From the very beginning of your course design, consider how you will actively work to create an equitable, accessible and inclusive environment for your students and instructional team. Duke’s own Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion notes, “Every student, faculty, and staff member —whatever their race, gender, age, ethnicity, cultural heritage or nationality; religious or political beliefs; sexual orientation or gender identity; or socioeconomic, veteran or ability status—has the right to inclusion, respect, agency and voice in the Duke community. Further, all members of the University community have a responsibility to uphold these values and actively foster full participation in university life.”(1) Creating equitable and accessible classrooms helps all students.

A student-centered classroom, indeed, cannot exist without equity and accessibility minded design. At Learning Innovation, we partner with Duke instructors and staff “to support student-centered, active learning for more equitable, accessible and inclusive experiences that help all learners achieve learning outcomes.”(2) This guide provides you with a broad overview of what you can do to keep diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in mind while designing your course.

Table of Contents:

Planning your course

Create a student-centered course. The first step in designing or redesigning a course to be inclusive, equitable and accessible is to approach the course through the eyes of your students. What will the learning experience be like through the semester? Are there clear goals and expectations? Will the instructor treat everyone fairly? Will my instructor support my learning in the course, including providing accommodations? Will my voice be heard? Do I feel welcome? 

The Stanford Learning Commons has an overview of student-centered course design, and the Flexible Teaching Guide to Course Design can help you get started with the process.

Be aware of equity. When planning your course, ask yourself if the activities or homework presents any barriers to some of your students. Are there materials that might be unavailable to some students due to cost? Are there activities that might place inappropriate attention on some students because of their nationality, race, gender or sexuality or ask them to make broad assumptions about groups? Are their barriers to carrying out an activity due to a disability?

Consider the state of diversity and inclusion in your discipline. Our disciplines and professions are constantly changing due to evolving views on diversity and inclusion. This can be reflected in how the discipline conducts research; deals with research subjects or members of the public; the nature of questions being asked in the discipline; the diversity of faculty or professionals that make up the field; and the overall issues of equity specific to the discipline.

When designing your course, consider recent discussions, trends and the general history of your field. Do some of these changes directly impact the subject matter of your course? Even if these issues aren’t directly related to your specific course material, look for ways to acknowledge these larger disciplinary issues and discussions in your class so students are aware and have a deeper understanding of the evolution of your field. 

You may also want to ask students to think critically about their own role in knowledge production. Associate Professor Eugenia Zuroski at McMaster University has developed a course exercise called “Where Do You Know From?” meant to be used on the first day of class. Through a series of prompts, students are asked to reflect on where their knowledge is situated, where it comes from. This exercise, in Zuroski’s words, works to make “the university classroom a space that overtly and persistently recognises multiple ways of knowing and sites of learning,” which is crucial, “if we intend to use it as a site to counter histories of misogyny, heteronormativity, racism, classism, and colonialism.”(3) 

When looking for examples, readings or guest speakers in your course, can you find diverse voices to provide models for minority and non-traditional students that may be interested in pursuing your field? How are you centering these voices within the context of your course? 

Support your teaching assistants. Teaching assistants at Duke have a wide-range of instructional experiences and training. This Learning Innovation blog post discusses strategies for successfully working with your teaching assistants generally. Think about how you can directly mentor your teaching assistants, so that they can not only be assets to your course, but also strong instructors and professionals. Speaking with teaching assistants about your choices about how you integrated DEIA in the classroom can ensure that the whole of the instructional staff is on the same page. Your teaching assistants may also have different perspectives and can make recommendations about how you might improve your teaching, so developing a relationship where they are empowered to provide feedback will improve your course. For a guide on inclusive teaching developed specifically for teaching assistants, see Fostering Inclusive Practices Among Teaching Assistants.

Rethinking your assumptions. What has the Duke community learned about diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion? How does it impact you and your work with students? How can you help Duke move forward?

Duke has many resources (see the Resources section at the end of this page) available to explore issues around diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in the context of teaching and learning, research and professional development. There are links to offices and centers at Duke that provide workshops, materials and guidance for you and your students.

