What Makes a Class Feel Inclusive?

A Framework for Thinking about Inclusion

Note: Our hearts go out to all of our colleagues and students affected by the war in Ukraine. We are gathering related teaching advice and resources and will share them in next week’s message.

One of the most common requests we get at CAT is for support with inclusive teaching. Across the university, faculty want to learn more about how to design and facilitate learning experiences that affirm, inspire, and empower all of our students. They want to make sure all students have access to learning and success, and feel like they belong in college and at FSU, so that all students can thrive.

As Ambrose and colleagues remind us in How Learning Works, “Even though some of us might wish to conceptualize our classrooms as culturally neutral or might choose to ignore the cultural dimensions, students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of [social identity] development” (169-170). To negotiate this, it helps to have a framework for thinking about how students experience the “climate” of our classrooms, and what specific steps we can take to make those climates inclusive and productive.

Ambrose et al. describe classroom climate as the “intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn.” They say, “Climate is determined by a constellation of interacting factors that include faculty-student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student-student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials” (170). They share a framework for describing the inclusiveness of the climate, and we hope you’ll find it useful and clarifying:

A common but simplistic way of thinking about climate is in binary terms: climate is either good (inclusive, productive) or bad (chilly, marginalizing). However, research suggests that it may be more accurate to think of climate as a continuum. In their study of the experiences of LGBT college students, DeSurra and Church (1994) asked those students to categorize the climate of their courses as either marginalizing or centralizing, depending on student perceptions of whether an LGBT perspective would be included and welcomed in the course or excluded and discouraged. In order to further categorize these perceptions, the students indicated whether the messages were explicit (evidenced by planned and stated attempts to include or to marginalize) or implicit (for example, inferred from the consistent absence of an LGBT perspective). This classification produced a continuum that we believe is useful for thinking about classroom climate in a broader sense than in relation to LGBT issues only (170-171).

Let’s explore the continuum, from marginalizing to centralizing, and from explicit to implicit:

Explicitly Marginalizing

  • Classroom climate is overtly hostile, discriminatory, or unwelcoming.
  • Examples: An instructor makes sexist comments during class. An instructor communicates low expectations for students from working class families. An instructor complains about providing accommodations for students with disabilities. An instructor gives feedback written in a hostile tone.

Implicitly Marginalizing

  • Classroom climate excludes groups of people in more subtle or less direct ways.
  • Examples: An instructor has a diverse class, but when choosing examples of excellent student work, only highlights the work of white male students. An instructor asks that students “leave race out” of an economic analysis. An instructor unintentionally calls on native English speakers much more often than on students who are non-native speakers.

Implicitly Centralizing

  • Classroom climate is inclusive mostly because of unplanned responses that validate diverse perspectives and experiences. Students still bear most of the burden of raising historically marginalized perspectives.
  • Examples: A student brings up the topic of race in an economic analysis and the instructor affirms the student and expands on the topic in class discussion. A student asks an instructor to use a name other than the one on the roster, and the instructor consistently does so. A student asks if there were any women scientists working on a certain problem, because none were mentioned in the course, so the instructor researches that and showcases the work of women scientists the next class session.

Explicitly Centralizing

  • Historically marginalized perspectives are intentionally and overtly integrated in the course. The instructor fosters sensitivity to the perspectives students bring to the classroom.
  • Examples: The instructor intentionally includes diverse examples, authors, and/or perspectives in the course. The instructor works with students to generate guidelines (or ground rules) for student-student interactions during class. The instructor models and helps students practice active listening. The instructor communicates high expectations for all students, plus confidence that all students can meet those expectations, and then provides appropriate support.

If you’d like to learn more about creating inclusive classroom environments, we encourage you to read chapter six of How Learning Works, where the authors include 17 practical strategies. To focus on interactions (teacher-student or student-student) specifically, you can check out these practical suggestions from the University of Michigan. Of course, we can also help! If you’d like to talk with us about the kind of classroom climate you’d like to create, and how you can get started, email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu to set up a consultation. We look forward to working with you!


Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Strategies for Teaching

Save the date for this virtual event: April 6th, 2:30-3:45pm

Please join us for an interactive session, during which our guest facilitators will share an approach to inclusive teaching that involves engaging in self-reflection, creating inclusive curricula, and implementing inclusive pedagogy. During the workshop, faculty will have the opportunity to accomplish the following:

  • Examine the principles that guide their DEI work;
  • Consider a variety of inclusive pedagogies appropriate for their teaching contexts;
  • Review strategies for curating inclusive curriculum materials appropriate for their teaching contexts; and
  • Identify potential inclusive assessments appropriate for their teaching contexts.


Rita Kumar, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Faculty Enrichment Center at the University of Cincinnati and former Professor of English at University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash. Her research interests include problem-based learning, inclusive classroom practice, and faculty development. She serves on the Executive Board of the Women’s Network, American Council on Education Women’s Network-Ohio.

Brenda Refaei, Ed.D., is Director of the Learning + Teaching Center and a Professor of English and Communication at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College where she teaches developmental, first- and intermediate English composition. Dr. Refaei is an Engaging in Excellence in Equity Fellow.