September 18th, 2017

Inclusion by Design: Tool Helps Faculty Examine Their Teaching Practices

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diversity and inclusion in the college classroom

Are there barriers to inclusion lurking in your courses?

After meeting at a diversity and inclusion session of the 2013 Professional and Organization Development Network (POD Network) Conference in Pittsburgh, the three of us set out to develop a tool to help faculty examine their courses through a diversity lens. We were driven by a lack of available resources that provide a practical approach to digging deep into the nuances of one’s course.

So how does one examine course diversity, given there are so many points of entry into the conversation yet varying degrees of faculty interest and commitment? We decided the best place to start is the syllabus. After all, it’s customary for those who teach in college settings to develop and/or at the very least use a syllabus to guide their courses. That makes the syllabus the perfect focal point for faculty to explore difficult conversations and contradictions about inclusion, exclusion, diversity, privilege, power, and possibilities for transformative change in the barrier-laden structure of college classroom.

We spent a few years of designing and wrestling with what to call our creation (tool, audit, survey?) and eventually decided that it simply was a ‘tool’ to explore inclusion in one’s syllabus and course design. In our ongoing research, deliberations, and presentations of this tool at national conferences, three areas of intentional exploration emerged: inclusion and course context; text; and subtext. The complete tool is rather lengthy and exhaustive, rooted in theory and research on inclusion, multicultural education, universal design, implicit/unconscious bias, and the hidden curriculum (a full version can be found by visiting http://bit.ly/inclusionbydesign). For the purposes of this publication we therefore present a brief snapshot of the overarching categories that highlight how the tool can help instructors examine the text, context and subtext of any course.

Inclusion and Course Context: A guiding question to explore the context of a course is, how does the context of the course support inclusive learning? We ask educators to reflect on the following:

  • What are the situational factors surrounding your course?
  • Who are the people that will be in your class? Who will not be there?
  • What is the course content? Whose voice is heard? What perspective dominates? What is omitted?
  • How is the content relevant in the “real” world and for the learners in your class? How can it be made relevant for those who may not recognize its relevance?
  • What is the common pedagogy in your class – the philosophy and practice behind your instructional choices?

Inclusion and “Text”: As educational developers who have depth and experience in course design, we clearly recognize that the transformation of one syllabus is not enough to address the range of inclusion issues present in any course. In fact, we argue that a transformation of how one thinks about learning and course design is the greater aim. In this respect, we follow the guiding question, How do learning outcomes, assessment, and content support inclusion for all? We ask faculty to examine the tone of their syllabi – is it inviting? Staying true to our training in backwards design and deep learning, we ask faculty to examine the types of learning outcomes (cognitive, behavioral, affective), the variety of assessment, and the teaching and learning activities they will use to achieve learning outcomes: Do they use culturally responsive teaching approaches, flexible or fixed assessments, shared teaching, or co-learning approaches in their classroom? This section is best used with faculty who have experienced course design principles or who have had more lengthy course re/design experiences.

Inclusion and Subtext: In this section of the tool we ask the following questions to encourage instructors to dig deep into the subtext of their course and make the learning process more inclusive and visible for students:

  • What are the implicit rules and messages of your course and are they stated in your syllabus?
  • What are the hidden/implicit/unconscious biases and stereotypes?
  • Have you, the instructor, made your philosophy of teaching and learning explicit, or does it remain hidden?
  • Is the tone of your syllabus contractual, inviting, learner centered, authoritarian, or energizing?

Paths Forward: Although the tool is comprehensive, it is by no way complete. The nature of its aims and the complexity of the topic will continue to make it a work in progress. Practicing what we preach, we feel such a tool on inclusion should be inclusive and integrate vantage points of a broad network of educators to grow its effectiveness. Therefore, we are in a continuous state of seeking feedback from faculty on the quality and use of our work. Beyond refining the tool, we aim to nourish deeper conversations about inclusion and diversity in hopes of transforming college classrooms by working with professors on their own approaches to course design.

Dr. Carl S. Moore is the Director of the Research Academy for Integrated Learning at the University of the District of Columbia, he also serves as Certificate Faculty for the Teaching in Higher Education Program at Temple University.

