24 10 Strategies for Engaging Learners with Inclusive Teaching

10 Strategies for Engaging Learners with Inclusive Teaching

  • Author: Elizabeth Harsma

Strategy #1: Develop an Inclusive Teaching Mind-set

According to researchers Hogan and Sathy (2022) “inclusion is a culture in which all learners feel welcomed, valued, and safe” (p. 10). Creating a culture of inclusion means adopting an inclusive mind-set (Hogan & Sathy, 2022).


One way to develop an inclusive teaching mind-set is to practice questioning. For example, when making any instructional design or teaching decision, you might ask these questions:

  1. “Who might be left behind as a result of my practice?
  2. How can I invite those students in?” (Hogan& Sathy, 2022, p. 11).

This questioning practice can be applied in all disciplines to make teaching choices that support inclusion.

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A few resources to support growing an inclusive mindset:

Strategy #2: Adopt a High Structure Course Design

According to Tanner (2017), cited in Hogan and Sathy (2022), learners feel excluded when there is a lack of structure in the learning environment. Low structure learning environments may contribute to feelings of unfairness, exclusion, or cultural collisions between students’ home culture and the class culture. In contrast, high structure supports a sense of fairness, inclusion, and student success (Hogan & Sathy, 2022).

Why High Structure. According to Hogan and Sathy (2022), high structure courses:

  • Support participation of all learners,
  • Center active, collaborative, and interactive learning, and
  • Provide frequent opportunities for practice and feedback.

Characteristics of High Structure. Eddy and Hogan (2014) share 3 characteristics of a high structure course:

  • 1 or more per week: Graded preparatory activities such as a reading quiz.
  • 40% or more of class time: Student in-class engagement including audience response/polling, worksheets, case studies, etc.
  • 1 or more per week: Graded review assignments like practice problems (cited in Hogan & Sathy, 2022).

Hogan and Sathy (2022) recommend incorporating high structure characteristics into your course weekly routine and class sessions.

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Additional resources to support high structure course design:

Strategy #3: Craft an Inclusive Syllabus

Hogan & Sathy (2022) provide suggestions for crafting an inclusive syllabus, including tone/language, content, materials, evaluation, and time commitment.

Tone. An inclusive syllabus uses supportive and warm language, “I” and “we” pronouns, and invitational language.

Content. In addition to your other inclusive teaching practices, craft your own inclusive teaching statement for the syllabus. Regardless of discipline, an inclusive syllabus includes human diversity topics. Assure that content is culturally up to date. Include a diversity of scholars and perspectives in course materials, including reading, videos, etc. Consider students partners in identifying problematic content.

Materials. Clearly communicate required and optional materials, assure that purchased materials are used heavily. Consider researching low/no cost course materials for your courses.

Evaluation. Consider ways of including many low or no stakes opportunities for practice and feedback. Consider growth-mindset policies such as dropped lowest scores and less than perfect scores counting for full credit. Help students see the connection between graded items and the course learning objectives/goals or competencies.

Time Commitment. Explore ways to determine the amount of time students spend on tasks and adjust accordingly during the semester. Balance course activities with the reasonable expected time commitment for your course. Communicate the expected time commitment clearly to students.

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Strategy #4: Implement an Inclusive Course Launch

Hogan and Sathy (2022) recommend several strategies for an inclusive course launch such as:


Welcome Email. Build rapport and communicate support with a brief, welcoming email to students 1-2 weeks or several days before the course begins. Consider these ideas:

  • Share a thoughtful message that invites all students to the course,
  • Include links to complete start-up tasks such as reading the syllabus, and
  • Consider building rapport with appropriate self-disclosure. Some ideas include linking to some personal information, including a welcome video, or sharing a reflection on your experience as a student new to this field.

Pre-Course Survey. Use a survey to get to know your students, their experiences, and needs as they start the class. Consider including survey questions like:

  • Name and pronunciation of their name
  • Pronouns
  • Major/minor
  • What part of the state/country/globe are you from?
  • What do you think you will learn in this class?
  • What would make this course more meaningful or interesting to you?
  • What have instructors done in the past that has worked well for you?
  • It is important that all members of the class feel included, what does your vision of inclusivity look like? Or alternatively what does this NOT look like?
  • Another variation: On the first day, ask students to anonymously fill out a note card or online form/survey answering: “I wish my professor knew that I don’t feel included when….”

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Additional resources for a course launch:

Strategy #5: Try Inclusive First Day Strategies

Plan for first day of class activities to convey inclusion and community. Here are a few ideas shared by Hogan and Sathy (2022) for an inclusive first day:


Introduce Yourself. Bring inclusive strategies into your own introduction:

  • Don’t assume, let students know how they should address you (Dr., etc.).
  • Normalize sharing the pronunciation of your name and consider linking an audio in your email signature or course. You might invite students to do the same.
  • Model how students might introduce themselves, “Hi I’m [name] and I use [pronouns] pronouns.”
  • Share some personal information, such as your student journey to the field or passion for the topic.

