Connecting with your students

Brown’s Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion seeks to make the university a “more fully diverse and inclusive” community. Classrooms are key sites for both improving learning through diversity and minimizing negative classroom experiences that can disproportionately affect underrepresented students (Taylor, Milem & Coleman, 2016, p. 7). Therefore, it is not surprising that in Sheridan’s work with Brown faculty, graduate students, postdocs, and departments, we are often asked a lot of questions about inclusive teaching: What do we mean by that term? Are we talking about course content, or pedagogical approaches, or something else? How can I make my classroom more inclusive even if do not have a lot of control over course content -- or if my course content doesn’t explicitly address diverse perspectives?

This newsletter series will address many of these questions, framing them with research on teaching and learning, as well as examples from Brown classrooms. This first newsletter focuses on definitions of inclusive teaching and how Brown faculty communicate them to students.

What is Inclusive Teaching?
Based on our reading of several definitions across disciplines, Sheridan considers inclusive teaching as an explicit intellectual and affective inclusion of all students into our fields and disciplines, through course content, assessment, and/or pedagogy. For example, in research about inclusive teaching, biologist Kim Tanner (2013, p. 332) describes equitable classrooms as spaces where "all students are explicitly welcomed into the intellectual discussion of biology," while Saudners and Kardia (2000, p. 21), from education, point to a focus on "helping students they construct knowledge in any field or discipline." Making your own understanding of inclusive teaching explicit to students can be useful, and some Brown faculty communicate these through syllabus statements.

"For me, an inclusive classroom environment is one that not only respects and includes the voices of all of the students in the room, but also asks the sort of questions that engage all of the students in the room." - Matt Guterl, Africana Studies and American Studies

Although creating a curriculum that incorporates diverse social and cultural perspectives is one approach to welcoming students to the discipline (see Minnich, 2005; Tuitt, 2003), other dimensions of the classroom experience are equally important, including knowing your students, assessment of student learning, and teaching methods (Marchesani and Adams, 1992; Kitano, 1997; Schreiner, Noel, Anderson, & Cantwell, 2011; Tuitt). This newsletter focuses on knowing your students, while future newsletter entries will address other dimensions separately, with examples from research and practice.

Connecting With Your Students
Many studies suggest that faculty relationships are one of the most powerful influences on a student’s academic success. As described by sociologists Chambliss and Takacs (2014, p. 155) in their study of liberal learning, these relationships “are the necessary precondition, the daily motivator, and the most valuable outcome” of a college education. Further, a study of classroom environments suggests that making connections with students had advantages for instructors because classroom incivilities are most likely to flourish in classrooms where students feel anonymous (Boice, 2000). In Boice’s study, instructors who used even small-scale approaches -- such as talking to students informally before class or requiring office hours -- observed the lowest number of incivilities.

Approaches for the start of the term:
One common approach to get to know students includes first-day surveys. In Brown faculty member Monica Linden’s class on The Amygdala (NEUR 1930N), she hands out an entry form on the first day, asking students to respond to the following questions:

  1.  Your name in Brown’s official record
  2.  Banner ID
  3.  What is your concentration?
  4.  Have you taken NEUR1020 and NEUR1030?
  5.  When do you plan to graduate?
  6.  Need for critical reading requirement?
  7.  If you don’t get into the class would you like to be on the waitlist?
  8.  Name or nickname you prefer:
  9.  How can I make the class a more comfortable environment for you? (e.g., breaks to stretch, dim light/bright lights, trigger warnings, large print on slides, anything else)
  10.  Which pronouns should I use to refer to you? (e.g., he/him, she/hers, they/theirs, something else?)
  11.  Anything else you’d like me to know?

Some faculty also ask students about material (e.g., favorite book or show) that can be used throughout the course to illustrate class content. Making course material more relevant through use of examples that come from students’ own lives can heighten motivation to learn (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Motivational interventions are another evidence-based strategy for getting to know your students. For example, one study in a large physics class asked students, on the first day and before a midterm, to write for 10-15 minutes about the values that are important to them (Miyake, et al., 2011). In this classroom, the gender achievement gap decreased by 66%. In a related study in engineering --also showing a decrease in GPA gaps in many concentrations-- first-year students read reports from seniors who worried about belonging in the field but grew more confident over time. They then were asked to write a letter to a student “like them” (Walton, et al., 2015). In both of these studies, the key objective was to motivate a sense of belonging in the fields and lessen achievement gaps. However, it is possible that instructors could dual-purpose these approaches by having students turn in their reflections, enabling instructors to learn more about their students’ values and stories.

