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Inclusivity in the Classroom

The goals of this teaching guide are threefold: 1) to discuss the importance of inclusivity in the classroom, 2) to present examples of teaching more inclusively, and 3) to provide additional resources for further guidance.

Why is inclusivity important?

Drawing from the literature on inclusive teaching in higher education, the current section considers the importance of increasing inclusivity and is framed by two overarching issues. The first issue is that of student belonging in their classrooms and in the broader campus culture. Most students struggle to transition into college, but students of less privileged and more marginal backgrounds face even greater challenges as they enter what they can perceive to be an unwelcoming or even hostile environment (Carter, Locks, Winkle-Wagner, & Pineda, 2006; Kalsner & Pistole, 2003). To help students overcome challenges integrating into college life, teachers can work to cultivate a sense of belonging among their students. Section Two of this teaching guide provides resources for teachers to increase the sense of belonging in their classrooms.

At the institutional level, increasing a sense of belonging among students is embodied in the following four goals, as derived from a review of inclusion statements across campuses (Hurtado 2003, in Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008 p. 279):

  1. Ensuring that students of underrepresented populations have the support they need to be academically successful.
  2. Building relationships and developing multicultural skills with members from diverse backgrounds.
  3. Enhancing students’ ability to participate in a pluralistic, interdependent global community.
  4. Increasing the participation of students of color in campus life.

Studies repeatedly find that positive diverse interactions increase students’ sense of belonging on campuses (e.g., Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008). Conversely, interactions that result in feelings of social anxiety and fear decrease a sense of belonging. Accordingly, student cultures that foster positive diversity experiences help students – all students – feel like they are a valued part of a campus community.

The second theme of inclusivity is stereotype threat, which refers to the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about their respective in-group, a fear that can create high cognitive load and reduce academic focus and performance (Steele & Aronson, 1995). The effects of stereotype threat are profound and can impact students from a variety of backgrounds.  Multiple studies have found that stereotype threat significantly reduces performance for undergraduates from less privileged socioeconomic statuses (Croizet & Claire, 1998; Spencer & Castano, 2007), African American students  (Steele & Aronson, 1995), women in math and science courses (Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008), as well as Latino (Schmader & Johns, 2003) and LGBT students at traditionally religious institutions (Love, 1998). Stereotype threat is especially detrimental for individuals who identify strongly with the stigmatized group (Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005). Identifying and eliminating stereotype threat should be a central goal for teachers who want to increase inclusivity in the classroom. Sections Two and Three describe specific examples and strategies to increase the sense of belonging in the classroom as well as to reduce stereotype threat.

What does inclusivity look like?

When instructors attempt to create safe, inclusive classrooms, they should consider multiple factors, including the syllabus, course content, class preparation, their own behavior, and their knowledge of students’ backgrounds and skills. The resources in this section offer concrete strategies to address these factors and improve the learning climate for all students.

  • Creating Inclusive College Classrooms: An article from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan which addresses five aspects of teaching that influence the inclusivity of a classroom: 1) the course content, 2) the teacher’s assumptions and awareness of multicultural issues in classroom situations, 3) the planning of course sessions, 4) the teacher’s knowledge of students’ backgrounds, and 5) the teacher’s choices, comments and behaviors while teaching.
  • Teaching for Inclusion: Diversity in the College Classroom: Written and designed by the staff of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC, Chapel Hill, this book offers a range of strategies, including quotes from students representing a range of minority groups.
  • Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, from the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University, describes how to turn difficult discussions into learning opportunities.
Reducing Stereotype Threat

Steve Stroessner (Columbia) and Catherine Good (Baruch College) provide guidelines and concrete strategies to reduce stereotype threat in the classroom. These psychologists classify strategies to reduce stereotype threat into the following categories:

Reframe the task
This portion of the website describes ways that teachers can reduce stereotype threat by acknowledging the steps that they have taken to make a task or test fair for stereotyped groups.

Deemphasize threatened social identities
This activity encourages test givers to modify questions that might make stereotyped groups recall their stigmatized identity while they are performing a graded task. The modifications can include moving identity questions to the end of the test or asking questions that highlight students’ valued identities to empower students to perform well.

Encourage self-affirmation
Repeatedly, studies suggest that self-affirmation – where students think about their valued characteristics, skills etc. – leads to increased performance. This section of the website presents evidence and examples of self-affirmation activities.

Provide role models
Positive role models, who perform well in fields that typically invoke stereotype threat, can increase otherwise poor performance for stigmatized groups.

Provide external attributions for difficulty
Help students attribute their anxieties to causes other than stereotype to lessen anxiety for students who would normally suffer from stereotype threat. For example, some studies posited that instructors reduced poor performance by suggesting that anxiety might actually help with test taking, without connecting the anxiety to any stereotype.

Emphasize an incremental view of intelligence
This portion of the website suggests that instructors should assist students to overcome fixed notions of intelligence. When notions of genius or inherent talent were downplayed, stereotype threat was greatly reduced.

References and Additional Resources

Carter, D. F., Locks, A. M., Winkle-Wagner, R., & Pineda, D. (2006, April). “From when and where I enter”: Theoretical and empirical considerations of minority students’ transition to college. Paper presented at American Educational Research Association annual meeting, San Francisco.

Croizet, J. C., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: The intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 588–594.

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Harder, J. (2008). Problems in the pipeline. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 17–28.

Kalsner, L., & Pistole, M. C. (2003). College adjustment in a multiethnic sample: Attachment, separation-individuation, and ethnic identity. Journal of College Student Development, 44(1), 92–109.

Locks, A.M., Hurtado, S., Bowman, N.A., & Oseguera, L. (2008). Extending notions of campus climate and diversity to students’ transition to college. Review of Higher Education, 31, 257-285.

Love, P. G.(1998). Cultural barriers facing lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at a catholic college. Journal of Higher Education, 69, 298–323.

Marx, D.M., Stapel D.A, & Muller, D. (2005). We can do it: The interplay of construal orientation and social comparisons under threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 88, 432–446

Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.

Spencer, B., & Castano, E. (2007). Social class is dead. Long live social class! Stereotype threat among low socioeconomic status individuals. Social Justice Research, 20, 418 – 432.

Steele, C.M., & Aronson. J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811.

Citation: Greer, A. (2014). Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved May 1, 2023 from


This teaching guide, which has been modified from its original form, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.