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What is Inclusion?

When we think about diversity, we generally think along the lines of traits that distinguish us from one another. These differences can range anywhere from race and ethnicity to include categories such as gender identities, sexual orientation, political and religious affiliations, and geographical/regional nuances. Our different identities have major implications on our worldviews, the choices we make on how we spend our time and money, and – most importantly – the ways in which we relate to those around us. In the context of the higher education classroom, our diversity has a direct impact on our approaches to teaching (for instructors) and learning (for students and everyone else).

This is where inclusion comes in.

If “diversity” explains our difference, then “inclusion” defines the way in which we should relate across difference. At the University of Tennessee, we strive towards establishing and supporting a campus community that is not only diverse, but also one in which every student voice – irrespective of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious/political affiliation or regional background – is valued and heard. In the context of the classroom, this involves students and faculty intentionally and cooperatively creating environments in which everyone is empowered to communicate their worldviews, respectfully analyze and challenge ideas, and to construct new ways of thinking. In this way, inclusion can inspire learning interactions that prepare students to be agents of change both in the workplace and in their communities.

Facilitating these exchanges in the classroom requires that instructors prepare to teach their courses with inclusion in mind. According to Professor Christine Hockings of the University of Wolverhampton, “Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education refers to the ways in which pedagogy, curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others” (2010). This approach to inclusion leverages the diversity of students and faculty to enhance the learning experiences of everyone. Other well-documented benefits of inclusion and inclusive teaching include:

  • Improved rapport with students: Building rapport with students is a key aspect of inclusive teaching because it involves getting to know learners’ experiences, goals, learning preferences and skillsets. This process gives instructors insight on how to best meet the needs of their students and, as a result, helps support student success in college.
  • Improvement of student retention rates, enhancement of leadership skills and increased community engagement: Interactions between learners of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have shown to increase student self-esteem, improve overall persistence, enhance community engagement and learning, help with the development of leadership skills, and decrease levels of prejudice after graduation (Bowman, 2011; Engberg & Hurtado, 2011; Espenshade & Radford, 2009; Hurtado, 2007; Hurtado & Deangelo, 2012).
  • Development of problem-solving skills and student appreciation for diversity: Inclusive teaching allows for variation of ideas and perspectives which, in turn, creates opportunities to address real-world problems and encourages student appreciation for diverse worldviews (Tienda, 2010).
  • Improved student learning and engagement: Student learning is well nurtured in “learning environments that students perceive to be inclusive and affirming and where expectations for performance are clearly communicated and set at reasonably high levels” (Laird, 2008, Education Commission of the States, 1995; Kuh, 2001; Kuh and Associates, 2005; Pascarella, 2001). A study conducted by Hockings et. al. further indicates that teaching practices that are learner-centered, well-contextualized to the area of study, and that take into consideration student’s individual differences allow for increased student participation and engagement overall (2008).

Inclusive teaching is not only beneficial, but it is also necessary given the current state of higher education here in the state of Tennessee. According to a 2016 report published by Complete Tennessee, a state nonprofit organization whose purpose is to expand access to postsecondary education to all students and to improve retention rates in higher education institutions throughout the state, there continues to be a gap in retention rates between White and African-American students (Complete Tennessee, 2016). Nevertheless, the population of minorities ages 15 to 19 (e.g., African-Americans and Hispanics) in the state of Tennessee is expected to increase significantly between 2016 and 2036, with the percentage of Hispanic graduates projected to rise by 106%  and all others by 105% (Center for Business and Economic Research, University of Tennessee, 2011). While adult matriculation in postsecondary institutions in Tennessee has decreased by 25% since 2011 (Smith, 2018), the adults that are enrolling are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Finney et. al., 2017). With these shifts in demographics, it is important that instructional faculty and administration begin to think critically about how to best meet the needs of this growing diverse student population.