Creating an Engaging and Inclusive Classroom: Strategies and Considerations
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led many instructors to reconsider their strategies for creating an engaging and inclusive virtual classroom. Although most teachers and students returned to campus a year ago, the norms of participation and the expectations of engagement have changed. This resource outlines some techniques, changes, and considerations that instructors and students can take into account as they work together on making the classroom a place where everyone will want to engage throughout the semester. Anyone who would like to have a longer conversation about ways of tailoring these recommendations for your classes should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our Office Hours page to request an appointment with a member of our team.
Small to Medium Changes You Can Make
Although you likely already have a section of your syllabus dedicated to describing your expectations for attendance, participation, and engagement, now may be a good time to revisit it. How clearly do you spell out these expectations and the reasons you hold them? Does this statement reflect on how the norms and strategies for participation have evolved over the last few years? And how distinctive is your statement—that is, to what extent do you connect your specific expectations to your course’s learning goals? One piece of feedback we have heard from students is that they appreciate when their professors present them with unique and thoughtful explanations for their policies. Even if you do not want to devote a large amount of space in your syllabus to such a statement, you can dedicate class time at the start of the semester to articulating your views on engagement and why they matter for the type of learning that students will be doing with you. By making clear, concise statements that link participation to the overall aims of your class, students are more likely to both remember and value your expectations.
Rather than approaching engagement as merely an obligation of students, you may consider incorporating techniques that bring their decision-making, collaboration, and creativity to the fore. As described in our Active Learning Guide, active learning strategies center thinking and doing as integral to a holistic approach to pedagogical processes of engagement, encounter and reflection. Think-pair share, live polling, short writing exercises, case studies and a range of other activities for individual students, small groups and pairs, and the whole class can be incorporated to center student agency and create active and inclusive learning environments.
Planning worksheets, such as this one from Columbia’s CTL, may also be helpful in considering how active learning objectives can be realized and reflected upon in the classroom. Yet as Bryan Dewsbury points out, while inclusive pedagogies necessarily involve active learning, not all active teaching practices are necessarily inclusive (Dewsbury 2017:4). A contextualized and in-depth understanding of the self, both instructor and student, is vital to inclusivity and to an approach to active learning that recognizes the differing contexts that historically and socioeconomically disadvantaged students bring to the classroom. Such an understanding is essential to co-create a pedagogy that works to alleviate the negative effects of these disadvantages and that also ultimately cultivates a culture of pedagogical inclusiveness (Dewsbury 2017:5).
Activities that immediately engage students in the skills you hope to cultivate in your course—rather than the course content—can be especially effective at the very beginning of the semester. Activities such as collaborative syllabus annotation (where students work together in groups to critically read, mark up, and raise questions about the syllabus while at the same time practicing the skills of annotation), close reading, and group work can potentially get students excited about and participating in the course during the very first meeting. Additional activities include:
- Introductory icebreaker activities that ask students to reflect upon, for example, what excites them about the course, what they feel they know about the subject matter already, and what they want to explore in the course (similar to the “something you want to learn” icebreaker), could be a way for students to foster enthusiasm about the semester ahead and also allow them to share their interests and background with their fellow students;
- Creating time capsules with your students is another way to spark their interest and agency in your course: at the beginning of your course, ask your students to write down one question or observation related to the theme of your course and keep those questions and observations. At the end of the course, revisit them to discuss how the students’ perceptions, insights, and points of inquiry may have changed or evolved over the course of the semester;
- Problem-based learning, collaborative learning, and small group case-based activities are all approaches that STEM as well as humanities and social science courses can use to foster interactive learning that is concerned with the higher-order cognitive abilities demanded by a subject rather than simply knowledge (Sandrone et al. 2021).
Active learning in STEM courses, particularly high intensity active learning approaches, have also been shown to reduce inequities; a 2016 research study found that a 76% reduction in the inequity and probability of passing between minority and overrepresented students in STEM in a course using high intensity active learning; the difference in exam scores between both groups was also the lowest in this course (Theobald 2021).
