Inclusive teaching

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A man watching an online lecture takes notes

How this will help:

Define inclusive teaching.
Apply inclusive practices to your teaching pedagogies.

The basics

For many students, higher education has placed significant barriers and challenges to their academic achievement. Underrepresented students, particularly students of color, international students, students with physical disabilities, low-income students, students of nontraditional age, and women and non-binary students, encounter inequities that can pose barriers to their learning in higher ed. Online teaching as a technology has the potential to increase access to higher education, but if it follows the dominant models of teaching in higher ed, could also reinforce those barriers. Inclusive teaching provides a framework to disrupt some of those inequities through teaching practices that act against them.

As an instructor, you have the responsibility to create spaces and experiences that give all learners an equal chance to learn. (Note: we are using “learners” and “participants” rather than “students” on these pages to help break us out of the mindset that our students should fit into a particular box. We tend to think of UM students as people ages 18 – 25, living on or near campus, committed to their studies full time. Of course this picture is limited, and our residential learners are significantly more diverse than that stereotype. In online learning spaces, the range of learners can be even more diverse, and so we’re choosing this language to expand our thinking.)

Creating environments and experiences that gives everyone an equal chance to learn is not easy — but it is important. This module will help you think about how to do so in an online environment. Check out the video below to hear about how other professionals at the University of Michigan benefit from inclusive teaching practices.

What is inclusive 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/participant 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.

There are a few things to note about this definition, so let’s unpack it. First of all, the first sentence points to the need for instructors to take deliberate steps to teach inclusively. Inclusive teaching doesn’t just happen; you have to think through what you’re doing and why to be inclusive. Second, that sentence also points out that learners should feel valued and supported, but not that they should always feel comfortable or go unchallenged. Learning can be uncomfortable and challenging! Your goal as an instructor can be to reduce the unproductive discomfort that gets in the way of learning — such as racist or sexist comments made during the course, unclear grading expectations or processes that learners have to navigate, or course discussions dominated by a few participants — so that people can put their energy toward the productive challenge of learning.

The second sentence of the definition helps us understand the stakes of inclusive teaching. We live in an unequal society, where people are often treated differently and have different experiences due to their social identities (race, gender, class, religion, nationality, disability status, etc.). These differences lead to patterns, which we call systemic inequities, that privilege people holding certain identities (in the US, white, male, cisgender, wealthier, able-bodied, etc.) and disadvantage or oppress others. These systemic inequities are everywhere — which means they are present in our learning spaces. To teach inclusively, we need to be aware of these systemic inequities and actively push back on them with the decisions that we make for our teaching.

Keeping this definition in mind, CRLT has synthesized a framework for inclusive teaching consisting of four principles that can guide instructors in their practice. This framework is grounded in decades of research on the relationship between social identity, systemic inequities, and student learning.

A first principle to guide your teaching is critically engaging difference. Students are not brains with legs; they are people bringing a myriad of identities, backgrounds, and experiences to their learning. We can better facilitate learning when we acknowledge the differences among our students and leverage those differences for learning.

Differences in identities and experiences among students (and people, generally) can lead to unequal dynamics, such as one student dominating a discussion, or an instructor giving the most time and attention to the most vocal students. These unequal dynamics often come up when instructors leave their learning spaces unstructured. A key principle to disrupt unequal classroom dynamics — which often follow the power dynamics of our broader society — is to structure interactions to make those interactions more equitable.

There are several principles that can guide your thinking about how to structure interactions to be more equitable. One key way is to actively cultivate academic belonging among your students. This involves helping them feel connected to the course — for example, by learning and using their names, correctly pronounced and/or spelled. Another way is to use transparency in your course to make expectations, norms, and processes clear to all, such as clearly explaining how to want students to address you, the channels they should use to do so, and how quickly you will respond. 

See “Practical tips” for examples of specific teaching practices related to each of these principles.

Your own identities

We’ve focused on students above, but of course instructors bring their own identities to their teaching as well. And those identities can have a major impact on how learners perceive and respond to instructors, whether they readily accept an instructor’s authority, and how they describe their instructors on course evaluations. When preparing for your inclusive online classroom, it is important to reflect upon your own identities. Keep in mind that practices that work well for you may not work well for your colleagues, and vice versa, due in part to the different bodies that we inhabit. 

Practical tips

  • Bring transparency to course assignments, processes, and content
    • Explicitly communicate the purpose, task, and grading criteria for graded assignments.
    • Explain the learning purposes and goals of course activities (e.g., discussion posts, synchronous meetings, peer review, etc.)
    • Help students 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.
    • Break down dense concepts and highlight big ideas to help your learners organize new knowledge
  • Academic belonging
    • Learn and use students’ names and pronouns
    • Build rapport in your course through encouraging students to introduce themselves and use one another’s names, work together on problem-solving with a range of classmates, etc.
    • Allow for productive trial and error (e.g., through low-stakes practice quizzes, drafting opportunities, modeling or discussion of interestingly productive wrong answers).
    • Highlight the contributions of scholars and researchers from underrepresented groups who have contributed to your discipline, and/or acknowledge a history of limited access to the field and current efforts to change it
    • Incorporate diverse content (examples, sources, etc.) to course
  • Structured interactions
    • Develop guidelines or community agreements about interactions during the course
    • In synchronous meetings, use strategies for including a range of voices: e.g., 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.
    • Vary your methods for engaging students, e.g. solo work, small group work, whole group work
  • Critically engaging difference
    • Reflect upon and share the ways your own identities have shaped your relationship to your work/the discipline
    • Normalize the fact that students will have a range of background preparation, and find ways of highlighting those differences as assets for learning (e.g., learners who are new to material can often pose useful critical questions that help those familiar with the material identify gaps in their understanding or think about the material in new ways)
    • Design and explain class activities in ways that acknowledge a broad range of access needs


University of Michigan

CRLT – Overview of inclusive teaching

CRLT – Inclusive Teaching Strategies in Online Spaces 

Other Resources

Harvard University –  Guide to inclusive teaching


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

Contributors: Center for Research on Learning & Teaching