What is inclusive teaching, and why is it important?

Guest Post by Dr Kylie Murphy, Academic Development Group, College of Science Engineering and Health.

Students browse bookshelves at Carlton Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Access and equity are hot topics in Australian higher education lately. The university sector is under pressure to massify. Rather than reinforcing the social class structure, Australian universities are now tasked with the challenge of helping students to transgress social class boundaries and break generations-old cycles of economic disadvantage. Indeed, there are significant financial incentives for universities around attracting and retaining students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. University teaching staff should be in no doubt about the importance of supporting more first-in-family students to come to higher education and ‘stay the course’.

What should we do?

But how are university teachers supposed to help students who lack the sociocultural capital of more ‘traditional’ university students to persist with their studies and succeed? Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds not only lack the financial resources of their middle and upper class peers. Many also:

  • have less time and space in which to study
  • lack the academic literacies taught more readily in selective-school classrooms
  • lack the language skills often modelled from birth by tertiary educated parents and
  • lack the understanding, support, and advice of university-experienced friends and family members.

If success in higher education is to be more accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, perhaps we need to make it easier for all students to get a degree than in the past?

Are more lenient standards the answer?

Lowering academic standards or reducing the expected capabilities of graduates is, of course, not the answer.

Two students studying at Brunswick Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Australia’s economic health (to say nothing of other social benefits) needs more people who are as knowledgeable and skilful as graduates have long been, not an increased number of graduates who are less capable than before. Undergraduate degree students each bring tens of thousands of dollars to the university they are enrolled at. To attract increased and more diverse student enrolments and then simply lower the bar for students to step over is, if nothing else, completely unethical. The answer, instead, lies in transforming universities into places of truly inclusive teaching.

How can inclusive teaching help?

If inclusive teaching doesn’t mean lowering academic standards, what does it mean? Broadly, it means teaching in such a way that maximises the capacity of all students to reach meaningful standards of success. In other words, it means teaching so that all students in the course can meet the learning objectives. It’s not surprising, then, that there are many ways to conceptualise inclusive teaching. But while writers in this field may revel in exploring the complexities of inclusive education as an abstraction, a stack of slightly differing definitions and conceptual deconstructions are of little help to academics who just want to know how to teach their next class more inclusively or how to re-design an assessment piece for greater inclusivity.

What makes teaching inclusive?

Inclusive teaching manifests as many specific practices, adapted and contextualised as appropriate to the area of study and learning objectives in question. Instead of itemising possible inclusive practices, here, I offer three criteria that stand out to me as ready litmus tests for determining whether or not any particular thing that we do as a teacher or lecturer is ‘inclusive’. When selecting content for a course, when devising, explaining, and providing feedback on learning and assessment activities, and when otherwise communicating with our students, these three questions are critical considerations:

1        Will this content, range of activities, communication style, feedback, etcetera allow all of my students to feel respected and valued — or might some students feel overlooked and unengaged?

2        Will it help all of my students to maintain or develop enough confidence in themselves, in my approachability, and in the relevance and flexibility of the curriculum so that they will persist when challenges arise — or might students with more than their fair share of obstacles become disheartened and give up? and

3        Will it help all of my students to move step-by-step from the knowledge and skills they each have, now, to the knowledge and skills that I want them ultimately to attain — or does it fail to clearly communicate the steps required?

An attitude more than a checklist

I see inclusive teaching as an attitude as much as a checklist of actions. To me, it’s an ongoing process of aspiring to answer ‘yes’ to the above three questions regarding every aspect of our teaching and assessment practice, even though the implicit ideals are not always achievable. In my own teaching, I try to satisfy the above three criteria — aiming to help all of my students to feel respected and valued, to feel confident enough to keep trying despite setbacks, and to achieve the learning objectives in an appropriately scaffolded way — but I sometimes run short on the necessary resources, including time and know-how. And I know my efforts don’t always work for every one of my students. There are some factors that affect student learning and success that teachers simply cannot change.

Something to be proud of

Student Services Office, Bundoora Campus

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Inclusive teaching is not easy and it’s no panacea. However, our many teaching staff at RMIT who do continually try to enable all of our students to feel respected, to feel confident enough to persist despite difficulties, and to ultimately achieve the intended learning outcomes — even though they don’t always achieve these objectives with every student — are important agents of social change and incredibly valuable assets to the University. For those vulnerable students whom our inclusive teaching efforts have helped, and do help, the positive impact of our efforts, especially combined with the efforts of other inclusive teachers and student support staff, is potentially enormous.

Learn more

Read what Australian low socioeconomic status students say about inclusive teachers, and what inclusive Australian academics say about low socioeconomic status students, at www.lowses.edu.au. This website contains well-researched practical advice for university teachers and policy makers. And stay tuned for RMIT’s launch of its own professional development and support opportunities arising from the University’s Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices project.

Get Onboard

The transformation of higher education institutions from places of exclusivity and pre-existing privilege to places of inclusivity and life-changing opportunity is well underway in Australia. Australian universities now serve students of varying levels of socioeconomic advantage, including students from under-privileged backgrounds who we know, with good teaching, perform as well as or better than their wealthier peers. But, still, students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds remain proportionally underrepresented in Australian university enrolments.

The challenge lies, of course, not only in attracting more high-potential socioeconomically disadvantaged students to our universities, but also in ensuring that we capitalise on their potential, maintain their confidence and motivation, and appropriately scaffold their pathways to success once they arrive with us. This two-pronged challenge is being addressed on a global scale, including in the UK and the US as well as in Australia. Whether it’s social justice or economic pressure that drives you to teach as inclusively as you can, the imperative is strong — and it’s not going away.

Share your thoughts on inclusive teaching strategies in our comments section!

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