What Factor Is Key to Enabling Student Learning?

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

A hint: It has nothing to do with grades.

  • Learning depends on whether students feel as if they belong in the classroom. Educators must consider exclusivity’s impact on all students, not just those from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • When students feel excluded, they retrench and retreat, narrowly focusing on their own anxieties instead of attending to class topics or discussions.
  • Creating inclusive classrooms often requires only low-cost tweaks to the curriculum, from incorporating diverse cases to inviting students to share information about their cultures and backgrounds.

As a kid, did you ever move to a new school and feel left out of the neighborhood friendships? As an adult, have you ever started a new job where you had no idea how to connect with your co-workers? Or perhaps you have joined a local community group only to wonder whether its members wanted you there?

In contrast, consider what it’s like to feel included in a group. This feeling sparks a sense of new possibilities. You can connect with others easily; you feel valued and valuable. Most important, you are more willing to try new things, take risks, be creative, and learn.

We have all felt excluded from a particular group at some point, whether in big or small moments. Whenever we feel left out, we wonder whether it’s OK to speak up to share what we think or ask for what we need. We are left feeling stressed, questioning the value of our ideas—and, ultimately, questioning ourselves.

Too often, people think of inclusion as important only for the members of marginalized groups that are more often excluded from the mainstream, and as a result, require more recognition. However, most of us feel excluded at some point in our lives. As educators, we must recognize that effective teaching depends on whether we can help all students in our classrooms feel like they belong.

The more we can create cultures of inclusion, the more everyone in our classrooms will benefit. That’s why it is critical that educators take the steps below to build inclusive classrooms for all students.

Connect to Students as Whole People

No matter what classes students take, a sense of belonging and inclusion is critical to their learning. When students feel excluded, they retrench and retreat to narrowly focus on themselves and their own anxieties. In these moments, they are not attending to class topics or discussions.

To be fair, true learning also depends on great teaching. It requires instructors who have strong topical expertise and who apply thoughtful pedagogy to deliver ideas. However, students will not learn unless they believe that they belong in the classroom.

As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson notes, leaders’ actions can foster a sense of psychological safety, which enables people to learn, grow, take personal risks, and admit to mistakes without fear of detrimental consequences. As teachers, we have the power—and the responsibility—to do the same. We must create conditions in our classrooms that offer students a sense of safety, belonging, and freedom to learn.

How can we create more inclusive classrooms for our students? We can start by treating students as whole people, rather than only as marks in our gradebooks.

For instance, the two of us make earnest attempts in our classes to learn our students’ names and the correct pronunciations. We check in with our students to ask about how they are doing beyond the class. We leave time at the end of the class for students to linger in case anyone wants to chat. We let students know that they can come to our office hours to talk about anything—even topics beyond the course content.

When students come to us with questions about the material, we take an extra minute to simply ask how they are doing overall. While we are not experts on many of the issues they experience, we can listen and offer compassion for their experiences. If needed, we can connect students with services on campus.

To create inclusive classrooms, educators can ask students how they are doing beyond the class and leave time at the end of the class for students to linger in case anyone wants to chat.

Teachers also can pay attention to when students are not showing up or participating. We both periodically scan our rosters to see if students are absent or falling behind. Our school, the University of Delaware, facilitates this process by requiring us to submit information regarding attendance and grades for at-risk students early in the semester and at the midpoint. This serves as an excellent “warning” system to help faculty intervene while there is still time to help students make adjustments.

If we see students who are in trouble, we approach them outside class to see if we can better understand the challenges they are facing and help them to come up with solutions. This simple act reminds students that we notice them and value their participation.

In addition, knowing that many students face significant mental health crises, I (Anu) run a slide show for students as they enter class that discusses relevant mental health issues. The short presentation, which I play at least once each week, includes tips on how to start conversations on mental health, how to support fellow students with mental health issues, and where to access on-campus and off-campus resources. The slide show not only provides students with valuable information, but also reminds them that they are not alone. More important, it lets them know that mental health concerns will not prevent them from being included in the class.

