Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue
Graphic of house being built

Before the Class

Inclusive teaching “involves taking the needs and requirements of all different types of students, not just those with disabilities, into consideration in the course-planning stage” (Smith, 2010). In this section, we discuss the steps for constructing an inclusive course. This portion of the toolbox will focus on the following four steps, which are summarized in the graphic below.

An infographic illustrating the four themes found in the inclusive teaching toolbox.

Note that the arrows between the phases are pointing in multiple directions. Due to the reflective nature of inclusive teaching, it is difficult to portray the process of course design as a “step by step” procedure. Rather, these elements will be considerations multiple times throughout the course design process – and, at times, throughout the implementation of the course! This section will consist of tools and resources to guide you in the process of making your course more inclusive at each of these stages. Keep in mind that this guide will be updated regularly to provide you with the latest materials and strategies, so check back often for updates.

Examine Your Bias

We all have unique ways of viewing and understanding the world around us. These perspectives are often influenced by the sum of our cultures, our educational backgrounds, our personal experiences and our upbringings. Our interactions with different people groups – or lack thereof – may negatively affect our perceptions of certain individuals and cause us to develop biases towards them. Our natural tendency toward categorizing people into social groupings (Crisp and Meleady, 2012) further exacerbates this issue because it may lead us to make assumptions about people and thereby shut down opportunities to address critical issues that prevent mutual understanding. This phenomenon is known as implicit bias.

In a teaching and learning context, implicit bias presents a serious barrier to leveraging the benefits of a heterogeneous learning space in which students feel welcomed and validated. Therefore, it is important that instructors do the difficult work of self-examination to determine what their biases are and how to work against them. Once these biases have been identified, it is up to them to challenge those notions and move towards a more open approach to learning and appreciating cultural differences. Given the deep impact that bias can have on one’s perspective of others, this process is ongoing – even lifelong! – and requires a commitment to developing cultural competency and an attitude of humility in interactions with culturally different others.

The following resources have been included below to help you examine your biases, and to provide you with ideas about how you can move towards overcoming them. Remember that this is an ongoing process, so it is important to be patient with yourself, be willing to learn from your mistakes and ask your students for help whenever possible.

  • Project Implicit: This project, designed by psychologists from Harvard University, University of Washington and University of Virginia, consists of an assortment of online IATs (or Implicit Association Tests) used to determine unconscious bias.
  • Implicit Bias and Microaggressions: This resource from UT’s Teaching and Learning Innovation provides definitions and examples of implicit bias and microaggressions, as well as tips for addressing them.
  • Awareness of Implicit Biases: Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning discusses scenarios of implicit bias and gives recommendations on how to avoid and overcome implicit bias.
  • The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity: Based at the Ohio State University, this institute’s website identifies characteristics of implicit bias and is home of the online journal, State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review.
  • Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education: Presents a variety of professional development tools to guide you towards examining unconscious bias and reflecting on the aspects of your learning environment that might be barriers to inclusion.
  • Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI): Currently considered the most valid assessment of cultural competency available, this online assessment – based on research from Dr. Milton Bennett – is used to determine one’s current level of intercultural knowledge, and recommendations for how they can further develop. The cost for an individual assessment is $15 for faculty, staff and students.

Establish Clear Student Learning Outcomes

A student learning outcome (SLO) is a statement of what students will be able to know or do by the end of a determined timeframe. Imagine that you are building a house. Metaphorically speaking, your SLOs would be considered the foundation of your home. SLOs explain the expectations for learning in a course and, therefore, serve as the basis for your class design. For these reasons, it is important to ensure that your SLOs are not only meaningful, but that they are inclusive. In this section, we will discuss the characteristics of inclusive SLOs, as well as other considerations when designing and thinking about the expectations of your course.

Inclusive SLOs are clear and understandable to students, achievable for everyone (as much as possible), and reasonable given the timeframe and the resources provided to those taking your course. When drafting your SLOs, make sure that they fulfill all the characteristics of a SMART outcome. This means that your SLOs are:

Specific: This means that they are connected to a particular competency or skillset needed to achieve success in the discipline. The “S” can also stand for “student-centered” since inclusive SLOs utilize language that accurately reflects what the student should be able to know or do. Consider the following:

  • Vague: By the end of this course, students will be able to write about literature produced during the Middle Ages.
  • Specific: By the end of this course, students will be able to critically analyze major themes in the literature produced during the Middle Ages.

