Inclusive teaching

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A group of students in a library sit around a laptop and talk

How this will help: 

Define inclusive teaching and CRLT’s 5 principles of inclusive teaching.
Discover concrete inclusive teaching strategies for online teaching.

The basics

Promoting inclusion and supporting a diverse student body is a core responsibility of instructors. The fulfillment  of that responsibility is dependent on an instructor’s ability to recognize and mediate the impact of systemic inequity on student learning. Online teaching can certainly present unique challenges to equity and inclusion. However, many challenges to equity in online teaching are continuations or magnifications of forms of inequity that exist in face-to-face instruction. Inclusive teaching is a research-based approach that can be used to address inequity in both online teaching and face-to-face instruction.

This resource outlines the five principle-based inclusive teaching framework from UM’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). This framework can guide instructional choices in all areas of online teaching (including course design, curriculum, policies, facilitation, and instruction) and is relevant to any discipline or teaching setting.

What is inclusive teaching?

Inclusive teaching does not describe any particular pedagogical approach but instead names an intention or commitment that shapes your approach to teaching. CRLT (Center for Research on Learning & Teaching at UM) defines inclusive teaching in this way:

Inclusive teaching involves deliberately cultivating a learning environment where all learners are treated equitably, have equal access to learning, and feel valued and supported in their learning. Such teaching attends to learner identities and seeks to change the ways systemic inequities shape dynamics in teaching-learning spaces, affect individuals’ experiences of those spaces, and influence course and curriculum design.

What does this definition of inclusive teaching mean for instructors? First, it is a reminder that inclusive and equitable learning environments don’t just happen. You have to take deliberate steps to think through the potential impacts of your teaching methods and intentionally choose strategies that will promote both inclusion and equity. 

Why inclusion?  Research across disciplines shows that student learning and success is deeply impacted by the extent to which they feel valued and supported in their learning. Students are meaningfully ‘included’ when they experience a sense of academic and social belonging. The interactions that students have with you and with each other are just one of many areas of your teaching that will shape how students experience your learning community. A student’s sense of belonging in your class will also be impacted by the decisions you make about course design, curriculum, policies, facilitation, and instruction. Academic and social belonging may be achieved when instructors take these and other actions: 

  • seek out and act on student feedback; 
  • highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline; 
  • offer opportunities for students to make connections between course content and their own lives

Why equity? Students’ experiences inside and outside your class are shaped by unequal patterns of power and access; we call these patterns systemic inequity. Systemic inequities shape students’ individual and group-based experiences (think: race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability status, etc.) and produce vastly different relationships of power inside the classroom that impact student learning and success. For students who belong to dominant groups, systemic inequities can support their claim to community, to learning, and to academic success. For students who belong to oppressed groups, systemic inequities can reproduce experiences of exclusion, disenfranchisement and other forms of harm. Systemic inequities also impact you as an instructor; these patterns influence how you are treated by your students and inform the assumptions you make about learners.  

What does the impact of systemic inequity actually look like in a course? Consider these examples:

  • Discussion activities that are monopolized by students from dominant groups. 
  • Racist, sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, or ableist comments made by students or instructors.
  • Course content and learning activities that are inaccessible to students with disabilities. 
  • Instructors using examples that assume students come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. 
  • Students challenging the expertise of faculty and GSIs who are women, people of color, speak English as an additional language, and/or are otherwise historically underrepresented in U.S. academia.

Inclusive teaching’s focus on equity can help instructors notice the ways that systemic inequities actively undermine inclusion and community in the classroom. If inclusive and equitable learning communities are our goal, we must identify and disrupt systemic inequities as they surface in our teaching and learning practices. 

Five principles of inclusive teaching at UM

CRLT has identified five principles of inclusive teaching that can guide instructional choices toward the goal of creating inclusive and equitable learning experiences. These five principles are informed by decades of research on the relationships between systemic inequalities, social identity and student learning. As such, they reflect ‘best practices’ for teaching and learning for all students, while helping to equalize access to learning for students from marginalized and underrepresented groups at UM.

Critically engage difference

Students bring a myriad of social identities, experiences, strengths and needs to their learning. Such differences can be leveraged for learning when we look for ways to incorporate them into the way we teach, so that our students can draw upon their prior knowledge and experience. To ‘critically engage difference’, instructors must consider the ways that systemic inequities shape students’ experiences in class, at UM, and beyond. Given those patterns of power and access, instructors must then consider the potential impacts of their teaching practices on students, across social identity and other forms of difference. 

Structure interactions

Dominant relationships of power and access will continue to happen in your course unless you intentionally shape new pathways for participation and engagement that can disrupt those patterns. Structured interactions refers to the practice of using intentional mechanisms (e.g. protocols, processes, structured activities) to support students’ equitable participation in discussion and in other interactive elements of a course. Remember, you must acknowledge differences among your students and the impacts of systemic inequity in order to design structured interactions that will be most effective in your course.

Increase transparency

Transparency refers to the practice of clearly communicating norms, expectations, instructions, and evaluation criteria. Why is transparency important for equity and inclusion? Some students come into our courses with more training, more access to resources, and more familiarity with the customs and embedded assumptions of higher ed. These are ‘resources for learning’ that help those students succeed in our courses. Instructors can equalize access to these resources by being clear with students about what they are being asked to do and why and de-coding the embedded assumptions of the course (e.g. disciplinary norms for writing, assumed prior knowledge, effective study habits).