Model and Invite Diverse Perspectives

Teachers can further set the stage for inclusion by welcoming diverse inputs. That starts with ensuring that their class pedagogies value different learning styles.

For instance, while some students love group projects, others hate them and prefer to complete individual assignments. Some students value participating in class, while others benefit more from offering considered comments on discussion boards. In our own classes, we make sure that final grades depend on varied types of assignments, which frees students to engage in different ways.

For instance, we both offer students opportunities to participate both in class and via online discussion boards. Not everybody is required to post online, and not everybody does. But even so, from each section of about 50 students, I (Anu) receive about 150 detailed discussion board posts. While our class discussions are good, students’ posts on the discussion board often go into far more depth on a given topic than the few comments they make in class throughout the semester.

To further invite students to play to their strengths, I (Wendy) have invited my students to personalize the grading metrics. Students can decide (within ranges) how much each assignment will count toward their final grades. This allows them to decide if they want to put more effort into class participation or discussion boards, group assignments or individual writing.

Professors can make other low-cost tweaks to create inclusive classrooms. They can incorporate diverse images, cases, and examples, so that students have opportunities to see themselves in course content. For example, both of us have sought out case studies from different countries, which often inspire students from those countries to be more active and serve as experts on the context.

I (Wendy) play music while waiting to start my classes. Each week, I invite a different student to pick the song that I’ll play. I make sure to ask students from various countries and cultures to choose the song, which allows them to showcase their backgrounds. I also ask them to explain why the songs they have chosen are meaningful to them and their cultures.

The songs students choose rarely have any connection to the course materials. However, these songs generally set an upbeat mood for that day’s discussion. And, more importantly, they signal that every student’s background is valued.

Prohibit Exclusivity

Finally, enabling inclusivity necessarily requires teachers to prohibit exclusivity—they must shut down behaviors that leave others out. Yes, as teachers, we must encourage students to challenge one another. But we must teach them to challenge ideas, not people. That’s why both of us remind students that the best way to get to more creative, generative insights is by engaging with different perspectives.

In my (Wendy’s) research, I emphasize the value of both/and thinking, a concept I highlight in my book Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. In my classroom, I stress how students can practice such thinking by being open to learning from people who are different from one another. I ask students to participate in small group discussions, as well as to switch groups so they can meet new people.

As teachers, we must encourage students to challenge one another. But we must teach them to challenge ideas, not people.

No matter what the activity, both of us respond quickly when one student dismisses, diminishes, or denigrates another. We also keep an eye out to see if any students are consistently excluded from group work and take steps to ensure that they are again included.

Prioritize Belonging Over Achievement

Inclusive classes are not just nice to have—they are essential to learning. Our job as teachers is not only to present material, but also to create the conditions for student learning and achievement.

Some of these initiatives take minimal time, while others require a bit of upfront effort. Either way, we have found that these efforts are worth it. When we create inclusive classrooms, our students share more real-world examples from their own lives, and they feel more connected to the content and the class. In other words, they learn more meaningfully and effectively.

The big impact of these small practices was summarized by one of my (Anu’s) students in a recent evaluation. “I really enjoyed taking this course and it was incredibly refreshing to have a professor who truly cares about us not just as students but also as individuals,” the student wrote. “I think it was great when you would discuss things such as mental health, diversity, and helping to create a safe space for minority students as those things help to facilitate a great learning environment.”

As Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple note in their book Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity, educators too often prioritize achievement over belonging in their courses. When they do, students feel included only if they view themselves as smart and talented in a topic.

Instead, educators should reverse that priority. We should not make students feel as if they need to succeed in order to belong. Rather, we need to create the conditions for them to belong in order for them to succeed.

Luckily, while creating inclusive classrooms is critical to learning, it need not be complicated. In many cases, it may be as simple as asking a student, “How are you today?”

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