Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Building Community and Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

rainbow hands connectedThis page presents selected best practices for building community and creating an inclusive learning environment in your classroom. The strategies below offer ways that you can connect with your students, learn about them and the challenges they face, connect students to each other, and assure students that you are there to support their learning and success. 

As you read through the information below, take note of strategies you are ready to try at the beginning of this quarter and those that you hope to revisit later on. 


Keep accessibility in mind

Creating accessible course materials and reducing barriers to learning are essential components of an equitable student experience. It is important to design your course with accessibility in mind and to take care to provide accessible course materials in the classroom and online Below are some important steps you can take to make accessibility a priority in your courses.

  • Learn about the many resources available for supporting you in making your course materials accessible for students. The Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) provides support for instructors to create accessible course materials and ensure students with disabilities have equitable access to learning. Visit the CTLT’s page on Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning to learn more; the self-paced workshops are a great place to start in making your course materials accessible.
  • Explore the set of resources available at Accessibility ResourcesThese resources include quick guides for best practices for accessibility in documents and presentations, accessibility checklists, color contrast analyzers, and more.

Learn about your students 

Offering structured opportunities for students to share information about themselves and the challenges they may be confronting is an important way that you can learn about your students and show them that you are invested in their success. There are many resources on the Cal Poly campus that work proactively to make sure that our students are supported and have the resources they need, but it is important to be aware that students’ circumstances may vary. Take the time to learn about your students early on and to identify any challenges they may be encountering.

