Culturally Inclusive, Responsive, and Accessible Teaching and Learning:

A General Approach for Teaching in any Discipline

Author: Sarah Taylor, MSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work

Good culturally inclusive, responsive, and accessible teaching is really just good teaching, especially in a place like CSUEB, where our learners are extraordinarily diverse across many domains of human experience, including, but not limited to: race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender, age, immigration experience, religion, and culture. If we are only teaching to students who learn from traditional pedagogical techniques, we are reaching only a small number of the students in each class.

Becoming a diversity-sensitive educator is about being in a state of constant learning. Even after many years of experience, I still make mistakes, and that is okay. The goal is to be self-reflective about teaching, so that mistakes are opportunities to hone skills and to engage the class in a discussion about lifelong learning and cultural humility. My mistakes, and transparency about them, have led to critical dialogues that have allowed students to share their own experiences in interacting with diverse individuals without feeling judged.

Culturally inclusive, responsive, and accessible teaching is more about pedagogical practices than about the content being taught. Integrating articles, films, activities, and books related to diversity is necessary, but not sufficient, for reaching diverse learners. If the overall teaching approach stifles dialogue, leaves some students unable to access the content, and inhibits self-reflection, it is unlikely that deep learning will take place, regardless of the content of the course.

In my classes, I strive to create a culturally inclusive, responsive, and accessible learning community with the following characteristics:

  • Casts instructor as the lead learner and frame-maker.
  • Supports an accessible, safe, respectful environment for all.
  • Builds on strengths and perspectives that all learners bring.
  • Holds high expectations for students while providing a lot of support.
  • Meets learners where they are at.
  • Sets an explicit goal that the ideal is for all students to succeed.

Some of the strategies I use to create this learning community include: 1) Self-Reflection and Support; 2) Access for all students; 3) Respectful classroom environments; 4) Opportunities for collaboration and student feedback; and 5) Fun, intentional communities.

When driving home after class, I try to ask myself these questions:

  • Were there moments of conflict or disconnection in the class? Is it possible that some or all of the problems were due to diversity-related issues?
  • Were there moments of synergy and connection in the class? What went right in those moments?
  • Was the class session accessible to all kinds of learners and to students from varying educational and cultural backgrounds?
  • Were all of the materials accessible and engaging?
  • How did I convey openness to receiving constructive feedback from students? How did I respond to any feedback received?
  • What will I do differently next time?

It has been especially helpful to have mentors and colleagues to process all of these issues with, both informally over coffee, and formally, in faculty learning communities and other team projects focused on diversity-sensitive teaching and learning.

Access is inclusive not only of legal accommodations for students with (dis)abilities, but of learning styles, educational background, comfort with technology, etc. Some techniques that support access for all students include:

  • Consult with Accessibility Services anytime you have a question.
  • Post an agenda for each class, in advance of the class meeting, so that students can prepare for class.
  • Always use visual materials. Post the syllabus, powerpoint slides, articles, and other materials to blackboard so students can review these before and during class. Avoid posting PDFs whenever possible because they are not as screen reader-friendly.
  • Mix lecture, small group work, discussion, hands-on activities, tests, films, readings, high tech and low tech activities, papers, role plays, oral presentations, etc., acknowledging that not all activities will be the best fit for all students, but that the goal is to provide some opportunities for each student to shine.
  • Identify the most essential elements of the class. Then think flexibly and creatively about how students can demonstrate their mastery of those elements.
  • Take breaks as appropriate to the length of your class and students’ energy level. Pushing through to cover “one last thing” is unproductive if students’ minds are elsewhere.
  • Allow eating, drinking, and getting up anytime. A student may have a temporary or permanent medical issue (e.g. pregnancy, mild illness, back problems) that they do not wish to disclose, or have not yet applied to receive accommodations for, that may make it necessary for them to move around or eat at times that do not coincide with scheduled breaks.
  • Consider allowing laptops and other devices so that students who have difficult with handwriting can take notes.
  • Consider offering online, open book tests so that students can choose the test-taking environment that works best for them. It is much easier to accommodate a student who needs extra time on tests when the test is online.

Creating a respectful classroom is complex - whole books have been written about it. However, there are a few simple things any instructor can do to build a respectful classroom. These include:

  • Always use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
    • When in doubt, it’s okay to ask.
    • Let students know about the option to change their names in Blackboard. They can get a form for doing this from the Diversity Center or The Office of University Diversity.
  • Use non-sexist, anti-racist, non-heteronormative, and gender neutral terms and examples. When it is not possible to do so (i.e. because you are using a historical source document), acknowledge that limitation and give students time to discuss it.
  • If it’s likely that a course will cover sensitive topics, consider having a class discussion on the first day to develop some group agreements that all will follow throughout the term. Post these group agreements to Blackboard. When dialogue gets heated, it’s helpful to refer back to these agreements to remind everyone of the type of class environment we are trying to create.

Students appreciate opportunities to give input into the class throughout the quarter. This facilitates buy-in and a sense of ownership about the class. Though course evaluations may be useful, but they are received too late to make changes to a class that is currently being taught. Timely feedback helps for making adjustments mid-quarter that enhance student learning and engagement. Some strategies for encouraging ongoing feedback include:

  • Consider distributing a “draft” syllabus the first day of class and revising it with student input. Let students know what is, and is not, negotiable. I have been surprised by how few changes students want to make, yet they appreciate the opportunity for input.
  • Rather than feel that time spent in dialogue about an assignment takes time away from covering content, budget for enough time to thoroughly discuss all assignments and to check in regularly about how the class is going.
  • Respond to emails as quickly as you can (while setting appropriate limits and communicating those clearly).
  • Consider posting an anonymous online feedback form that students can use all quarter long. I use SurveyMonkey for this and post the link to Blackboard so students can access it anytime. The questions I ask include: 1) How much do you feel you are learning in this class?; 2) How much are you enjoying this class?; 3) What is working well for you in the class?; and 4) What changes would you like to see in the class? The first two questions are close-ended, and the second two are open-ended.

Learning should be fun, and part of the fun of learning is engaging with diverse classmates in developing an intentional community. Some strategies I use to create this community include:

  • Use Poll Everywhere or clickers to get instant feedback, quiz on readings, or gather real-time data.
  • Create things together and take pictures of those things to post to Blackboard. Real communities have photo albums.
  • Co-create google docs and sites in and out of class. For example, I have had my students collaborate in creating mid-term study guides in real time, during class, where they can instantly see others’ contributions.
  • Consider offering small (i.e. dollar store items, CSUEB pens, candy, etc.) prizes for activities like scavenger hunts.
  • Do an activity together that involves using crayons, markers, collage, play doh, etc.
  • Celebrate accomplishments with in-class parties, online events, or announcements in a departmental newsletter or website.