While both examples are learner-centered (they are both statements of what students should be able to know or do), the first outcome is vague because it is not clear what writing skill the student should possess. The second example includes the phrase analyze major themes, which better communicates a particular skillset in the discipline.

Measureable/Meaningful: A good SLO will describe a behavior or action that clearly indicates to the instructor via assessment that the learner has mastered the content. SLOs are meaningful to students when they understand what they must do to successfully navigate the course. Consider the examples below:

  • Not measurable: By the end of this course, students will understand the individual functions of the organs in the respiratory system.
  • Measurable: By the end of this course, students will explain the individual functions of the organs in the respiratory system.

The first SLO uses the word “understand,” which is not measureable. It does not explain how students will demonstrate their understanding. “Explain” in the second SLO represents a clear, more measureable behavior that will demonstrate a student’s acquisition of the skill.

Appropriate and Attainable: SLOs must be as attainable as possible for ALL students if the goal is for the course to be inclusive. To guarantee that this is the case, instructors must identify and remove needless obstacles to meeting the learning targets for their courses. The following is an example of an outcome with what might be an unnecessary hurdle for some students:

  • Example: By the end of this course, students will be able to orally articulate the impact of economic disparities on patients’ access to healthcare.

Depending on the course, this outcome can present an unnecessary barrier to students who have a disability affecting their speech or hearing. One way to address this issue is to remove the word orally from the outcome entirely.

While instructors should strive to do what they can to provide equal opportunities for students in their courses, there are instances in which certain skillsets needed for success in a discipline may be limiting to some students. For instance, many upper-level language courses require that students demonstrate oral proficiency in the target language. A veterinary medicine student has to be able to perform certain procedures on animals. In cases such as these, it is important for departmental faculty to decide what skillsets are necessary for success in their respective fields. If these competencies exclude certain students, then they should be clearly stated and justifiable (Trinity College, 2016).

Realistic and Time-framed: SLOs should be achievable for students given the resources they have available to them and the time they have in the course. This often involves thinking critically about your program’s curriculum, as well as any prerequisites for the course you are teaching. When drafting your learning outcomes, consider the following:

  • What are the requirements for my program? Are they realistic given the scope of the program? (This is a conversation that should take place with your colleagues.)
  • What are employers in my field expecting from students?
  • What knowledge/skills will my course need to provide to help students meet those requirements/expectations?
  • What resources will students need to meet the expectations of the course/requirements? What barriers might prevent students from effectively accessing those resources?
  • If there are barriers, how might I help my student overcome them? If I can’t help, are there campus resources that might be able to assist? For more information on campus resources for students, please see the section on assessment.

You might notice that we have placed a lot of emphasis in this section on the language used to communicate your learning targets. Properly wording SLOs helps both you as the instructor and your students. Well-written learning targets provide instructors with a structure for developing assessments that measure levels of learning. At the same time, good SLOs let students know what to expect in your course and how they must prepare to be successful in the area of study.

When developing your SLOs, consider using the active verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy (2001 version). This framework identifies various levels of learning on a spectrum that moves from lower-level cognitive skills (e.g., remembering and understanding) to higher-order cognitive skills (e.g., analyzing and evaluating). The first graphic created by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching provides an overview of Bloom’s Taxonomy, while the second contains a list of active verbs categorized by the levels of learning that they represent (Armstrong, 2018). You can enlarge the images by clicking on each one.

An informational chart on Bloom's Taxonomy

An informational chart on Learning Outcomes by Category. There are verbs under each category, which are remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.


Dr. L. Dee Fink, in his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, outlined his own Taxonomy of Significant Learning. Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Fink’s framework consists of six main domains:

  • Foundational Knowledge
  • Application
  • Integration
  • Human Dimension
  • Caring
  • Learning How to Learn

Click here for more information about Fink’s Taxonomy and how it can be integrated into your course design process.

Design Culturally Responsive Assessments and Course Policies

Once you have identified your SLOs, it is now time to think about your assessments. The assignments, projects and/ or exams that you give students are not only measures of student learning, but they are also the means through which students will earn their grades.

Let’s go back to our previous illustration of building a house. If your SLOs are the foundation of your course, then the assessments you choose are the walls that support the rest of the house and hold everything together.

