Skip to content
Course Design

Inclusive Course Design

By Horane Diatta-Holgate

What is Inclusive Course Design?

Inclusive course design is an iterative process which begins with adopting a reflective and equity-minded approach to teaching and learning. An equity-minded approach involves intentionally applying pedagogical approaches and strategies to curriculum development and assessment that engage students in meaningful, relevant and empowering learning experiences as well as identifying and removing barriers to student success. Research shows that instructors are already considering diversity and inclusivity in their courses; however, what this looks like in practice may vary across different course elements (i.e. purpose/goals, assessments, foundations/perspective or content). Some important principles to get you started on inclusive course design include: 

  • Engaging in critical self-reflection about your own approach to teaching and learning generally and identifying specific elements of your course that you can improve to address inclusivity and equity;
  • Developing and articulating clear structures and transparency for class norms, activities and assignments;
  • Providing students with choice on projects and assessments by offering multiple opportunities and ways to improve proficiency and demonstrate competence; and,
  • Integrating multiple perspectives, approaches and identities into course content.     

Why Design Inclusive Courses?

Students and instructors bring diverse experiences and expertise into every class. In order to facilitate transformative learning experiences that provide students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes we hope that they gain by the end of the course, it is imperative that instructors begin the course design process with an eye toward inclusivity. By foregrounding inclusive practices in the course design process, instructors are better able to meet the diverse learning needs of all students in their classroom, leverage the experiences and expertise students bring into the classroom in more authentic ways, and remove barriers to students’ learning.   

How to Design More Inclusive Courses:

The principles and strategies listed below cover different aspects of course design that can contribute to an inclusive classroom environment.. Consider starting with one or two specific elements at first and then move on to others. 

Explore and acknowledge personal and course related biases, as well as  assumptions and expectations about teaching and learning. Start by reflecting on these questions:

  • What assumptions am I making about students’ knowledge, attitudes and skills?
  • What does it look like to be “knowledgeable” in [insert field]?
  • How does my social identity inform/shape my pedagogy and practices?
  • What barriers exist within [insert discipline] that exclude students from succeeding?
  • How am I making space for students to interrogate disciplinary norms and societal structures in order to develop their identity as a(n) [insert occupation/job role]?
  • How do I know that the learning experience I intend to create for my students aligns with what they experience in my class? 

You can use this tool to assess when and how you are being inclusive and identify areas you may want to improve.

Get to know your students. Provide opportunities for them to know you as well as each other. Establish clear mechanisms for communication, transparency and class structure. 

  • Develop and administer a pre-course survey or information sheet to understand students’ motivation for taking the course, previous knowledge/experience with content, preferred name, pronunciation and pronouns (you can model this for students by placing it on your syllabus and in how you introduce yourself the first day of class). 
  • Use name tents and ice-breaker activities to help students learn about you as well as the differences and similarities among them. 
  • Assign roles for small group discussions (facilitator, reporter) with clear expectations for each and rotate roles each session.
  • Collaboratively develop and share guidelines for class discussion and  group contracts/guidelines.
  • Use short, anonymous climate/content specific feedback biweekly, after major concepts, or after completing content associated with a course goal. Use qualtrics/google forms, 3×5 cards or minute paper/muddiest point to ask questions such as:
    • What is helping your learning? What would be helpful to improve your learning?
    • What about a specific concept or content is clear, somewhat unclear or not clear at all?  

Develop and articulate clear policies and statements on the class syllabus about inclusivity and equity using personalized and collective framing (e.g. we, I, us, your). 

Explicitly embed and integrate multiple perspectives and approaches. Provide students meaningful and relevant opportunities to explore their own goals and contribute to course content.   

  • Allow students to write at least 1 learning outcome/goal. Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their goals and motivations for taking the course. 
  • Connect course content to social issues in the community or topics of interest to students:
    • Invite students to research and present (5-10mins) on current events relevant to the course/discipline. Or present on a topic that interests them related to course material.  
    • Provide opportunities for students to develop awareness and discuss strategies to address the social issues with community partners.
      • E.g., Experiential/Service- Learning 
  • Consider ways to diversify and decenter your course and move towards decolonizing by:
    • Intentionally and appropriately increase exposure to diverse scholars and, perspectives through all the readings you select. 
      • Balance content that depicts both challenges and successes among marginalized people. Provide context and rationale for examples and sources that may reinforce only negative or oppressive experiences  of people who identify as Black, Brown, Biracial, Indigenous/Native, Muslim or other marginalized communities. 
    • Acknowledge disciplinary limitations where they exist (Linden example).

Use a variety of approaches and strategies to engage students with different learning preferences and needs. Integrate more than one way for students to demonstrate understanding and competence of intended knowledge and skills. Ensure alignment with outcomes and activities.  

  •  Explain the why of major elements of your course design and of what you are asking students to do – connect to major goals.
  • For assignments, clearly explain the purpose of the assignment, details of the task required, and criteria for success.
  • Decode your discipline for and with students:
    • Identify a bottleneck (area within the course where many students struggle)
    • Identify what specific tasks students must be able to do in order to overcome the bottleneck
    • Model the specific tasks for students 
    • Provide multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback 
    • Monitor the cognitive and affective responses from students as they work through the bottleneck
    • Assess progress and proficiency 
    • Share what you learn (e.g. discuss with colleagues) and provide opportunities for students to reflect and share with others as well (e.g. peer reviews/feedback)
  • Provide multiple modes of engagement speaking and writing ex. Pre-class discussion posts, minute paper, write-pair-share 
  • Using multiple assessment types, strategies and modes: 
    • Create exams with a variety of question types
    • Co-write exam questions with students
    • Eliminate timed exams if not supporting learning goals
    • Allow multiple attempts on major assignments/assessments
    • Frequent low stakes (for credit) assessment in place of some/all high stakes, with varying levels of challenge and support – autograde whenever possible and allow multiple attempts  

Create norms and structures that take into account the daily personal, academic, and social challenges students may experience throughout the semester. Proactively identify and remove barriers that may affect students with more extensive learning needs and be ready and willing to shift approaches and strategies that respond to students’ learning needs.  

  • Flexible due dates:
    • State a specific due date and, if relevant time, especially for major assignments and include a grace period as appropriate 
      • E.g., Project proposal drafts are due Wednesday by 5:00pm and will be accepted as on-time within 24 hours after the stated due date and/or time
    • Consider adding a Life Clause Policy  to your syllabus to allow students a certain number of unexcused absences for things like mental health days, or the opportunity to flex an assignment’s due date. 
  • Include a specified number of grace periods (ranging from hours to days) throughout the semester.
  • Identify a  specific number of assignments that can be dropped without penalty or significant cost to matriculation.
  • Alternative attendance policies: 
    • Encourage students to come to class by stating what their presence and engagement adds to the learning experience, while also including low stakes pre-class activities and in-class peer teaching and learning activities. 
    • Allow students a specific number of absences with the requirement for submitting  alternative assignments for class periods missed.
  •  Access to class materials:  
    • Use real time captions and subtitles during powerpoint lectures and presentations. 
    • Make handouts, recordings, and powerpoints available in your learning management system before and/or after the scheduled class period.