Inclusive Pedagogy for Virtual Teaching

What? Why? And Who?

Inclusive pedagogy—creating a space that works for all students—makes intuitive sense. It’s also supported by a growing body of research. First of all, a sense of belonging to an academic community has been shown to be an important predictor of academic success (Moallem, 2013), and yet many students—particularly those from groups marginalized because of things like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.—do feel excluded from learning spaces (see, for example, Tanner, 2013). This experience of exclusion can hamper academic performance (APA, 2006, Cohen et al., 2006) and can even lead to negative health effects (Eisenberger et al., 2003).

Luckily, it’s also been found that efforts to increase marginalized students’ sense of social belonging and competence lead to increases in both academic success and well-being among those students (Walton & Cohen, 2011), and these benefits can last years (Cohen et al., 2009). Furthermore, techniques that help improve the academic performance of students in marginalized groups—active learning, regular opportunities to practice new skills, etc.—tend to benefit other students, too (Eddy & Hogan, 2014, Haak et al., 2011).

Given these findings, inclusivity needs to be a priority whether you’re meeting face to face or virtually, and teaching remotely raises particular issues that need attention. In this guidebook, we’ll explore how we can intentionally and explicitly design the learning environment to be accessible, relevant, and meaningful to students (Hockings, 2010). Throughout our design, we want to ask ourselves who might be left out of the learning as a result of our decisions, whenever possible asking our students about their needs and preferences, and then adjust accordingly. 

Addressing the Pandemic

Here, we highlight strategies that work across modalities and give special attention to the moment that we are in across the globe by leaning on trauma-informed pedagogy (see such resources as Minahan, J., 2019 and Venet, A., 2018 and Davidson, C., 2020) to help support students through the many uncertainties and understandable distractions of this time.

To do this, we’ll focus on five crucial aspects of the teaching and learning experience and give you concrete ideas for ways you can make those aspects of your remote classes as inclusive as possible:

  • the content of the course,
  • the pedagogy you use to teach the course, 
  • the kind of assessment you use to make sure your teaching is effective, 
  • the classroom climate or atmosphere that you work to create, and 
  • the power dynamics between teacher and student and between student and student. 

Additionally, the context of our current moment of teaching remotely during a global pandemic requires additional considerations. We need to give explicit and ongoing attention to the diverse ways the health crisis may affect students’ lives and their communities—physically, cognitively, emotionally, financially—and what that may mean for students learning and their ability to ‘show up’ in our classes. The good news is that strategies for supporting student well-being are also supportive of student learning. These include:

  • Acknowledging the challenges, distractions, and stressors we face, and understanding that they can hamper motivation and connection;
  • Awareness of and support for students’ unequal access to technology, hardware, and software;
  • Communicating flexibilities in workload or options for alternatives in assignments;
  • Creating and making visible the culture and expectations of your virtual classroom, as many may be newer to these spaces for learning; and
  • Self-care practices to sustain you through the challenges of remote teaching during a global pandemic.    

In this guidebook, we’ll borrow from what we know about how students learn best and prioritize making learning and the design of learning as transparent and visible as possible to our students through deliberate and intentional structures throughout the course (Sathy & Hogan, 2019), all of which matter just as much in a remote learning environment as they do in a face-to-face environment.

How can we accomplish these goals at a distance?

Pedagogy: Make intentional choices and make them visible

How are you promoting student engagement in ways that are meaningful and relevant to

students? How do you teach in such a way as to recognize student strengths and what they bring to the classroom? Inclusive pedagogy, no matter the teaching format, means: 

  • being intentional and explicit about pedagogical decisions; 
  • preparing for challenging moments by establishing classroom expectations and guidelines;
  • developing strategies in order to address challenging classroom moments when they do come up; 
  • and examining your own biases—we all have them—so that they won’t unconsciously influence your approach or reaction to students.

Remote learning in fact makes some of these responsibilities more urgent. The remote learning environment requires us to be intentional in creating a respectful, curious, and inviting classroom culture, especially because our students will not benefit from the informal spaces of socialization at the beginning and end of class in order to forge relationships with peers and faculty. Establishing presence with our students, bringing ourselves as whole people into our virtual learning environments, is pivotal for humanizing the online learning spaces in ways that support student learning (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019; Garrison et al, 2010). To do so, be explicit in naming what kinds of interactions you expect from your students, articulate boundaries for respectful discussion, provide clear guidelines for engagement, and provide opportunities for student feedback in crafting these. 

Research shows us that the online environment can invite interactions that lack kindness and support (Suler, 2004; Beets et al., 2020), making clear guidelines for productive engagement all the more important. 