To ensure that your “walls” are structurally sound, you must first make decisions about the materials you will use to construct them. As it pertains to assessment, this process involves thinking about the types of activities and assignments that will be appropriate to your course and to the diverse needs of your students. Culturally responsive teaching “involves checking for mastery of student learning outcomes in a way that takes into consideration students’ cognitive, cultural and interdisciplinary diversity” (Ladson-Billings, 1994). While you may not know what students will be in your classroom before the semester begins, you can still plan assessments that are as fair and equitable as possible. Providing students with equitable learning opportunities builds trust, enhances your rapport with the learners in your classroom and, consequently, improves student motivation (Weimer, 2010).

As you reflect on the ways in which students will demonstrate their learning, consider the following:

Your SLOs are not only the basis for the course itself, but they are also statements of the expectations for learning. Assessments that are properly aligned with those expectations are fair and can help students improve their learning skills in the discipline. Additionally, connecting those assessments to competencies in the area of study helps to build skills central to the discipline that, in many cases, can be applicable to other fields. Ginsberg and Wlodkowski assert that creating assessments with real-world applications or in areas that students will use in their future careers increases students’ self-confidence, builds and provides learners with information about their competence in the area, and enhances their motivation to excel in the course (2009). These types of assessments are known as authentic tasks or assessments. Wiggins (1998) highlights the following characteristics of authentic tasks:

  • They are realistic: Imitates real-world standards and levels of performance/knowledge. Students working on an engineering project might be assessed according to a real company’s standards, for instance.
  • They require judgment and innovation: Encourages students to apply what they have learned in unique and creative ways, not just by following a set procedure. Students in a public health course may be asked to develop an engaging seminar on the importance of healthy eating for elementary school students.
  • They ask learners to “do” the subject: Requires students to use disciplinary strategies to complete an assignment or project. For instance, students in a nursing course might develop a comprehensive care plan for an imaginary patient with various health problems.
  • They replicate or simulate the contexts that learners find in their workplace, community or personal life. For instance, students in a Language and World Business course might be asked to apply their knowledge of Latin American cultures in the development of a business plan for a travel agency.
  • They assess the learners’ ability to use an integration of knowledge and skill to negotiate a complex task effectively. Instead of having students write an essay about a social issue in architectural design, an instructor may have students create their own design to address a community concern.
  • They allow appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources and get feedback on and refine performances and products. Learning takes place when individuals are allowed to practice, make mistakes and improve their work. This is why it is important to not grade certain learning activities.

 A study conducted by Carnevale, et. al (2015) on the labor trends of college students revealed the following:

  • Approximately 40 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours per week.
  • Twenty-five percent of learners that work are full-time students that carry full-time work schedules.
  • One-third of working students are 30 years or older. Their primary goal for attending college is to enhance their future employment options.
  • Nineteen percent of all working learners also have children.
  • First generation students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that work face more academic challenges than those learners from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is now considered normal for college students to work while taking classes. Therefore, instructors should consider whenever possible the workload in their courses when designing their classes. Providing more practice opportunities during class time, offering more flexibility in assignment due dates and incorporating instruction on study skills and time management are all strategies to help working, busy students.

Threshold concepts are challenging to students, and therefore, may require more instructional time. Identify the “bottlenecks” in your course before it begins, and plan additional time for helping students navigate those difficulties. This might involve breaking down large projects or assignments into smaller “ungraded” chunks so that students have opportunities to practice and work through failure before the final project/assignment is due. Other strategies for addressing threshold concepts include:

  • Listen to your students: Don’t make assumptions about where students are having trouble. Ask them questions to help them articulate their difficulties and try to understand their gaps from the perspective of a novice learner (Land et. al, 2005). You can even create a mechanism via Canvas within which students can anonymously post their questions before class begins.
  • Think about how you might engage your students beforehand: Effective learning opportunities are often those in which instructors represent information in different ways (e.g., graphically, through hands on experiences, etc.), connect course materials to students’ lives, and provide them with chances to explain concepts in their own words. Land et. al. (2005) take this a step further by encouraging instructors to design a “framework of engagement” for their courses in which they can learn to think and practice like a practitioner of the discipline. In other words, a philosophy instructor might – instead of teaching students to think and write about philosophy – develop assessments that teach learners how to approach new concepts and ideas as a philosopher would. This would involve creating activities both during class and outside of class in which students practice such skills as argumentation and close reading.
  • Extend “grace” in your assessments and grading: Consider giving students partial credit on test questions assessing a threshold concept when they are able to explain a portion of it properly. Allow students opportunities to redo assignments assessing threshold concepts so that they can learn from their mistakes. Luebben (2010) suggests giving students multiple opportunities to take assessments with the purpose of improving their scores. Her article can be found on Faculty Focus..