  • Be aware that students circumstances may vary. In any year students come into our classrooms from very different circumstances. Instructors should expect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will have vastly different impacts on our students, their families, and their communities. In order to be equity-minded in our classrooms, we need to be aware of these differences in student experiences. The Center for Inclusive Excellence at San Diego State University explains that “a critical feature of equity-minded teaching is the acknowledgement that our students are NOT all the same, that they come to us with sometimes vastly different experiences, and those experiences are often tied to their social identities (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, first-gen status, etc.)” (See Maintaining Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Learning Environments). As instructors, it is important for us to consider that our students may be experiencing different stressors in their lives, may have differential access to resources that allow them to succeed in the classroom, and may have competing responsibilities (for example employment, childcare, or elder care). Below you will find several ways that you can connect with your students and offer them opportunities to provide information that they feel comfortable sharing with you and that may help you in supporting their academic success.
  • Be aware of students’ needs around sensitive topics. Some topics covered in class may expose students to past traumas and evoke a negative reaction. Sensitive topics can vary, such as sexual violence, death, racism, or xenophobia. If you are discussing highly sensitive topic areas, you may want to add content information to the syllabus and let students know verbally on the first day of class. Consider creating an alternative assignment for students who may be deeply triggered by a subject area so they can still learn the content and get credit. It can be helpful to ask students what they need to feel comfortable when having tough conversations in class, including how they would like to address missteps when someone makes a mistake and causes harm. Connect students to resources, so they know where to go for support. Additionally, you should list campus and community resources on the syllabus and explain how to access them on the first day of class so that students who are triggered or struggling with trauma understand where they can go for support. To learn more about syllabus statements and content warning's see Cal Poly Safer's Syllabus Statements.
  • Conduct a survey of all of your students at the beginning of the course. Learning about your students at the beginning of the course will give you insight into who they are as individuals, their interests, and any concerns they may have. Once you have the results of student surveys, you may choose to reach out individually to students, or you might let them know as a group how you plan to address any common concerns, while always maintaining confidentiality of student information. If you already have a survey, think about the ways that you can best augment your survey to learn more about student concerns, as well as any challenges students foresee in your course. For those teaching in the classroom, you may consider either a paper survey or one administered through Canvas. You may include questions about students' prior experience with the material, what they hope to learn in the course, their future goals, etc. Some general questions we recommend you consider including:
    • What name would you like me to use in referring to you in class?
    • What pronouns would you like me to use in referring to you? For more information on names and pronouns visit these CTLT resources for educators: Pronouns and Preferred Names Resource Page and Pronouns And Preferred Names FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
    • Why are you taking this course? What are you most excited about in taking this course?
    • What concerns do you have about taking this course?
    • How can I best support your learning in this course?
    • Please share any additional concerns, questions, or information you would like to share with me.
    • Also consider adding a question or two that will help you to learn something about your students’ individual interests, goals, or values beyond this course.
    • For those teaching online courses, we recommend considering the questions presented in the spring 2020 webinar Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally Affirming Teaching and Learning Practices in Virtual Learning Communities presented by Dr. J Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III. They suggest that for virtual learning it is important to conduct a survey of students’ previous experiences with virtual learning in order to gain knowledge about your students and their experiences and concerns. Questions they suggest including: “1) Is this your first time taking an online course? 2) How are you accessing the course (private computer, public computer, tablet, mobile phone)? 3) What concerns do you have about taking this course? 4) How can I best facilitate your learning in this course? 5) Any other concerns or information you would like to share?”  
  • Connect with students throughout the quarter. This can mean reaching out to students to have one-on-one conversations in office hours, sending regular announcements to all students, checking in with small groups of students during group work, or participating actively in discussion boards or other forms of course conversations. Proactively reach out to students who have indicated concerns about completing the course or to those who seem to be struggling to find out if there are things you can do to support their success in the course. Many faculty also create more structured check-ins with students in the form of required office hours for all students at the beginning of the term, midterm feedback on performance, or other forms of formative assessment that benefits students as they are learning. If you are teaching online, you can learn more about the importance of active participation by faculty in online courses by watching Catherine Hillman’s presentation on Online Engagement: Discussions and Peer Review.
  • Create opportunities for students to provide feedback. It can be difficult for an instructor to know how a course is going if they don’t give students opportunities to provide feedback during the term. Consider administering one or two short surveys (these can be done on paper or using Canvas)—they can be as simple as asking your students what is going well for them in the course and what they are struggling with. These opportunities will also give students the chance to share with you any challenges they are encountering. As part of this feedback, you can specifically ask students about their experiences of course climate during the quarter. After administering the feedback instrument, let students know how you will use the feedback to adjust the course or your teaching. 
  • Plan how you will connect with your students on the first day. If you are teaching in person, think about how you will establish a welcoming and inclusive tone, how you will help your students get to know you, your teaching style, and how you will connect with them on the first day. If you are teaching online, write a welcome letter; this letter not only serves the purpose of introducing the students to the course and giving them information that they need up front, but it also gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself and share anything you may want to share with the students prior to the start of the course. Learn more about how to write a welcome letter and view sample welcome letters in the CTLT’s Launching a Course Online with Canvas self-paced course. 

Learn names and pronouns

Using students’ names, accurately pronouncing and spelling them, and using students’ pronouns is a basic way that you can show respect for students’ identities and provide an inclusive environment. 

  • Learn more about the negative impact of mispronouncing names and key strategies for remembering them. Read Teachers’ Strategies for Pronouncing and Remembering Students’ Names Correctly. Be aware that accurately pronouncing students’ names is not only a sign of respect, but mispronunciation marginalizes and excludes students from underrepresented groups. Be aware that your roster may not reflect the preferred names students will use in your classroom. Rather than calling roll, ask students to introduce themselves and to share the name they would like you to use in referring to them--either out loud or in a student survey.
  • Ask students to identify their lived or preferred names in the survey you administer at the beginning of the quarter. Since March 2019, students, staff, and faculty have had the option to be listed in the Cal Poly directory under their preferred name, so for some students this information will be readily available to you. It is still important to survey students for this information and to use their lived names to refer to them. 
  • Ask your students to indicate their pronouns in the survey you administer at the beginning of the course. You can also ask students to indicate their personal pronouns in Canvas; we recommend you also indicate your own. If you do this, though, note that not all pronoun sets are available and that if students do not see the pronoun set they use or if they use multiple sets, they should let you know. Learn about the importance of preferred names and pronouns by visiting the CTLT’s Pronouns and Preferred Names and Pronouns and Preferred Names FAQ. To learn more about indicating pronouns in Canvas visit What's New in Canvas
  • Consistently use students’ personal pronouns and be aware of the harmful impacts of misgendering. Using the pronouns a student has indicated is an important part of respecting your students’ gender identities and is also imperative from a policy perspective. Learn about the importance of preferred names and pronouns by visiting the CTLT’s Pronouns and Preferred Names and Pronouns and Preferred Names FAQ.