Some strategies for making your pedagogy intentionally inclusive for virtual courses:

  • Ask students about what they’ll need in order to participate fully in the course, as relates to access to technology and connectivity and also as relates to their learning environment
  • Create a balance between synchronous (and streaming) instruction, on the one hand, and asynchronous (and non-streaming) modes of teaching/learning to vary approaches and platforms
  • Offer multiple, diverse, and active ways to know, engage, and contribute (e.g., group work, project-based or problem-based learning, presentations, audio-visual materials, photovoice, lectures)
  • Consider structuring longer synchronous class sessions with a mixture of activities and lecture, make shorter sessions, and/or provide short breaks.
  • Offer varied and diverse methods for contributing to class: written responses, class discussions, small group discussions, video blogs, visual representations
  • Design assignments with varied formats: written, oral, tests, papers, podcasts, videos, prototyping/making (or let students choose the format)
  • Communicate with your students in advance if any course activities might require a certain degree of physical ability, e.g. standing, vision, or fine motor skills
  • Consult Universal Design for Learning guidelines to support the multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression you offer students

Content: Connect your students to their learning

The integration of diverse and culturally-relevant course content and materials is a wonderful opportunity to support student’s connection to the course. Whether in person or teaching remotely, it’s a good idea to explore such questions as: What material have you chosen? In what ways is your curricular design relevant and accessible to your students? How are you building your syllabus and what voices are privileged within it? How do you communicate with students about your content choices?

When thinking of content for virtual learning environments, take advantage of the wealth of resources available online and, to the extent possible, include a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds in your course materials; be attentive to accessibility of the materials; take on the role of voicing a wide range of perspectives yourself; and be transparent on content choices/course design. 

In our virtual learning context, it is important to connect with students early and in an ongoing way to understand what barriers they may face or might arise related to accessing materials for the course. Access issues may exist or arise related to hardware, the internet, and suitable at-home space for attending class and studying. Our online materials need to be accessible to students across the spectrum of ability and disability. 

Some strategies for designing inclusive course materials for your virtual learners:

  • Make the organization and narrative of the course deliberate and visible to students, through the syllabus and in your communications throughout the course.
  • Crowdsource suggestions for readings from students to help bring in their expertise and interests.
  • Promote active engagement with course materials (going beyond passive consumption) through low-stakes assignments such as asking students to write a summary, identify key takeaways or clearest and muddiest points they find in the reading, or diagram a process.
  • Make sure any course sites are screen reader- and mobile-friendly (e.g. no text in images). (UIS has great resources on this and other digital accessibility issues here, or you can consult with them.)
  • Provide transcriptions to audio content and make sure any videos assigned have captioning. More generally, if a presentation happens in one sensory medium (e.g., an image in a slide deck), perhaps make the content available in another medium (e.g., through out-loud description) for students who will not otherwise be able to access the materials.
  • For further resources on making materials accessible, please consult this guidebook

Assessment: Adaptability and Flexibility

How are you asking students to practice and perform what they’re learning? How can you diversify the ways that students demonstrate their growing proficiencies? 

There are important considerations for inclusive assessment that apply to both in-person and virtual classrooms—for example, you need to be explicit about your assessment criteria and how they relate to learning goals as well as create opportunities for students to make their learning visible to the full learning community. It can also be helpful to consider that It’s not necessary for every student to demonstrate their learning in the same way, as long as they’re demonstrating their learning.

The virtual classroom demands a higher level of flexibility around assessments. Not all students will have sufficiently robust internet access to allow them to participate in timed or proctored online tests, for example. Some students may be on mobile devices with low data plans. Some may be in less-than-ideal home environments that are not conducive for particular assignments or activities. For all of these reasons and more, it’s good practice to think about having a range of assessment options and methods ready to deploy depending on students’ technology access, available tools, and individual circumstances.  

An assessment checklist:

  • Survey students (e.g., using Google forms) about their:
    • technology access 
    • internet access
    • access to private spaces in which to study and to complete assessments
  • Be explicit, in writing (e.g., on syllabus and assignment descriptions) and in interactions with students, about your assessment criteria and how they relate to course learning goals
  • Give regular and ongoing feedback, both individually and to the class, in ways that help students see the range of expertise of their peers
  • Create opportunities (e.g., live or recorded presentations, Canvas discussion threads, collaborative work in Google docs) for students to make their learning visible to the full learning community
  • Create low-stakes opportunities for students to practice (e.g., practice quizzes in Canvas, ungraded papers) before they are asked to perform for a grade
  • Give students multiple and repeated opportunities to reflect upon and demonstrate their growing proficiency, rather than one high-stakes opportunity
  • Consider alternatives to traditional tests and papers
  • Give students a range of options for how to demonstrate their mastery

Climate: Creating an environment that values and includes all students

In what ways are you creating an atmosphere for learning that is accessible and meaningful for all? How do you promote an equitable environment in the class in which all can participate fully in their learning? Our sense of belonging and of being valued in a learning community can have a huge impact on our ability to learn, and we learn better in community with others (Peacock & Cowan, 2019). 