Approaches to consider throughout the term:

It is a truism that students value when instructors learn their names, but learning a lot of names can be challenging, especially in larger courses. Further, female students in large classes report that faculty are less likely to know their names than male students (Cooper et al., 2017), and female students' contributions are less memorable to their peers, even when instructors judge their participation to be the same (Grunspan, et al., 2016). Interestingly, a recent study finds that instructors do not actually need to memorize students' names in order for the students to perceive that their names are known (Cooper et al.). Instead, the use of name tents -- such as a simple folded piece of paper that instructors would ask students to display -- helped students feel like a faculty member knew them and also helped them engage with other students during active learning exercises.

"I work to learn all of my students' names. I find that this helps me, one, create a community in the classroom, but also refer to the students and their questions in the future... I've watched students feel shy to participate. But when they see that they're not just a face in the crowd, but that I actually learn their name and use their name in lecture, they start to get more and more confidence, and can go from not talking at all the first few weeks to being someone who talks every class." - Sohini Ramachandran, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Important Considerations
While learning more about students is a key piece of inclusive teaching, it is also important to consider how this information is shared, especially in the classroom. In some cases, if asking students to share information, it is important to act on it. For example, if asking about students’ preferred gender pronouns, instructors should take care to use them (Pryor, 2015).

There are other times when the information should be shared more cautiously, if at all. For example, in discussion or lecture, it is important to avoid asking a student to speak on behalf of an identity group; rather, perspectives should be invited from all students. (One example that Fox (2004) offers is the following language for a discussion on poverty, that avoids calling on specific students: “Some of us may know poverty firsthand, some of us may have lived or worked in impoverished areas, and some of us may have absolutely no experiences of poverty to draw on….[All of] these perspectives are especially welcome.”) This consideration is particularly critical if you learn information about a student that may potentially put them at risk, such as students from the countries named in the January 2017 Executive Order on immigration. In both of these cases, instructors with inclusive teaching environments may find students volunteering information about their identities in class or in office hours. However, these examples are best driven by students.

Sheridan staff are available for consultations on inclusive course design (email: [email protected]), and upcoming Sheridan programs that address inclusive teaching can be found here.


Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Chambliss, D.F., & Takacs, C.G. (2014). How college works. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cooper, K.M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S.E. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. CBE – Life Sciences Education,16(1). Available:

Fox, H. (2004).”when race breaks out”: Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.

Grunspan, D, Eddy, S.L., Brownell, S.E., Wiggins, B., Crowe, A.J., Goodreau, S. (2016). Males under-estimate academic performance of their female peers in undergraduate biology classrooms. PLOS One 11(2). Available:

Kitano, M. (1997). What a course will look like after multicultural change. In A.I. Morey and M. Kitano, Eds. Multicultural Course Transformation in Higher Education: A Broader Truth (pp. 18-34). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Marchesani, L.S., & Adams, M. (1992). Dynamics of diversity in the teaching and learning process: A faculty development model for analysis and action. In New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 52: 9-12.

Minnich, E. (2005). Transforming knowledge (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Pryor, J.T. (2015). Out in the classroom: Transgender student experiences at a large public university. Journal of College Student Development, 56(5): 440-455.

Saunders, S., & Kardia, D. (2000). Inclusive classrooms: Part one of a two-part series. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, 10(15): 21.

Schreiner, L. A., Noel, P., Anderson, E. C., & Cantwell, L. (2011). The impact of faculty and staff on high-risk college student persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 52(3), 321–338.

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 12. Available:

Taylor, T., Milem, J.F., & Coleman, A.L. (2016, March). Bridging the research to practice gap: Achieving mission-driven diversity and inclusion goals. College Board Access & Diversity Collaborative. Available:

Tuitt, F. (2003). Afterword: Realizing a more inclusive pedagogy. In A. Howell & F. Tuitt (Eds.), Race and higher education: Rethinking pedagogy in diverse classrooms. Cambridge: Harvard Educational Review.

Walton, G.M., Logel, C., Peach, J.M., Spencer, S.J., & Zanna, M.P. (2015). Two brief interventions to mitigate a ‘chilly climate’ transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(2): 468-485.