Survey your students before the course begins. You can survey your students before your course begins or at the very beginning of the semester to learn more about their specific needs and interests. You might ask students if they have accessibility requests, for example. You may also ask them questions that will give you information to help your students meet learning outcomes such as: How can I help you be successful in this course? What helps you learn? What are your expectations for this course? 

Syllabus, course policies and materials

Create an inclusive syllabus. A syllabus isn’t just an outline of your course and class policies. It’s an invitation to engage in a learning community you will be creating in the class. As Franciso Ramos, PhD, notes, “The syllabus is not a ‘learning contract.’ … The syllabus is an evolving document and learning framework that reflects our beliefs and values about learning.”(4)

More broadly, a student-centered syllabus gives students a clear idea of what will happen in the class, what they will be learning in the course, and how they will practice and demonstrate that learning. The student centered syllabus should also set an overall tone for the course, promote your role in mentoring and supporting learning during the class and create a sense of a shared learning community.

Overall, the syllabus should have a welcoming tone, addressing the student directly as an individual and member of the Duke community. When writing about yourself, use a first-person narrative explaining to the students why you are interested in your field and the topic of the class. Include your preferred pronouns and use bias-free language to encourage and model their use by students in the class.

Making your syllabus inclusive means that it acknowledges and respects the diversity of your students and their experiences. You should include language about expectations for mutual respect and commitment to hearing all voices in the class. The syllabus might acknowledge systemic issues, such as racism or biased language, that might be connected with the subject matter, readings or materials that students will be using, or even the building where the class will be meeting. The syllabus should also include content warnings on difficult material that students may find disturbing and guidelines for students who need to step away or have issues working with the material. (See the Chronicle of Higher Education website for more information and resources on Trauma Informed Teaching.)

DLI has prepared a student-centered syllabus template (.docx) as an example. Of course, it is not required to be used at Duke, but can give you ideas and tips on some language and information that can be included in your own syllabus.

Make course materials accessible. Design your course to be accessible from the beginning. As the Duke Accessible Syllabus Project states, “It is our society, not the individual or student, that has the ethical obligation to create the conditions for inclusivity – extending to the educational institution, the instructor, and the curricula.”(5) Creating options for students with disabilities or specific needs can assist students more broadly. Captions in videos, for example, might be used by some students who speak English as a second language to better understand the material. Creating a rotating schedule of student note-takers or recording lectures may immediately help some students, but being able to review course material benefits all students. Universal Design for Learning principles can help you design your course to be more inclusive for everyone from day one, rather than meeting student needs on a case- by-case basis.

Look for opportunities for inclusion. When preparing your syllabus, look for opportunities to include diverse voices in your course content. If you will be having guest speakers or professionals in the field that will be working with students on a project, look for diversity in the people that will be working with your students. Your subject librarian can help locate books and articles by diverse authors in your field that can provide a range of experiences to your students. Consider how you are teaching your content. What are you focusing on and what issues are being addressed? Who is being given authority and expertise? What perspectives are you missing? 

Have clear and flexible course policies. Be aware of factors that might influence student participation as your course runs. Are there cultural celebrations or holidays commemorated by students in your class that you should accommodate for? Does your class fall on an election day? If your class includes live online sessions, will some students need to leave their camera off due to circumstances in their surroundings? Planning for common student requests and including information about these situations in your syllabus, as well as generally discussing your willingness to be open and flexible to student needs during the course, demonstrates to students your flexibility. This lets students know that you want them to be open and communicative with you and an active participant in their learning.

Conducting the class

Use discussion guidelines. Many faculty start off their first class session with a set of discussion guidelines that will be used throughout the course, then reinforce these guidelines at the start of subsequent class meetings. The guidelines encourage allowing everyone to have opportunities to be heard, discussing ideas, and treating each other with respect. Discussion guidelines can be useful in courses that do not follow a small seminar, discussion-based format, to set a tone for interactions in the course and to build a sense of support, learning, and community. This blog post explains the use of discussion guidelines and provides examples you can adapt to your own course.

Set a tone for discourse. Besides using discussion guidelines, you may want to point students to resources or develop pointers for students on the use of terminology, phrasing, or general principles that deal with specific topics the class may be exploring. This document, for example, was crowdsourced by faculty as guidance for teaching or writing about slavery.(6) Hamilton College has this resource on communicating about gender and sexuality. The American Psychological Association has a style guide for using bias-free language that covers sexual orientation, gender, disability, age and other areas.