Foster academic belonging

As discussed above, student learning and success is deeply impacted by the extent to which they feel valued and supported in their learning. By fostering academic belonging, instructors help cultivate a student’s sense of connection to the course, to the discipline and to scholarly communities. Can students see themselves in your material and course content? Do they understand themselves as part of your learning community?  Such experience of connection can engage and motivate students, help students find relevance in what they are learning, and encourage students to seek help from instructors to further their learning.

Provide flexibility 

Flexibility involves responding and adapting to students’ changing and diverse circumstances, engaging empathetically with student needs, and balancing intentional and inclusive design with a commitment to providing accommodations for equitable learning. This principle encourages instructors to provide students with choices for learning and multiple pathways to success that can meet the diverse needs of learners.

Practical tips

1. Critically engage difference

  • Use a background questionnaire to learn about individual students’ past academic experiences, goals, concerns, technology resources and preferences, or other information that would help you design inclusive remote learning activities and interactions.
  • Acknowledge the ways that world events may be creating barriers to students’ capacity to engage in coursework and the differential impacts these developments may have on different students. 
  • Draw examples you use to illustrate course concepts from a range of social or cultural contexts. Invite students to identify examples from their own arenas of knowledge or expertise.
  • Choose course materials and activities with a range of student access needs, financial resources, and technologies in mind (ex: tools and platforms that can be accessed by a cell phone)
  • Adopt digital accessibility practices including, but not limited to: alt text and image descriptions for images; closed captioning and transcripts for videos; screen reader compatibility for PDFs, docs, and webpages. Support your students in learning and using these accessibility practices, too.

2. Structure interactions

  • Develop guidelines or community agreements about interactions during the course.
  • In synchronous meetings, use strategies for including a range of voices. Take a queue, ask to hear from those who have not spoken, wait until several hands are raised to call on anyone, or use paired or small group conversations to seed larger discussion.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to participate in a discussion (e.g. backchannel chat, shared discussion notes)
  • Give all students time to gather their thoughts individually before sharing ideas with the whole group.
  • Vary your methods for engaging students, e.g. solo work, small group work, whole group work
  • Facilitate study behaviors by providing a process and/or online space for students to connect with each other to form study groups, ask and answer each other’s questions, and to share class notes.

3. Increase transparency 

  • Express your commitment to creating an accessible, equitable, and inclusive course. Invite student feedback about practices that do and don’t facilitate that goal. This could include short anonymous polls, midterm feedback, or more substantial written feedback opportunities. 
  • Explicitly communicate the purpose, task, and grading criteria for all assignments. Explain the purpose and give clear instructions for non-graded course activities, too.
  • Identify any assumed capacities, abilities, skills, or prior knowledge that is embedded in your assignments or your course. Connect students to resources that help them bolster those skills if necessary.
  • Give students guidance about how they can prioritize course tasks and allocate time strategically.
  • Share guidance on how students should communicate with you, including what kind of questions/topics are best for online course meetings, office hours, email, backchannels, etc.

4. Foster academic belonging

  • Learn and use students’ names and pronouns. Build rapport by encouraging students to learn and use one another’s names (including accurately pronunciation and spelling).
  • Normalize the fact that students will have a range of background preparation and allow for productive trial and error (e.g., through low-stakes practice quizzes, drafting opportunities, modeling or discussion of interestingly productive wrong answers).
  • Avoid making generalizations that may not include all students. These might include assumptions about students’ comfort with technology, their economic means, responses to current events, understanding of pop culture references, etc.
  • Highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline (through the authors you assign, the research you highlight, the guests you invite to meet with your students, etc.)
  • Prepare outside guests to contribute to the inclusive environment of your class meetings (e.g., make sure they are aware of community norms, accessibility needs, etc.).
  • Consider self-assessment opportunities (e.g. non-graded reflections, self-assessment with rubric, goal-setting activities) as a way for you and the student to understand their individual progress and learning in relation to their individual circumstances. Make use of self-assessment to support student learning.

5. Provide flexibility

  • Build in opportunities for student choice (e.g. flexible or self-paced deadlines for assignments, multiple options for assignment topics, options for submitting assignments as writing, videos, slides, etc.)
  • Provide asynchronous options for class meetings and other course activities. Recognize that meaningful ‘discussion’ does not have to be synchronous.
  • Consider that students may not have a sustained private or quiet space to participate in online learning. Create learning experiences that can be accessed in small intervals over longer periods of time.
  • Understand that some assignments and activities you have used during in-person courses (as well as the pace at which you cover content) will need to be adjusted for online teaching. Be willing to create new learning experiences for students. 
  • When content coverage is in tension with responding to student learning needs, prioritize student learning needs. Be willing to adjust lecture pace, reduce information on slides, make lecture materials available to students for study and exam preparation, etc.


University of Michigan

CRLT – Overview of Inclusive Teaching 

CRLT – Inclusive Teaching Strategies Lists 

CRLT – Research Basis for Inclusive Teaching

Other Resources

Columbia University – Inclusive teaching guide


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Chapter 6: “Why do Student Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?”

Gurin, P., Dey, E.L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-366.

Gurin, P., Nagda, B. R. A., & Zúñiga, X. (2013). Dialogue across difference: Practice, theory, and research on intergroup dialogue. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hausmann, L., Ye, F., Ward Schofield, J. & Woods, R. (2009). Sense of Belonging and Persistence in White and African American First-Year Students. Research in Higher Education 50(7): 649–69.

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE–Life Sciences Education 12(3): 322–331.