A common change that instructors made at the start of the pandemic was to increase the number of check-ins and low-stakes assessments they did in their classes. For example, exit tickets after individual classes provided them with information about how students had received the lesson for the day and gave them questions to answer at the start of the next session. Early and mid-semester evaluations (e.g., administered 3-7 weeks into the semester) also allowed students to offer feedback on parts of the class that were going particularly well or needed adjustment. In some cases, faculty offered course credit to students who attended office hours to provide feedback on their experience of the class. Strategies like these, which were initially employed as a way to keep in contact with students in many different remote locations, are still useful in directly engaging the people who are sharing a classroom with you on the question of how and what they are learning.
Larger Considerations of Engagement Today
Students’ sense of belonging is as vital to student engagement as centering their agency in the classroom. A strong connection to others increases people’s ability to acquire interests, reach goals and spark and sustain motivation (Walton and Cohen 2011; Walton et al. 2012; Wilson et al. 2015) and co-creating what engagement looks like in the classroom is central to this process of creating and cultivating connection. The CEP’s resource, Crafting Community Agreements, may be a helpful place to begin to think about how collaboration with students on creating agreements at the very beginning of the semester can work to collectively imagine and define what engagement looks like in your classroom. Instructors might also wish to co-create engagement rubrics with students, or ask students to provide feedback on existing rubrics. Our Student Engagement and Community Building Guide, though focused primarily on online teaching and learning, provides valuable ideas for co-constructing community very relevant for in-person learning, such as implementing regular check-ins with students, fostering learning communities, practicing active listening, and facilitating generative and constructive feedback, especially in peer-learning environments.
The combined effects of the pandemic, a series of highly publicized incidents of police and vigilante violence, and a range of legislative assaults on reproductive rights, trans rights, and LGBTQ+ teachers and students have led many instructors to reevaluate how the level of engagement that students bring to their coursework is shaped by the larger political context of this time in history. However, in the CEP we have often heard from instructors that it is so overwhelming to imagine doing justice to all of these issues and the pressures they generate on student and faculty engagement, that attempting to address any of these crises can feel self-defeating. We have found that a more sustainable way of acknowledging the effects of the political context of teaching and learning is by adopting practices that universalize accessibility and inclusion. For example, the principles of Universal Design for Learning identify structures and practices that can be incorporated into any class in order to make the learning experience accessible to the greatest number of people. Similarly, the CEP’s resources on trauma-informed pedagogy, anti-racist classrooms, and gender inclusivity identify concrete steps that any instructor can put into practice that encourage students to remain engaged without having to sever parts of their experience in order to succeed. This approach to engagement centers what our Active Learning Guide stresses, that instructors thoughtfully consider how their students’ racial, ethnic, and gender identities, and their sexual orientation, socio-economic class, age, ability, and neurodiversity may affect their sense of belonging and agency in active learning activities.
“Be flexible!” As one of the mantras that has emerged since the start of the pandemic, this is both good pedagogical advice and an elusive refrain. It is good pedagogical advice insofar as it reminds those of us who teach classes that student priorities are not mirrors of our own, and that their priorities should not need to mirror ours for them to engage meaningfully with the skills and learning opportunities that we have to offer. But the expectation of endless instructor flexibility also risks masking an emergent inequality that Barnard instructors and faculty in other institutions have brought to attention: those who have adopted flexible due dates find themselves managing a deluge of student requests and alternative schedules because other instructors those students work with have refused to be flexible. The incitement to flexibility, then, has created new labor burdens and deepened others within higher education.