Use student-centered active learning techniques. Research has shown that cooperative active learning techniques can help minority students improve performance in classes and help all students listen and treat each other with respect. Some of the techniques were originally designed to help with integrating classrooms in the 1970s. For example, one popular technique, a Jigsaw, encourages students in groups to become experts to encourage collaboration to solve a problem. Even less elaborate active learning techniques, such as Think-Pair-Share or Brainwriting can elevate all voices and foster listening and engagement by all students in your class. You can explore techniques that fit your learning objectives on our website, workshops and speaking with a DLI consultant.

Be aware of issues and respond. During class sessions, when you are leading discussions or monitoring group work, look for issues that may arise as students interact with each other. Is there a student using stereotypical or derogatory language that may be disturbing to some students? Are there students stating or promoting unsupported stereotypes as facts or using biased language? Are some students “shut out” of discussions or group work?

How you respond depends on the situation – it may be something as simple as correcting misconceptions and emphasizing appropriate terms or language, looking for ways to encourage participation in a discussion or group by all students. Or, in some cases, you may wish to talk individually with a student about their behavior. Your department chair or Dean can give you advice on students that may be showing more serious problems that are disruptive to the course. You might also want to discuss the issue with your departmental colleagues to consider appropriate responses.

Check in with your students. Frequent feedback is important from your students, not only for fine-tuning your course and helping students with their learning, but to ensure that minority and non-traditional students have an opportunity to express concerns they see with the course that might not be apparent to you. One active learning technique you can use is a Minute Paper at the end of each class to solicit anonymous feedback from students. You can also perform a more detailed mid-semester survey to surface larger issues about the course. The next section on evaluating inclusive practices discusses how you can perform longer-term reflection on your course to evaluate and improve your efforts around diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.

Support your students. Students appreciate it when you let them know that you’re there if they need to talk about any issues they see with the course and the community of learning you and the students are building. As an instructor, you don’t have to solve all the students’ issues or be a counselor – just showing respect, concern and empathy demonstrates your commitment to their success as students in your class and as individuals in Duke’s larger, diverse community. This page has more ideas for supporting students in your class. Duke Reach is a service that can help you in cases where a student may need counseling, health services, or other assistance. Duke’s Academic Resource Center can help students that need tutoring or help with developing study and organizational skills. The Duke Academic Guides program is another resource for your students to discuss their in and out of classroom concerns.

Prepare for the unexpected. External events can impact your course. Because of an event on campus, in the Durham community or nationally, students may be distracted or emotionally involved and have difficulty focusing on your class session or coursework during a period of time. Instructors have found that starting off class informally to spend a few minutes to talk about the external event, even if it has nothing to do with the course subject matter, can help students understand you care about their well-being and understand and empathize with issues they may be facing. This can give an opportunity for everyone to take a “time out” before refocusing on the task at hand.

If your students are experiencing stress because of external conditions or events, there are many helpful tips – giving students more choices, journaling, etc – in this DLI blog post, prepared during the COVID-19 epidemic. 

Design your assessments toward equity and accessibility. As Erick Montenegro and Natasha A. Jankowski state, “Assessment, if not done with equity in mind, privileges and validates certain types of learning and evidence of learning over others, can hinder the validation of multiple means of demonstration, and can reinforce within students the false notion that they do not belong in higher education.” (7) When crafting an assessment strategy, keep student-centered principles in mind. Think about how your course’s assessments fit together: Are you scaffolding your assessments? Are you giving students the opportunity to practice before high stakes assignments? Are you giving students feedback that can impact their performance? You may also consider allowing students to choose to demonstrate what they have learned in your course, either by working with you to design their own projects or by providing multiple options.