Today’s students are diverse learners with various learning preferences. They come from different educational backgrounds and have distinct strengths. Instructors can both harness their students’ strengths and build upon their areas of difficulty by providing learners will different ways of demonstrating their learning. For instance, students needing to show competence in analyzing a historical event from various perspectives might be asked to do so in an essay, a video, a historical reenactment or artwork. This strategy could even be implemented on an exam in which students get to choose which questions they answer. Harvey Mudd mathematics professor Francis Su recommends incorporating fun exam questions so that students can earn some easy points by sharing a concept that they learned in class. Some examples he provides include: “write a poem about a concept in this course,” or “imagine you are writing a column for the newspaper ‘great ideas in math’.  What would you put in it?” His talk “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching” contains other tips and ideas for helping diverse learners. While flexibility might not be practical for every learning outcome in your course, it could be a consideration for some disciplinary concepts.

In order for students to be successful in your course, they must be able to access your course materials. If you would like additional information on accessibility, please check out the following resources:

  • UDL on Canvas (Self-paced course): This course contains a set of online modules to orient faculty and staff to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework that helps instructors to make their courses accessible for all students. In this course, participants will enrich their understanding of concepts related to accessibility and universal design. They will strengthen their professional skill in course design in such ways as to increase the quality of student learning. Further, participants will take steps toward mastery of the features of Canvas.
  • UDL on Campus (Resource Website): This resource provides tools for successful implementation of Universal Design for Learning principles.
  • (UTK Accessibility site): This website provides tips on how to create accessible resources (e.g., documents and videos). It also explains university policies surrounding accessibility.
  • Make an appointment with Dr. Eric Moore: An expert on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Dr. Moore provides resources via workshops and one-on-one consultations on how to implement UDL principles in course design. You can contact him at for more information.
  • Talk to Student Disability Services: For more information about faculty resources and accommodations available to students with disabilities, please contact David Ndiaye, Director of Student Disability Services, at

Assessing for participation fairly can be challenging because it often takes time to decide as an instructor what good participation looks like. For some disciplines, participation from students means being involved in class discussions or responding to instructors’ questions. In others, learner participation might involve students commenting on each others’ posts on a discussion board or giving feedback on a project. Irrespective of the discipline, it is important to decide what the standards are for the participation grade BEFORE the class begins. The following are some considerations and tips for assessing participation:

  • Link the standards for good participation to the learning outcomes. SLOs are the basis for your course, so your assessment of participation must align with the course learning targets. Start with thinking about what types of participation best help students meet those SLOs (University of Melbourne, 2014).
  • Develop mechanisms to provide feedback to students about their participation. Many students equate attendance with participation. Therefore, it is not only important to be clear about how participation will be graded, but also to provide students with feedback about how they can improve their participation throughout the semester. Some instructors have students do self-assessments (see Knight, 2008), while others may use rubrics to assess student participation. We have included some links to rubrics below to get you started:
    • Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center of Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation provides a rubric for assessing participation in an Art History class. This rubric is fairly general and can be adapted for any class. It can be found here.
    • Claudia Stanny from the University of West Florida has developed this rubric for class participation (2010).
    • Union University offers this rubric for participation in which the standards are categorized by letter grade.
    • Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law offers this sample participation rubric on their website.
    • The University of Kansas’ Center for Teaching Excellence provides a self-assessment rubric for participation.
  • Be explicit about your standards for participation and model it for your students frequently. Putting it in the syllabus is not enough. A study conducted by Calhoon and Becker (2008) revealed that while students typically keep and look at their syllabi, they tend to forget the basic information on it (e.g., number of exams, office hours, purpose of projects, etc.). Share your standards for participation on the first day and remind students throughout the semester to make sure that they remember the expectations. Modeling the standards so that they are clear is also helpful.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to participate. Not every student is the same. Some prefer to share their thoughts orally, while others might be hesitant to share ideas out loud in class. To increase participation and nurture an inclusive environment, it is important to present students with multiple avenues to contribute ideas. For instance, using online tools such as Kahoot! and Linoit allows students who may not be as vocal in class opportunities to get involved in review sessions or discussions. Using low tech strategies such as different color signs as a way to respond to questions, “think, pair, share” activities that allow students to talk in small groups before discussing ideas in a large group, and assigning students specific roles during group activities (these roles should be explained ahead of time), are also ways to engage students. Washington University’s Teaching Center has strategies for fostering good participation in class with some examples Washington University’s Teaching Center website.

