Skip to main content

Inclusive Teaching

Self-Awareness: Positionality and Biases

An important step towards more inclusive teaching is to reflect on our own positionality and biases. Race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, abilities, background, and experiences impact the way that we interact with the world and the way that others (including students) perceive us. Examining our own privileges and biases can help us to be more inclusive educators and work more effectively towards social justice.

Here are some ways you might reflect on your positionality and biases:

Getting to Know Students

In the article, “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” James Lang remarks, “We do not teach brains on sticks. We teach human beings who are inspired by wonder, driven toward community, beset by fears and anxieties, and influenced in countless other ways by aspects of their lives beyond the purely cognitive.” Getting to know our students, and letting them get to know us, sets the stage for a more inclusive learning environment. 

We can get to know our students in a number of ways:

  • Learning and using students’ names and their correct pronouns. SCU has the NameCoach pronunciation tool integrated in Camino. Whether your course is face-to-face or online, NameCoach allows you to see a course roster with student name pronunciation recordings, pronouns, and preferred names. 
  • Asking students to fill out a questionnaire before the first day of class. In the questionnaire, you might ask them about their prior experiences related to the course content, their goals for the course, and any concerns they would like you to know about. You can also ask them to share the name they’d prefer you use in class (with pronunciation tips) and pronouns.
  • Being aware of students' cultures and national identities. If you're working with international students, you can find more resources here.
  • Giving students time in your first meeting session to engage in conversation with other students in the course. For tips on ice breakers, see the DRT page on Engagement.
  • Share about yourself too. Allow students to know you in a human, vulnerable way. 

In addition to getting to know the students in your courses, it is also helpful to understand the demographics and experiences of students in the institution at-large. Here are a few sources to consult:

  • The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has a diversity dashboard on their website which allows you to see statistics and trends related to the demographics of SCU’s students, faculty, and staff.
  • You can find Equity-minded Assessment resources (aka JEDI-B Assessment Toolkit) here. These pages may be of interest to faculty who want to practice inclusive teaching, although many of the recommendations relate to program-level assessment rather than class-level.

Structures and Expectations that Support Success for All Students

The structures and expectations we put into place can go a long way towards making the classroom environment more inclusive. For instance, clear expectations and policies in the course syllabus that are conveyed with a caring (rather than punitive) tone can set the stage for an inclusive class from day one. Assignments that have a clear purpose, task, and criteria help all students to navigate the assignment successfully, but these explicit expectations are even more beneficial for students from underrepresented groups (for instance, first-generation students). Finally, clear expectations for discussions and synchronous online sessions can support greater participation and the civil exchange of ideas.

Here are some strategies and resources that can help you create a structured and transparent course:

  • Syllabus design:  There are a number of tools you can use to ensure that your syllabus clearly lays out course expectations and conveys an inclusive teaching approach. The Inclusion by Design survey and the Syllabus Review Guide for Equity-Minded Practice include a number of questions you might ask yourself as you review your syllabi.
  • Assignment design: You can create more equitable learning tasks for students with different levels of academic experience by making expectations and processes explicit.  Research suggests that poor or unclear assignment design often causes/results in poor student performance on assessments. To increase student success, learning, and equity–
  • Use the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) framework to clarify the assignment’s purpose, task, and criteria. Research on the use of TILT suggests that it offers the greatest benefits for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students (Winkelmes et. al, 2016). Connect all assignments to class learning outcomes so that it conveys the relevance of the task.
    • Build analytical and checklist rubrics for your assignments to clarify expectations on assignments for students. Go over these rubrics with your students prior to submission deadlines.. 
    • Show students examples of good and poor assignments. This sharing significantly helps first gen students.
    • Offer students meaningful feedback on their efforts and if possible build in scaffolded or iterative deliveries of artifacts for students to demonstrate competence. 
    • Consider offering flexibility in modality of assignments or exams so that mode of delivery does not interfere with what is really being assessed. For example, a student may be a poor oral presenter presenting to a classroom full of peers but may be able to convey the same material in a one-on-one Q&A with you as their faculty member. Unless their presentation skills are being assessed, any modality for delivery (decided in discussion with your students) could be encouraged.
    • Help students learn to use AI ethically. Have clear expectations around integrity and clear consequences for the same. 
    • Set expectations and deadlines and hold students accountable but also allow for life to be happening to your students and offer flexibility and compassionate understanding when possible. 
    • Class discussions:  Setting expectations or “ground rules” for discussions is always a good idea, but it’s particularly important when discussing contentious issues. Asking students to create these expectations with you can help to ensure that there is consensus around the expectations (see this handbook for more ideas about engaging students in difficult conversations). If heated moments do arise during the discussion, you can remind students of the expectations that were established and the importance of following them. For more information about handling “hot moments,” see this guide.
    • Synchronous online sessions:  Sometimes, awkward moments can arise in Zoom sessions because students don’t know what kind of meeting etiquette is expected (for instance, when they should put their microphones on mute). It’s never too late to clarify expectations, and often students can help to co-create these norms. This article has some great suggestions for other ways to make Zoom sessions more inclusive.

References and Additional Resources 

Dewsbury, B., & Brame, C.J. (2019). Inclusive teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(2), 1-5.

Harbin, B., & Roberts, L.M. (n.d.) Teaching beyond the gender binary in the university classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2020, January). A new decade for assessment: Embedding equity into assessment praxis. (Occasional Paper No. 42). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

NILOA. Equity - National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Nunn, L. (2018). 33 simple strategies for faculty: A week-by-week resource for teaching first-year and first-generation students. Rutgers University Press.

Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (July 22, 2019). How to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.

Winkelmes, M., Boye, A., & Tapp, S. (Eds.). (2019). Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership. Stylus Publishing.


Page author:
Dr. Rachel Stumpf, SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

C. J. Gabbe, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, and member of the Faculty Collaborative

Last updated:
February 27, 2024