Remain flexible, think in advance if your assessment design might provide barriers to students. For example, “Avoid references in your assessment questions which would be unclear or unknown to students of different cultures. (See examples of questions that might be biased against international students, first generation college students and students from less wealthy backgrounds.) Avoid complex vocabulary unless you are testing vocabulary.”(8)

Think about accessibility considerations in advance, such as ensuring you are not requiring the use of inaccessible technology to complete an assignment and being prepared to make adjustments based on student needs. If a student asks for an accommodation on an assignment, provide one. Read more about Culturally Responsive Teaching and Universal Design for Learning to learn further about equitable assessment design. In addition to the design of assessments, think about how you plan to grade your students, keeping equity in mind. This blog post on “Going Gradeless” and the page How can I give feedback and grade students? provide several strategies for rethinking grading practices for both small and large courses.

Evaluating inclusive practices

Learning Innovation consultants run Small Group Instructional Feedback (SGIF) sessions for instructors during the mid-point of the semester. Small Group Instructional Feedback is a formative, mid-course check-in used for gathering information from students on their learning experience. As part of the process, you can work with a consultant to design a custom question related to your course. Contact us at learninginnovation@duke.edu for more information.

In addition to self-evaluation and receiving feedback from your students, receiving feedback from your instructional peers can improve your teaching. If you are interested in working specifically within your department or field, you might self-organize a Teaching Triangles program or Faculty Learning Community. More generally, Learning Innovation’s Visit a Classroom program provides Duke faculty with an opportunity to gain new teaching perspectives by observing their colleagues teaching in their classrooms. Three faculty participants observe at least one class taught by each faculty member in the group to get ideas to enhance their own teaching and classroom experience. Available to any instructor during the current semester, the Visit a Classroom program accepts applications on a rolling basis. Learn more about how to participate in thoughtful peer observations.

Learn more 

There are many resources available to instructors at Duke related to topics of inclusivity, equity and accessibility. 

For a sustained, year-long experience, faculty can apply to the Teaching For Equity Fellowship through the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. The workshops in series, “are specifically designed to address a number of teaching and mentoring topics that may arise around race and identity. Faculty fellows gain specific skills and strategies to create a culture that improves learning for all our students.”

The Office of Faculty Advancement has multiple resources for faculty, including hosting a workshop series.

The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity schedules educational programming, including faculty-specific workshops on pronouns.

The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture offers a variety of pre-scheduled training opportunities as well as personalized trainings for specific groups.

There are multiple training opportunities at Duke for teaching assistants. For instance, Duke’s Office of the Provost and Learning Innovation developed a TA Training Coursera course that provides students with basic training on FERPA, DukeReach, Title IX, the Student Disability Access Office and academic integrity and the Graduate School’s Certificate in College Teaching Program has a course specifically focused on College Teaching, Diverse Learners and Contentious Issues. The Graduate School also hosts the Teaching IDEAS Series and TA Trainings with sessions that speak to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. The Teaching IDEAs series and TA Trainings are not limited to graduate students.

Learning Innovation also hosts and cross-promotes events related to DEIA in teaching and learning. You can check our Events Calendar for current offerings. 

In addition to Duke-supported workshops, there are many workshops being offered by professional organizations, Centers for Teaching and Learning at other universities and other institutions that focus on these topics. The Professional and Organizational Developmental Network in Higher Education has a Google Group open to its members and other interested parties where some of these events are advertised. Conferences in your discipline may also offer individual sessions related to these topics, geared toward your field.

If you are active on social media, following these conversations through hashtags or following experts in the field offers another way to learn and share ideas. 

Below, we have also included more resources where you can read more about DEIA in higher education.

Resources & Further Reading

Academic Integrity

Accessibility

Anti-Racism

General Inclusivity

LGBTQ+

Trauma-Informed Practices

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Other


References

  1. Duke’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion
  2. Duke Learning Innovation’s Mission Statement 
  3. Eugenia Zuroski, “Where Do You Know From?” MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture
  4. Francisco Ramos, “How to Teach Contentious Issues in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators.”
  5. Duke Accessible Syllabus Project, General Principles 
  6.  P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” community-sourced document, 08 July 2021, 1:38 p.m. EDT, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A4TEdDgYslX-hlKezLodMIM71My3KTN0zxRv0IQTOQs/mobilebasic.
  7. Erick Montenegro and Natasha A. Jankowski, “Equity and Assessment: Moving Towards Culturally Responsive Assessment,” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED574461.pdf
  8. Amy Kenyon, Best Practices for Inclusive Assessment, Duke Learning Innovation Blog