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Inclusive course design is part of a larger effort of inclusive teaching, which focuses on creating a learning experience that benefits all students in the class – including students who come from groups that have been historically underrepresented or marginalized in higher education. Inclusive teaching takes into account who we are as instructors, and who the students are.
Inclusive course design specifically focuses on the process by which instructors can design their course in a way that is learner-centered, i.e., it attends to learners' sense of belonging, the diversity of their experiences and their desire for relevance.
Inclusive course design is linked to a conceptualization of excellence in education. This means that inclusivity is not a separate goal of learning – it is directly linked to the goals of the university and its programs and thus integral to the success of students. In that sense, inclusive course design is simply good course design.
Research shows that students learn better in inclusive learning environments which value their identities and their well-being. Inclusive learning environments also have positive impacts on learning more broadly, as they are highly correlated with some learning outcomes that are shared across disciplines, such as critical thinking skills or the ability to work effectively in groups. When diversity of perspectives and experiences are intentionally surfaced, valued and fostered in the classroom, students can acquire these attributes more effectively.
Many learning outcomes that are essential across disciplines, such as effective group work skills, can be met more effectively when we foster inclusive learning environments. These skills also build diversity competencies in students by enhancing students’ capacity to live, grow, and participate in a diverse and complex world. Think about how your course learning outcomes connect to diversity competencies and inclusion, and highlight these connections so that students are aware of them.
The tone of your syllabus (e.g., rewarding or punishing) has an impact on students’ perception of instructor approachability and their comfort going to the instructor for help. The wording of a syllabus has the most impact on first-year students. Your syllabus can also include a statement of equity, inclusion, or non-discrimination in order to set the tone for your class.
Reading lists give students a sense of what perspectives are included in the class. Ideally, a reading list would include authors of different identities and from a variety of backgrounds. This diversity may not always be obvious based on the name of the authors so you can draw students’ attention to this diversity when introducing the course.
When teaching class material, it is important to use examples that are relevant to diverse audiences and represent different perspectives and experiences. This helps a wider range of students connect to the material, see themselves included in the discipline, and draw on their existing knowledge to contribute to the course. Be mindful not to perpetuate negative associations in doing so (e.g., always discussing African countries in relation to poverty, or gay men in relation to HIV) as that will further marginalize students who belong to these groups.
By varying assignments and the ways in which you assess learning, you can assess a broader range of skills and give diverse students different ways to demonstrate their mastery of the course content and learning outcomes. For example, concept maps can help students who are not as fluent in English demonstrate proficiency of the learning outcomes for your class better than an essay. Multiple forms of assessment also help to motivate students by better engaging them and showing them how the skills they are learning can be applied outside of class.
Accessibility has many components, including but not limited to physical and financial accessibility. When designing a course, you can ask yourself the following questions to consider barriers that might impede the participation of some students in your course: Are your class and the building accessible for students with mobility impairments? Are there washrooms for people of all genders available nearby, including an accessible, all-gender washroom? Are online materials designed to facilitate student engagement (e.g. easily legible font, description of data represented in charts)? Are your videos subtitled for students with auditory impairments or students for whom English is an Additional Language? How much do students have to spend in addition to tuition to participate in your course (e.g., textbooks, field trips)? You can reduce many of these barriers by using Universal Design for Learning.
Universal Design for Learning (or UDL) is a framework for creating learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences and some disabilities. UDL focuses on providing students with: multiple means of representation (taking into account various ways of acquiring knowledge) multiple means of expression (taking into account various ways of demonstrating knowledge) multiple means of engagement (taking into account various ways of engaging and motivating people to learn)
The emphasis of UDL is often on supporting students with disabilities, such as students with visual or auditory impairments, in a way that makes course materials more flexible for other learners as well. For example, subtitles are essential for deaf students, and they also help students for whom English is an additional language.
Inclusive course design builds on UDL’s principles to take into account other aspects of inclusivity, such as how the course syllabus and curriculum consider, reflect, and capitalize on the diversity of students’ lived experiences.
Inclusive course design sets the tone and structure for your course to support and enhance diverse students’ learning experiences. However, for inclusive design to really have an impact, it needs to be accompanied by a consideration of inclusivity in teaching practices. For example, how are diverse students invited to participate during class time? How are you as an instructor accounting for stereotype threat? How are microaggressions in student comments addressed?
To learn more about inclusive teaching practices, check out our other resources.