Understanding the Elements of an Inclusive Course Design

In an interview with The Teaching Professor, Christine Stanley, vice president and associate provost for diversity and professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University, and Matt Ouellett, associate director of the Center for Teaching & Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offered a brief overview of their approach to creating a learning environment that is welcoming to students of all backgrounds.

Q: What do instructors tend to struggle with in terms of teaching inclusively?
Ouellett: People really struggle with the need to break teaching inclusively into manageable pieces. They tend to see it as all or nothing. Either I’m inclusive or I’m not. I think one of the things Christine and I try very hard to do is to get people to see that it’s a continuum, not a binary. No matter where your class is or where you’re starting, there are always ways to think more deeply about how to make it a more welcoming and inclusive environment for the success of all students.

Stanley: Another thing they struggle with is the notion that teaching inclusively means teaching to marginalized student populations in the classroom, not realizing that teaching inclusively actually means teaching excellence. It’s not teaching to marginalized populations. Good teaching is multicultural teaching.

Q: What are the elements of a multicultural course design?
Stanley: We approach it from four conceptual areas that are all inextricably linked—content, teaching methods, who we are as instructors, and who the students are. A lot of faculty members, particularly those who identify as white, don’t see how identity connects with their disciplines, how they teach, and what they teach. That is an area of complexity that hopefully we’ll get people to think a little more deeply about.

For example, a lot of faculty in the sciences and engineering probably think that their content doesn’t lend itself very well to talking about these issues, but it does. In the real world, engineers rarely solve problems alone. They work with others to solve problems. To me, working with others is a diversity issue.

Ouellett: There are learning-outcome goals that are true across disciplines. These are often highly correlated with creating inclusive learning environments. Being able to work effectively or successfully in groups is one of them. The other thing is the importance of learning to think critically. What we know from research is that the chances of that happening are far greater if there are multiple perspectives in the group. Some of the most recent research on groupthink shows that a minority view is often tremendously helpful. Even if the minority view doesn’t prevail, it makes the people who hold the majority perspective think more deeply and harder about the view that they hold. Even if they are not persuaded to change their position, they are, in fact, engaged in thinking more deeply about why they hold the views they do. And a lot of research shows that it’s that other perspective that brings the most important information to the decision making.

Four Strategies to Engage the Multicultural Classroom, presented by Drs. Stanley and Ouellett, is now available.
Learn more about this 90-minute seminar »

Q: What advice do you have for including multicultural learning-outcome goals in course design?
Stanley: One of the first places to start is by asking, “What do I want my students to learn from this course that they could use to live, grow, and function in an increasingly diverse global and complex world?”

Ouellett: One thing is linking multicultural learning and inclusive or diverse outcome goals with your conceptualization of excellence in your course design. In other words, these goals should not be tacked on at the end or be separate, stand-alone goals. They should link directly to the discipline and to your institution’s goals for the undergraduate experience. Christine will often begin a session by asking faculty to describe what the ideal graduate of their institution will look like. When you think of the ideal undergraduate, what content knowledge, skill sets, and values will they have that will help them be truly stellar representatives of your institution in the future? In this day and age, there’s just no way those don’t link to skill sets around multiculturalism and diversity.

Stanley: I think we’d be hard-pressed to find any institution that would say they don’t have for their graduates the learning-outcome goals of social and global competence, being able to think critically, being able to solve problems, and being able to look at issues from a multitude of perspectives. All of those learning-outcome goals are linked to diversity. It’s inescapable.

Q: How can instructors gain perspective on how inclusive their courses are?
Stanley: There are a number of avenues. You do it through self-reflection, reading, and interacting with scholars in your field who are engaged in this issue. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things in the classroom and get feedback from students.

Ouellett: Another way to do this is to identify people in your social and professional network who are equally committed to these issues and then strive to have a sustained dialogue with them. There are a couple of aspects to this process that are really important. There has to be reciprocity. You can’t just call someone when you’re in the deep end of the pool and you don’t know what to do. You have to be there, listen to them, and be supportive of them. The other piece to this is that it has to be someone you’ve built a trusting relationship with so you can give and receive feedback. One way to develop this relationship is through co-teaching. Invite people into your classroom to do a module. Maybe you can observe them the first time, but I would hope that by the second or third time, you’ll be co-facilitating. The process of getting ready for that module and the process of debriefing together afterward are the kinds of experiences that build that kind of relationship.