Connect students to each other

Structured opportunities for students to learn about one another and to make connections are important in any course. These opportunities are particularly important when students are less connected to the campus community, to their friends, and may feel more alone as many of them are going to be returning to campus after a long absence or coming to campus for the first time. 

  • Create an icebreaker. Icebreakers are an important way to form community early on and to connect students to one another. For a list of inclusive icebreakers see this Icebreakers resource provided by the University of Michigan's LSA Inclusive Teaching website. In a virtual environment, it is equally important to give students the chance to connect early on. To learn more about icebreakers online, visit the CTLT’s Launching a Course Online with Canvas self-paced course. 
  • Offer opportunities for students to communicate with one another. Be aware of how important it is for students to have opportunities to communicate with each other for their sense of community and the likelihood that they will succeed in the course. Based on this, design discussion and peer review opportunities that will create community and support interaction between students. If you are teaching online, you can learn more about best practices for online discussions and how to use Canvas to support communication and interaction, by watching Catherine Hillman’s presentation on Online Engagement: Discussions and Peer Review.

Connect with students

In a spring 2020 webinar on Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally Affirming Teaching and Learning Practices in Virtual Learning Communities, Dr. J Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III point out the importance of connecting with our students. The below suggestions, which are applicable to both face-to-face and virtual classrooms stem from the content delivered by Wood and Harris III in the webinar cited above; quotes are taken directly from the webinar content. 

  • Show that you care and want your students to succeed. “Demonstrate an ‘authentic investment’ in students’ success—which is one of the most significant predictors of student persistence (Davidson 2015).” Do this by conveying positivity and a belief in student success. Learn things about your students that are not specifically related to them being a student, for example “name; hometown; hobbies and activities; special talents; favorite books, movies, music artists.”
  • Humanize yourself. 
    Wood and Harris III suggest that humanizing oneself is a key part of building relationships with students. Learn more about the importance of humanizing the online learning experience through Pacansky-Brock, et al.’s Humanizing Learning and Teaching in Times of Disruption.  
  • Work from an assets-based lens. “Intentionally reject deficit perspectives about students’ intellectual capacities or “fit” for college.” 
  • Communicate positive and validating messages. Wood and Harris III suggest that “students must hear: ‘you belong’, ‘you can do the work’, ‘you can succeed’, ‘you have the ability’, ‘you are very intelligent.’”
  • Hold high expectations for performance. Set high expectations and clear paths to reaching those expectations.

Refer to resources

Cal Poly has put together many resources to support students. Oftentimes, instructors are a key link in connecting students with these important resources. Familiarize yourself with the resources available to students and help them to access those resources; then follow up, if needed. 

Next Steps

Now that you have read through the curated suggestions above, take a few minutes to prioritize action steps for this coming quarter. We recommend answering the following questions for yourself:

  1. Identify 1-3 strategies from the list above that you plan to use this quarter. How do you think these strategies will contribute to equity and/or inclusion in your classroom?
  2. Describe your plan for implementing these strategies. For example, will you create a new survey for students in Canvas, what will you include? How will you humanize yourself on the first day? What do you plan to say during your introduction to the class to create an welcoming environment? 
  3. If you'd like to spend more time perusing resources on your own, we recommend that you check out our curated list of Recommended Resources for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in teaching.

If you have any questions, or to schedule a consultation, please contact Dr. Sarah Macdonald, Assistant Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Teaching at smacdo05@calpoly.edu.


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