Building trust, rapport, and relationships that lead to a sense of community are especially crucial for combatting the feelings of isolation and exclusion many students may feel when they are away from a larger campus community. Therefore, creating an inclusive climate in our in-person or virtual classroom involves supporting students’ sense of belonging and connection to the material, to us, and to each other. In-person or remote, we recommend you take an asset-based approach (Lopez and Louis, 2009; Yosso, 2005) to teaching that recognizes and values the diversity present in your students and works to incorporate the variety of their strengths and experiences, many of which could be relevant to course content and your learning goals.

It is important to establish rapport from the moment students enter your course environment (beginning, first few weeks and throughout the semester) create, and to invest in getting to know your students as individuals rather than as representatives for entire groups—and these practices may take extra intentionality in a virtual learning environment.

Consider inviting students to:

  • shape class climate: Ask students to come up with community rules and expectations for success, and come back to these rules and expectations throughout the semester so that the students can see that they are important and valued
  • determine what constitutes good participation in virtual environments as an introductory discussion board activity for courses where participation is part of the grade
  • add a phonetic spelling of their names in Zoom (if they want)
  • add pronouns to their Zoom name
  • engage with course materials and their peers through effective prompts consider either synchronously or on a discussion board

Power: Design for students’ input and agency

How can you craft a learning environment that empowers students and helps to bring attention to or disrupt traditional power dynamics between teacher and student and among students? For starters, when feasible, involve students directly in shaping your syllabus and pedagogical choices, an approach that could be especially exciting and interesting in thinking through the course adaptations that will be necessary in a remote environment. 

It’s also helpful to allow students leadership roles during class sessions, giving them opportunities to share their expertise, and to share responsibility with students for taking on other perspectives and for sustaining a productive learning community.

  • Invite students into pedagogical choices to invest in their ownership and participation in the class, especially with small bite-size options:
    • give students choice of questions to respond to in discussion boards
    • Negotiate criteria for assignments in small breakout rooms during the first week to both have students get to know each other through a guided discussion on criteria and establish guidelines for discussions
    • Develop choice menus
  • Name to students your intention to pay attention to power dynamics (group-level dynamics related to power and privilege)
  • Use Poll Everywhere for in-class, live, anonymous collection (and presentation) of students’ thoughts and ideas
  • Consider topics or weeks in the courses where students could act as facilitators
  • Solicit feedback from students about the course throughout the course and make adjustments where possible

Faculty Insight

Gearing up for the transition to remote teaching, Mimi Khúc (Disability Studies) created a Google Form for her students to fill out because she wanted to better understand how they were each doing under the stressful circumstances of the spring 2020 semester and what access needs were arising because of the various transitions happening. She also wanted to reassure the students that they were in get-through-this-together mode and that she was prioritizing their mental health and well-being, as well as her own. Questions covered basic human needs like whether students had a safe place to go and whether they were going to have issues with access to food, as well as course-specific issues like whether students would have internet access, and whether any other access needs would come up.

Given the unusual circumstance of remote learning in Spring 2020, Christie Nordheilm (MSB, Marketing) wanted to give her students a range of options for participating for the remainder of the semester. She let her students know that they could participate by doing all or some of the following: creating a podcast or video on an example of a class topic; participating in a podcast where the student asked Nordheilm questions about a key topic in the course; creating and managing an online discussion on a class topic; participating in one of those online discussions; and/or helping fellow students who might be facing difficulties (limited wifi access, inability to access notes, struggling with course material).

In Karen Shaup’s (English) Literature and Technology Course online course, she established climate and empowerment through amplifying students’ responsibilities via discussion boards. Each student took the lead in facilitating a discussion board at one point in the course. The rationale for this task included helping students learn course content through their ability to frame and lead a discussion among their peers. Professor Shaup outlined the responsibilities of the facilitator role in a series of concrete steps to guide them through close reading strategies, summarizing thematic ideas, and connecting the discussion to previous course activities. When students were not facilitating, she outlined the role of the respondent with the specific directive to “stay in the discussion”—in other words, she advised students to post their contribution AND read or “listen” to what their peers were saying. 


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