We will not pretend that it is possible to resolve this complex question about institutional decision-making by simply asking teachers to revise classroom practices. Instead, we recommend that instructors (at least those who feel it is possible to do so) engage in dialogue about this issue with their colleagues and departments, with an eye toward developing shared policies that both acknowledge student priorities and provide structure and consistency for student learning experiences. In the meantime, instructors who are committed to continuing to maintain flexibility but have struggled with some of the challenges that attend it may consider borrowing practices that we have heard other Barnard faculty adopt in order to maintain structure within flexibility. For example, instead of due dates for major assignments, some faculty have created “due weeks”—extended periods in which students can turn in work at full credit. Instructors who shared this strategy with us noted that not only did this allow them to grade work at more manageable scales, but they also received fewer requests for extensions. Another strategy we have seen faculty adopt is to give students the option from the beginning to not turn in one out of a set number of assignments (e.g., “Please submit 9 out of 10 of the informal responses”)
Finally, we encourage all instructors to critically reflect on what exactly it means, looks like, and consists of to demonstrate engagement. Across higher education, engagement is often framed as a set of interconnected activities that all students should conform to in order to be perceived as competent or successful: for instance, exhibiting attentiveness in class by using the space in highly regimented ways; demonstrating learning through recall and conversation; and exemplifying mastery of content through completing assignments individually under tight timelines. While all of these are indeed valuable forms of engagement, they also represent a narrow range of the ways that students are capable of learning and participating in the process of constructing knowledge. This small number of activities is also one that tends to assume a specific type of student (i.e., a neurotypical, able-bodied U.S. citizen) who is being prepared to participate in a labor force that, as Grace Lee Boggs argues, has transformed significantly over the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Boggs, 2012).
In light of these observations, we encourage instructors to broaden the range of activities that they recognize as engagement, along the lines suggested by Digital Studies scholar Mark Sample. At the CEP, we also encourage instructors to talk directly with students about why this expanded range of activities is important to the objectives or content of your course. For example, in courses that emphasize team-work or collaborative creation, instructors might create a rotating system of note-taking, in which students are periodically responsible for taking notes on discussions or lectures and making them available on the course site. Or in courses that use particularly intensive active learning strategies whose results are shared in some form, such as jigsaws, students may demonstrate engagement by responding to the range of documents that the class as a whole produces and not only that part they worked on themselves. Activities like these, which emphasize acts of synthesis, community-building, and focus, present an opportunity to multiply the avenues through which students can engage with your course, each other, and you as an instructor.
References, Further Reading, and Useful Links
Boggs, G. L. (2012). “A Paradigm Shift in Our Concept of Education.” The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (pp. 135-158). University of California Press.
Dewsbury B.M. (2017). Context Determines Strategies for 'Activating' the Inclusive Classroom. Journal of Microbiology Education. Dec 15;18(3):18.3.66. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v18i3.1347
Sandrone, S. et al. (2021) Active learning-based STEM education for in-person and online learning Cell 84, March 18 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.01.045
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198364
Walton G.M., Cohen GL, Cwir D, Spencer SJ. Mere belonging: the power of social connections. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 2012 Mar;102(3):513-32. doi: 10.1037/a0025731. Epub 2011 Oct 24. PMID: 22023711.
Wilson, D., Jones, D., Bocell, F., Crawford, J., Kim, M. J., Veilleux, N., Floyd-Smith, T., Bates, R., & Plett, M. (2015). Belonging and academic engagement among undergraduate STEM students: A multi-institutional study. Research in Higher Education, 56(7), 750–776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-015-9367-x
Theobald, E. (2021) How active learning can improve inequities in STEM MIT Teaching and Learning Lab
Activity-Based Learning Exercises Bok Center | Harvard University
Bovill, C. (2020) Co-creation in learning and teaching: the case for a whole-class approach in higher education. Higher Education 79, 1023–1037 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00453-w
Engaging Students in Learning | University of Washington
An Epidemic of Student Disengagement: Eight ways to re-engage disconnected college students Inside Higher Ed April 14, 2022
Facilitating and assessing student engagement in the classroom | University of Colorado, Boulder
Increasing Student Engagement | Stanford Teaching Commons
Promoting Engagement Bok Center | Harvard University
How to Solve the Student-Disengagement Crisis Chronicle of Higher Education May 11, 2022
Why Your Students Are Disengaged - And What You Can Do to Draw Them Back In Harvard Business Publishing August 3, 2022
Walton G. M., Cohen G. L. (2007) A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92, 82-96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11