Students Are Partners for Classroom Inclusivity

Written by Wendy Smith and Anu Sivaraman. Originally published on AACSB Insights

Students do not have to rely on professors to feel welcome and engaged in their classes—they, too, have the power to create a sense of belonging on campus.

  • Even though professors control the dynamics of their classrooms, students wield great influence when it comes to cultivating more inclusive learning environments.
  • Students can promote inclusive teaching by voting with their feet—choosing classes based on faculty reputation, recommending classes to their peers, and informing professors and department heads of learning experiences they most want to see.
  • Most important, students create more welcoming campus environments when they express genuine interest in others’ perspectives, invite overlooked students to work with them on projects, and speak out when they witness instances of exclusion.

A sense of belonging is a necessary precursor for learning. It does not matter what faculty teach, students will be less focused on the topic at hand if they feel as if they do not belong in the classroom.

In 2022, we wrote an article about what professors can do to facilitate an inclusive classroom. But we also want to underscore that, while professors control the dynamics that lead to more inclusive classrooms, students also exert influence over their learning environments; they can and should be partners in this process. Students not only should shape their own experiences, but also help craft the experience for others.

To better understand how students can contribute to inclusivity on campus, we spoke to two current students and one alumna of the University of Delaware (UD). Tori Glover is a senior medical diagnostics honors student on the pre-med track at the College of Health Sciences and the UD student body president. Siddhi Patel is a senior accounting and management information systems honors student at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, as well as vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the largest co-ed business fraternity on campus. Finally, Keyarah Watson, who graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and management information systems, is an Emmy-award-winning communications executive.

Here, Glover, Patel, and Watson share how inclusivity has positively impacted their learning, engagement, and interest, as well as what actions they took to cultivate a greater sense of belonging on campus.

Increasing Opportunities

In her sophomore year, Glover took a course called History of Medicine, where the professor made her feel welcome to share her perspective and ideas. Because she felt free to participate, she also was confident enough to ask for and receive a letter of recommendation from the professor. That letter ultimately opened up opportunities for her in the Honors College at UD.

Glover valued her experience in this class so much that she worked to create that kind of community for others. She continues to reach out to other faculty and classmates to increase the sense of connection that she and other students feel on campus.

How and where can students follow Glover’s lead and take responsibility for inclusive classrooms? We share a few key tips below, drawn from our own experiences, as well as the experiences that Glover, Patel, and Watson shared with us:

Choose classes where professors enable inclusivity. Class choice varies for students across universities and programs. However, as students evaluate the options offered, they should consider the classroom culture. As an undergraduate, I (Wendy) set a key rule that my first criteria for choosing a class depended on the professor’s reputation. I would ask trusted friends and peers to give me the inside scoop on how different professors managed their classrooms.

Students can promote this kind of teaching by voting with their feet. Not only can they enroll in courses where the classroom culture allows them to be most successful, but they also can be proactive in recommending the best professors to others. They can seek out faculty who indicate that they design welcoming class environments by including language and information about their inclusivity efforts in their syllabi or by forming student teams in ways that ensure diverse interactions.

When students find ways to meet one-on-one with their professors, they can start to shift the dynamic by enabling professors to understand and attend to the unique needs of more individual students.

For example, Glover encourages other students to take History of Medicine and tells them why. Eventually, she emphasizes, department leaders take notice when every student wants to take one professor’s class but avoids taking another’s.

I (Anu) went to university in India, and the professors whom my friends and I still talk about and are thankful for are the ones who were most inclusive in their teaching. However, in our programs, we did not pick our classes—we were assigned to sections and professors. Students in programs with fixed course schedules still can promote inclusivity on campus, perhaps by planning activities that include students from different economic backgrounds, sharing books and other resources with students who cannot afford to purchase them, or housing students who cannot travel home during holiday breaks.

Connect with professors personally. Professors (usually) have multitudes of students and often do not think deeply about each student. But students (usually) have one professor in each class and often think about how their professors view them. When students find ways to meet one-on-one with their professors, they can start to shift the dynamic by enabling professors to understand and attend to the unique needs of more individual students.

“I would always introduce myself to my professors on the first day of class,” Glover says. Doing so, she told us, would make the class more personal and engaging for her, while also opening the channels of communication in case she ever faced questions or challenges. She often encouraged her fellow students to do the same.

Patel notes that she would make herself known to her professors inside the classroom as well. “I am not one to be afraid to share my thoughts and opinions. By doing so, I immerse myself in the classroom environment,” Patel says. “My peers respect me for consistently voicing my opinions, and knowing my input is valued and respected helps me feel more welcomed in the classroom.”

Students also can seek out faculty who foster this type of inclusivity by organizing events like “Coffee with the Prof,” where they can meet with professors one-on-one and discuss matters related to the course and outside of the course. Students even can go one step further and tell their professors that they would like to see such events placed on the calendar.

Create opportunities for classmates to connect. Patel notes that she not only speaks up herself, she also ensures “that my peers feel included as well. I always encourage my peers to say what’s on their minds and to never be afraid to share their opinions.” In other words, students foster inclusivity by connecting with classmates and inviting them into the discussions.

When students take responsibility for inclusivity in the classroom, they ensure that they and their classmates have opportunities to voice their perspectives and influence their learning experiences.

Glover, Patel, and Watson also realize that they need to reach out to others the way others have done for them. Watson points to the importance of “being kind and genuinely interested in other’s cultures.” She says that she “always invited others to work with me and eat with me. I found that others wanted to talk about their backgrounds when I asked respectfully.” Including others in the classroom, she adds, “can be as simple as a group of students inviting an individual student to work on a project to ensure that student does not feel excluded.”

When necessary, raise concerns. Finally, students can speak up when they face or witness classroom exclusion. Glover found that she had to do so in one of her classes where a professor conveyed little concern or care for student learning. According to Glover, the teacher conveyed the message that “you are going to learn the way that I want you to learn, and I’m going to teach the way I want to teach.”

Glover connected with several other students who also were struggling in the class. After several rounds of complaints in a group online chat, Glover realized that they should do more than complain to each other—they should take action.

So, they shared their experiences first with the professor and then with the department chair, hoping to inspire constructive approaches that allowed the students to feel more connected in the classroom. In the end, the teacher shifted approaches to address the students’ concerns and help them better learn the materials. Knowing that they could share their opinions and make changes allowed Glover and her classmates to feel even more empowered and included.

Taking Action on Inclusivity

We tell all faculty to provide multiple opportunities and methods for students to reach them. The more approachable professors are, the more feedback (both positive and negative) they will receive.

But when students take responsibility for inclusivity in the classroom, they not only will learn the subject more fully, but also will ensure that they and their classmates have opportunities to voice their perspectives and influence their learning experiences.

In the end, students will feel more empowered and connected in their classrooms if they take action to make sure everyone feels included. This might be the most important lesson of all.

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