HOT TIP: Three steps towards inclusive teaching by Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman

How many times have you heard people say that the Reading student population is becoming more diverse? But what do they mean and what are the implications? Often they mean that they/we are struggling to cope with what feels like the ever increasingly list of different needs for different ‘types of students’. Any quick skim through the diversity and inclusion literature reveals that there is a long list of student ‘types’ that are known to have specific requirements that we do not think of as ‘the “norm’. 

  • Disabled students – physical, mental, learning
  • Widening Participation students – first generation HE students, students from low HE participation areas, low income households
  • International students
  • Non-white and non-Christian students
  • Students living at home
  • Mature students
  • Part-time students
  • Male students in female dominated subjects and female students in male dominated subjects

In comparison to many other universities we might not always think of Reading University as having a tremendously diverse student population, however, I estimate that the above students represent in excess of 65% of our UG students and probably significantly more of our PG population. This means that supporting students with needs outside ‘the norm’ actually needs to become ‘the norm’. Accommodating diversity is no longer about accommodating the few it is catering for the majority!

But, and this is a BIG one,

Q: how can we possibility support so many different needs and still remain sane?

The answer is

A: by adopting an inclusive approach to all our teaching

There is much literature out there on inclusive pedagogy and what the challenges are for different types of students – it can be a little daunting to say the least. I therefore wanted to identify just THREE relatively straightforward things that will take us a long way towards inclusive teaching.

But first, what does inclusive pedagogy mean?

“Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that recognises the diversity of students, enabling all students to access course content, fully participate in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths at assessment. Inclusive practice values the diversity of the student body as a resource that enhances the learning experience”. (Equality Challenge Unit http://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/external/e-and-d-for-academics-factsheet-inclusive-practice.pdf)

Three practices that will enhance the inclusivity of your teaching

An important note – the three practices advocated below will actually benefit ALL of your students, and they certainly won’t have an adverse affect on any. To put it bluntly adopting them will not only help your students to ‘cope’ they will actually help them to learn and hopefully to attain higher grades – and, after all, isn’t that the objective?

1. Foster a sense of belonging

This has been found to be a key factor in student retention and success (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/engage-in-teaching-and-learning/2014/10/16/hot-tip-what-is-the-number-one-factor-behind-student-success-by-dr-patricia-paddy-woodman/). As lecturer/teacher it is our responsibility to develop a ‘sense of belonging’ in our classrooms. This is done is many ways: a) through how we behave towards students – recognising the value that every student brings to the classroom, through valuing contributions equally, even when the quality is variable, through evenly distributing opportunities, b) providing opportunities for students to interact with each other and develop a sense of belonging to the group, c) through our choice of curriculum content – balancing the requirements of the subject with the interests (cultural, religious, generational, national, socio-economic) of students, ensuring our curricula are representative, encouraging opportunities for all students to bring their own perspectives to bear on learning.

2. Providing appropriate (and timely) materials to support your teaching

Providing handouts 3 or 4 days before your class is an easy yet powerful way of enhancing the inclusivity of your teaching. It helps international students, dyslexic students, mature and part-time students, students with disabilities that affect their concentration and many others. Equally providing your reading list in advance of the start of the course is effective for a similar group of students not to mention providing an opportunity for those super keen students (of any “type”) to get stuck in and motivated about your subject. I recognise that things like handouts and reading lists can be very different for different subjects and even for modules within a subject, however the principals can still apply. If you don’t want to ‘give away the answers’ in advance in your handouts, leave that section blank in the pre-class publication but follow up with full set after the class. If it is a discussion based session, you can indicate what your will be discussing and how the discussion will be tackled (sub questions/topics etc, is there any pre-reading?). For interactive classes, e.g. flipped learning, seminars, group discussion etc – it is important to provide students with a summary of key learning that emerges. This is essential in terms of inclusion for any students who may have either missed the class or for one reason or another (language, concentration, etc.) found it difficult to grasp what can sometime be a fast paced discussion. Could you ask for volunteers or create a rota for students to assemble such a summary?

3. Accommodating diversity in assessment

Recognising that different students have different strengths and that different forms of assessment develop different skills, why not consider whether it is appropriate to offer a choice of forms of assessment. For example, although the final-year projects and dissertations are firmly embedded in the tradition of Higher Education there are increasingly examples of variations on this theme. The HEA’s publication ‘Developing and Enhancing Final-year projects and Dissertations’  (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/projects/Developing%20and%20enhancing%20undergraduate%20final-year%20projects%20and%20dissertations_0.pdf) makes the case that all of the academic attributes of these assessments can be preserved in a more diverse range of ‘capstone’ projects. The same principals can be applied to smaller pieces of coursework.

I recognise that the last action is the most challenging and perhaps controversial of the three, but well worth pausing to consider. The other two actions however, are ‘no-brainers’. If you aren’t already doing these things now is the time to adopt them and ensure that the majority of students can fully access your teaching!

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