. Ask your students to decide what the class norms should be in the digital (synchronous and asynchronous) and face-to-face spaces. Have this exercise be communal either by having students meet in breakout rooms (if synchronously) or in a shared Google Doc (if asynchronously). You need not open ALL classroom policies to negotiation and co-creation. Pick one or two policies that you think would benefit from full-class buy-in, such as discussion board community posting guidelines or a classroom discussion of what it means to "actively participate."

One classroom policy you might co-create with students is the set of norms surrounding Zoom participation. If you believe that students turning on their cameras is important for learning, say that, but be prepared to listen to and take seriously the objections students may have against turning on their cameras. Perhaps student participation in the Zoom text chat could be considered as equal to audio/video participation. Work with students to find a compromise. Then work with students to activate classroom roles that are aligned with those policies. If Zoom text participation is valid and encouraged, you may want to appoint one or two students who would appear on camera to moderate the chat and raise questions during the session.

Be Flexible Where You Can

Beyond the co-creation of classroom policies, it may be possible to infuse flexibility into other aspects of your course. Can you allow students to drop the lowest score on a particular assignment (quiz, homework, etc.), reserve a section of the course for topics chosen by the students (you can guide that choice), or consider giving the students the option to present a project in a variety of media (paper, presentation, song, video, painting, sculpture, game, etc.). Can you be more flexible with due dates or other aspects of the course schedule? You know your course better than anyone, so identify where you think you can add flexibility. These suggestions are a guide, not a rule. Flexibility should benefit the students but not overburden you.

Course Design


Universal Design, much like Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, isn't a to-do list as much as it is a way to think about who benefits from common course adjustments made for students with accommodations. Rather than creating exceptions for students who may need an accommodation, design and build a course so that adjustments are built into the course. This approach to course design has the happy result of making your course accessible to all from the beginning.

Let's consider a common academic adjustment and how to think about it from a UDL perspective: course videos must be captioned. Captioned course videos are necessary for some students but benefit all students. In a study of closed caption and transcript use out of Oregon State University, Katie Linder found that these student sub-groups described captions as being "very" or "extremely" helpful: students with learning disabilities, adult learners, students who have difficulty with vision, students who "always" or "often" have trouble maintaining focus, first-generation students, students who have difficulty with visual representations, Pell-eligible students, students with other disabilities, students registered with an Office of Disability Services, ESL students, students receiving academic accommodation, and students who have difficulty with hearing (Linder, 2016, p. 7). Ok, captions are great. Let's take this one step further.

Many programs that provide captioning services also provide a transcript with the closed captions. A transcript can be used as a study guide, and it can also be used as quick access to content for students who may not be able to watch a video because they are in a house with poor or over-burdened internet, they are caring for children or other family members, or they are just tired of sitting at a desk looking at a screen. Providing this transcript for students and reminding them to use it as a study guide is an easy way of building UDL into your course.

Representation and Resources

Consider the content you are presenting to your students. Are the examples you bring from diverse individuals and do they speak to the diversity in your room? Are there problematic examples or some that reinforce stereotypes? Changing the examples you share in your class is a simple way for you to acknowledge your students’ identities. And you can solicit examples from the students as well.

Academic Resources

Provide resources and opportunities for students to engage with the material asynchronously. These can be resources of your own making, such as recordings of your lectures, your slides, etc., or additional resources such as YouTube videos, podcasts, or popular media and science articles. Remind students of all the ways they can communicate with you and each other outside of a Zoom class (discussion boards, email, shared Google docs). This is similar to the idea that a transcript provides an additional medium for access to content.  Adding class resources recognizes that some students may need a couple of different ways of understanding a concept beyond your readings or lectures.

Resources for People

We spend so much time focusing on learning that we can forget that students are more than their brains. Their entire person matters. In your resources be sure to feature those that focus on the whole student, such as the Q Center, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Wellness, and RIT FoodShare. Make sure that those resources are as prominently displayed as those provided by the Academic Success Center, the Writing Center, and the various tutoring services. Letting your students know you are there for them is important, but students' needs can and will go beyond your expertise. Having a comprehensive list prominently displayed in your course materials will allow students to access what they need without feeling they have to reveal information to you or to fellow students that they would prefer to keep private.

Building in Interaction

Create a method of regularly checking-in with students, and in the spirit of the advice on resources, check in on the whole student--discuss topics both academic and personal. (Getting enough sleep everyone?) The check-ins can be done in class, but there are many ways you can build a regular check-in into the class assignments. You can create a Google form that students fill out. Depending on the size of your class, you can set the schedule of these check-ins to occur more or less frequently, so that you have the time to respond to them. This practice gives students an opportunity to process, share, and be mindful.

If full-class or small-group discussions of personal aspects of learning aren't something you want to do, consider how you might reach out to individual students periodically throughout the semester to check on well-being. Connect with students to show them that you care. (Hi, you seem to have missed a few assignments and I wanted to check in. How are things? Did you want to have a quick phone call?) Follow up with students who indicate higher levels of anxiety or who have told you that their personal life is complicating their academic life. Check in, make sure they know about resources that might help them, and keep their advisors in the loop, if appropriate. Bottom line: we are not asking you to step into a role that belongs to someone else, but you do need to communicate that you are interested/invested in their learning and their success.

Online Interaction

Whether you are teaching online or blended, build in a platform for students to communicate with you and with each other asynchronously online. Starting up a Slack workspace for your class provides a structured method for students to communicate with you and ask questions. You can also communicate your presence and support by regularly sending messages via email or within myCourses, posting myCourses announcements, by the feedback you give on assignments, and by your participation in discussion boards.

Blog Posts from the Innovative Learning Institute

Access and Inclusion--This is a landing page for materials related to the NSF iUSE grant that Teaching and Learning Services participated in with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Building Inclusive Communities into All Modes of Instruction--The first post in this series.

Engaging with Student Motivation

High-Impact Accessibility Practices

What Is Universal Design for Learning?

What We Know about Teaching with Universal Design for Learning


Cult of Pedagogy, a blog run by Jennifer Gonzalez, who has taught middle school and in higher ed, has a couple of helpful posts on culturally responsive pedagogy. The blog is largely directed at a K-12 teacher audience, but many of the ideas transfer readily to higher ed: Culturally Responsive Teaching: 4 Misconceptions and 3 Tips to Make Any Lesson More Culturally Responsive.

Linder, K. (2016). Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Ecampus Research Unit, Oregon State University.

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education from

Wlodkowski, Raymond J. and Margery B. Ginsberg, "A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching," Educational Leadership (September 1995), 53:1, 17-21.

Tools Mentioned in This Post

Captioning course media

Google Apps for Education at RIT





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