Finally, it is necessary to consider your grading policies. As you think about how you will evaluate your students’ work, keep in mind that learners come to class with varying degrees of development in areas such as time management and study skills. Additionally, students may come in with any number of challenges such as having to work full-time to support families, raising their own children while attending college, dealing with mental health issues, or – if they are first generation students – lacking experience in navigating college in general. Life happens and sometimes even your best students may face difficulties. Therefore, providing some flexibility in assignment structure and due dates can be helpful for all your students. Here are some ideas:

  • Consider dropping the lowest test or quiz grades.
  • Allow students to redo assignments to improve their scores.
  • Give students the opportunity to do test corrections to earn some partial credit on questions they missed.
  • Allow one late assignment per semester – no questions asked.

Examine your make-up exam policy for fairness. Sara Fulmer (2016) provides ideas for make-up policies here.

Define Your Learning Environment

The final consideration for inclusive course design is deciding on what type of learning environment will best meet the needs of all your students. This process is the equivalent of designing the rooms of the house and setting up the furniture. Throughout this phase, it is important to ask yourself whether you want a more structured environment in which there are set routines each class session or one in which there is greater independence among students and flexibility. While this might vary greatly according to the classroom you are assigned, it is still up to you as the instructor to decide what type of learning space you want to co-create with your students.

One way to do this is by providing an inclusive learning environment statement on your syllabus. The learning environment statement describes the type of learning that will take place in the class, provides a structure of learning activities and establishes the expectations for both instructor and student. The following are some examples from various colleges and universities:

  • In this class, we will work together to develop a learning community that is inclusive and respectful. Our diversity may be reflected by differences in race, culture, age, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and myriad other social identities and life experiences. The goal of inclusiveness, in a diverse community, encourages and appreciates expressions of different ideas, opinions, and beliefs, so that conversations and interactions that could potentially be divisive turn instead into opportunities for intellectual and personal enrichment.A dedication to inclusiveness requires respecting what others say, their right to say it, and the thoughtful consideration of others’ communication. Both speaking up and listening are valuable tools for furthering thoughtful, enlightening dialogue. Respecting one another’s individual differences is critical in transforming a collection of diverse individuals into an inclusive, collaborative and excellent learning community. Our core commitment shapes our core expectation for behavior inside and outside of the classroom.”  —- University of Denver Inclusive Learning Environment Syllabi Statement


  • “SUNY Cortland is committed to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment. The course instructor honors this commitment and respects and values differences. All students enrolled in this course are expected to be considerate of others, promote a collaborative and supportive educational environment, and treat every person with dignity and with respect to ability or disability, age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or other aspects of identity. In an environment that fosters inclusion, students have the opportunity to bring their various identities into conversation as they find helpful, but are not expected to represent or speak for an entire group of people who share aspects of an identity.”SUNY Cortland Inclusive Learning Environment Statement

When writing your inclusive learning environment statement, consider the following

  • What does an inclusive environment look like? How do you understand inclusion, and how will you communicate this to students?
  • How does inclusion align with the learning expectations for this course? Are there specific dispositions within the discipline that address inclusion? How do these fit in the context of your course?
  • What is your responsibility as an instructor in facilitating this environment? What is the role of your students (You might even want to ask your students this question during the first week of class.)?
  • How will you address differences of opinion and ideas in the classroom? What does civility look like? For strategies for dealing with incivility and facilitating difficult dialogues, click here.
  • Explain key terms. For instance, if you describe an environment as “respectful,” be prepared to explain what you mean. What does “respect” look like in the context of your learning environment?

To what extent can you include students in the process of designing the statement? Having students involved in the creation of the learning environment gives them ownership of the course material and helps engage them in the process of maintaining inclusivity in the classroom.