Dr. Edward J. Brantmeier is the Assistant Director for Scholarship Programs of the Center for Faculty Innovation and Associate Professor in the Learning, Technology, and Leadership Education Department at James Madison University.

Dr. Andreas Broscheid is the Assistant Director for Career Planning at the Center for Faculty Innovation and a professor of political science at James Madison University.


  • Gonzalo Munevar

    I have seen this sort of “inclusive” approach do great harm to higher education, ever since I taught in an ethnic studies program back in 1971. Except for a few classes, notably mine, the academic standards were appalling. My students, though, highly appreciated that they were learning something, for a change. My approach was always to challenge all my students to prepare before class and come ready to participate. And so, for much of my career, minority students who were doing poorly in most of their classes suddenly found out that they actually did have a lot of academic potential. Why? Because when challenged they were able to shine, unlike in those other classes where professors made “allowances” for them in a patroniziing effort to be “inclusive,” and so treated them as noble savages. Political correctness has destroyed the prestige of the humanities and the social sciences. As for mathematics and the physical sciences, I wonder whether in the “inclusive point of view” Bohr’s Correspondence Principle does not apply in quantum mechanics, whether the hippocampus is not crucial for memory formation in neuroscience, or, for that matter, whether 2+2 is equal to 4.

    • ovojod

      Give examples of the harm caused by the practices discussed in this article. Tales about “high standards” magically leading to all kinds of great outcomes are not persuasive.

      • Gonzalo Munevar

        Having a lot of students from minority backgrounds learn little or nothing, get lousy grades, and drop out of school I would think
        are examples of harm. Or the standards may be lowered just for them, or for everyone because of them, either of which harms the quality of education. These are the effects of not challenging those students because we wish to be “inclusive” and thus afford them excuses for failure, including, but not limited to “racism”and “white privilege.” There is the additional harm of failing to integrate those students into a community of scholars by emphasizing their “difference” to their disadvantage, all while many students from foreign cultures do their best to adapt, fit in, and excel. In that ethnic program I mentioned, two students taking a course on “Chicano Art History” never showed up in class. At the end of the term they approached the professor with the story that they had not come to class because they were busy in the “barrio” talking to the “viejitas” (the old women). From the “ethnic point of view” this was good, presumably, and so the professor gave them each a “B” for the course. At one of the best universities in the country! I worked at a school where the “inclusive point of view” was that blacks and Hispanics should not be held up to “Eurocentric” academic standards, as if we were retarded. At that school professors would not dare fail a minority student for fear of being brought up in charges of racism by the administration. I also worked at a different school that had the most “inclusive” admission policies imaginable, but also the highest dropout rate by black students of any university in the country. A lot of good all these “inclusive practices” did for the education of those students. I did not mention the words “high standards.” Challenging students does involve high standards but goes beyond them, e.g. at one university all students were
        required to take an introductory course on philosophy (up to the 17thCentury). The readings included the whole of Plato’s Republic and of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince and sections of his Discourses, much of Hobbes’ Leviathan, and big chunks of Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo and Newton. Students were supposed to read carefully the assigned reading and come to class prepared for discussion. They were supposed to explain what the author had said, mention where exactly he had said it, and argue whether he was right or not. After meeting for about 15
        minutes in small groups, they would then answer my questions and objections, as well as the questions and objections of their fellow students. The first part of the meeting lots of hands went up constantly. In the second half I called directly on those who had not yet spoken. If a student failed to come prepared a couple of times in a row, something that would happen only at the beginning of the
        semester, I would take him aside and give him a choice between dropping my course or coming prepared from then on. Few ever dropped. The result? Good to wonderful papers on topics such as “Explain how it is best possible to bring together Aristotle’s ideas on happiness with Plato’s Myth of the Metals.” No regurgitation. Sheer creative and critical thought. And minority students did just as well. Sometimes they were the most outstanding students in the room.
        I could also tell you how I accomplished similar things in math and
        science courses, including advanced courses in neuroscience, but I am afraid this is a long reply already.

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  • Mick Savage

    “As educational developers who have depth and experience in course design…”
    Sounds authoritarian to me, thus contrary to their professed inclusiveness.