Setting the Tone for Inclusive Classrooms

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This resource details five general practices for building inclusivity in the classroom: (1) Establish clear expectations and goals for classroom interactions; (2) Build rapport and community in your class; (3) Model inclusive language that acknowledges student differences; (4) Help students develop awareness of multiple visible and invisible identities in the classroom; and (5) Address tensions or problematic patterns of interaction. For each practice, several concrete and specific actions are proposed.


  • To identify the best practices for building inclusive classrooms.
  • To provide instructors with clear, concrete steps they can take in their own classrooms.


This resource focuses on how to implement inclusive practices in the classroom from syllabus design to interpersonal interactions. It is a great starting place for thinking through how to implement inclusive pedagogy.

Setting the Tone for an Inclusive Classroom: Some Practices to Consider

In any discipline, instructors can take deliberate steps to ensure that all students feel welcomed and valued as part of the learning community. The following five general practices can be adapted to create an intentionally inclusive environment in any class.

  1.  Establish clear expectations and goals for classroom interactions.
  • Provide discussion guidelines, or collaboratively generate them with your students. See examples here.
  • Highlight the importance of respecting others’ perspectives, avoiding generalizations, and being careful not to ask other students to ‘represent’ or speak on behalf of a whole group you perceive them to belong to.
  • Ask students to write a ‘learning contract’ where they spell out their responsibilities and expectations for themselves as well as the sorts of professionalism they expect from you and their peers.
  • Clarify the instructor’s and students’ respective roles in shaping and guiding discussion. What are their responsibilities, what are yours? When and why might these shift?
  • Clarify your pedagogical aims for the ways students will consider course material relative to their own lived experiences. When, how much, and in what ways are students encouraged to share from their own experiences?
  1.  Build rapport and community in your class.
  • Learn students’ names, use them, and encourage other students to use them. In large classes, this could include using name cards or nametags for at least the first several meetings.
  • Normalize correct pronoun usage by inviting students to share the pronoun they use to identify themselves. Such as ‘Let’s do a round and share your name and if you’d like, the pronouns you use to identify yourself. I’m Prof. XXX and I use she/her pronouns.’ See the link Gender Diversity and Pronouns for more information on this.
  • Use icebreakers throughout the semester. These can be activities or questions that are directly pertinent to course learning goals but give students opportunities to share from their individual experience.
  • Incorporate peer learning in your class, using pairs and groups in meaningful ways to enhance learning and provide practice with key skills and concepts.
  • Give students regular opportunities to reflect upon ways their learning has been enhanced by interaction with classmates. This could be as simple as asking them to reflect on their learning at the end of a session with the question, “What did you learn from someone else in today’s class?”
  1.  Model inclusive language that acknowledges student differences.
  • On your syllabus: Include a statement inviting students to speak with you about possible accommodations for physical or learning disabilities. Include a note about the University policy on religious holidays. Refer to breaks by their seasonal names (e.g., “winter break,” not “Christmas break”).
  • While speaking in class, mark as particular to only some students’ experiences that many may assume are shared by all (e.g., living in a house, being cared for by two parents, regularly taking vacations). You can use phrases such as, “For those of you who have been on an airplane,” or “If you grew up with siblings to whom you were biologically related…” This can help normalize and destigmatize experiences that are possible points of marginalization for your students.
  • On group assignments, acknowledge that some students will need to schedule around work or religious commitments that may take place at various points in the weekend. Propose ways to overcome transportation hurdles for those without access to a car.
  1.  Help students develop awareness of multiple visible and invisible identities in the classroom. This can take pressure off underrepresented students to play the role of those who “have” race, sexual orientation, a disability, etc.
  • Invite everyone in the room to think about how their experience has been shaped by their identities. For instance:  In turning to course content that raises questions about sexuality, you might launch discussion by asking students to reflect individually on: “Do you have a label for your sexual orientation? Where did you learn it? Why do you use it? Do you label your sexuality differently in different settings? How permanent or true do those labels feel?” Similar questions could be asked about race. The importance here is that all students think about the same questions.
  • Carefully choose your examples (for illustrating course concepts) to be meaningful to students with a range of backgrounds, and acknowledge that not all students will share the same points of reference. For instance, if you’re using a sports example or analogy, you might acknowledge possible international backgrounds by prefacing it with, “In this example, “football” means U.S. football, not what Americans call soccer…”
  • Where comfortable and appropriate to course material, use your own identities to explain how one’s background can affect one’s engagement with course material, especially if there are ways you can complicate or unsettle common expectations.
  1. Address tensions or problematic patterns of interaction. This can help prevent conflicts from escalating and normalize respectful, productive disagreement in the classroom.
  • Name uncomfortable moments as such. You might say, “This topic is clearly raising some discomfort. I want to acknowledge that as we move into talking about it further.” Or “I sense a lot of big emotion in the room right now. Let’s figure out why this subject /these comments are having such an impact.”
  • If necessary, remind students of class discussion guidelines and expectations for respectful classroom interactions.
  • Respectfully challenge student comments when they marginalize or devalue another group’s or student’s perspective or experience. You might say, “Let’s consider what perspectives that generalization leaves out.” Or “You might not realize how those words sound, but here’s what I hear when you say them….”
  • Periodically ask students to share anonymous feedback about classroom dynamics or about their individual participation patterns.


Adapted for use by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.

Resource hosted by LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative, University of Michigan (