Student Introductions. Practice inclusion when inviting students to introduce themselves:

  • Always invite (not require) students to share information such as pronouns if they choose, as not everyone is ready to share that information publicly.
  • When calling a student’s name, do not guess at pronunciation, ask them how to pronounce it, listen carefully, and repeat it until you get it right. Accurately pronouncing all your students’ names sends the message “you belong.”
  • Consider inviting students to use name tents with names, pronouns, phonetic spelling
  • Use a student’s name or gender-neutral terms to refer to students if you don’t remember their pronouns such as “Yes, that built on your classmate’s comment…”

Syllabus. Rather than telling students what’s in the syllabus, ask them what’s in the syllabus. Provide a brief overview of the content, then consider these kinds of activities:

  • Engage students in a syllabus scavenger hunt.
  • Students take a no-stakes syllabus quiz.
  • Put students in small groups to discuss the content of the syllabus with prompts like “find one topic of interest that everyone in the group can agree on and share why.”
  • Use an online discussion that prompts students to ask and answer questions about the syllabus content.

Strategy #6: Send Inclusive Emails

Hogan and Sathy (2022) offer some suggestions for inclusive emails:


Inclusive Email Signature. Signal inclusion in your email signature with ideas like:

  • Include your pronouns
  • Add a link to “how to pronounce my name” audio
  • Share a quote that represents your values
  • Link to helpful resources
  • Schedule of office hours
  • A link to a calendar to set up a meeting, among other options.

Welcoming Language. Use warm language that communicates a “relentless welcome” (p. 179):

  • Use students’ names in the email with correct spelling, accents, etc.
  • Avoid language that could shame a student, examples of potentially shaming language: “it’s in the syllabus” or “as I said in class.”
  • Closing with a friendly “Best” or “Thanks for reaching out.”

Reach Out. Demonstrate you are a partner in learning by reaching out to individual students:

  • Email to offer help and support to struggling students.
  • Send a note to congratulate a student on learning progress or improvement.
  • In larger courses, consider sending messages to groups of students with similar personalized messages.

Learn more

Some resources to support inclusive communication:

Strategy #7: Create Inclusive Office Hours

Hogan and Sathy (2022) offer various strategies for creating inclusive office hours.


Foster welcoming and approachable hours:

  • Do not assume students know what office hours are for. Explain to students what office hours are for, why they should attend, and remind and invite them multiple times.
  • Design your office space to be welcoming, warm, and approachable. Walk into your office and consider how a new student might feel.
  • Consider adding personal photos, art, etc. to balance formality.
  • Have snacks and tissues available.
  • Avoid placing a monitor or other obstacle between you and a student.
  • Place a clock strategically to keep time during sessions and avoid looking at your watch or laptop.

Offer multiple ways to engage:

  • Offer the option for students to attend individually or in pairs/groups.
  • Allow students to schedule a session during established hours.
  • Provide opportunity to schedule a meeting flexibly.
  • If feasible, consider requiring mini-conferences once or twice a semester or assigning students to attend an office hour as part of their grade.
  • Consider ways to offer office hours in a location convenient and comfortable to students, for example consider in person and online options, hosting hours in a library, student union, or other location that may diffuse the power dynamic.

Prepare for tutoring and conversations:

    • Intelligent
    • Nurturant
    • Socratic
    • Progressive
    • Indirect
    • Reflective
    • Encouraging
  • Establish strategies for relationship building and putting the student at ease, for example, creating a list of conversation starters such as:
    • “Where’s home for you?
    • What kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?
    • What was one of your favorite courses last semester/in high school and why?
    • How did you decide to come to [insert school name]?
    • What are you considering as your major? (Occasionally, if the student seems open to it, you can ask about goals or plans after college, but this can be an unnerving start for some students.)” (Hogan & Sathy, 2022, p. 171).

Learn more

Some additional resources to explore inclusive office hours:

Strategy #8: Foster Active Learning

In their book “Inclusive Teaching,” Hogan and Sathy (2022) recommend that 40% or more of time in each class session or online module should be dedicated to student engagement and active learning.

For example, create opportunities for active learning by peppering lectures with polls, no-stakes quizzes questions, or small group or paired discussion activities. When asking students to discuss answers, ask them to provide rationale for their selections to prompt critical thinking.

Learn more

Browse these resources to learn more:

Strategy #9: Facilitate Inclusive Discussions

Hogan and Sathy (2022) share various ideas for supporting inclusive discussions. They share the following questions to support inclusive facilitation:

  • “Do you have a plan?
  • Do you have rules to help others stick to the plan?
  • How will you keep time?
  • Are you willing to adjust the plan?
  • Do you have accessible and clear instructions?
  • Have you considered the physical space?” (Hogan & Sathy, 2022, p. 120-121)
Here we share a few strategies that help answer these questions:


Address microaggressions. Learn to recognize and address microaggressions. Help students learn about, recognize, and address microaggressions as well.


Rules of Engagement. Create structure by sharing or co-creating rules for participation. Establish what is expected and what is to be avoided. Establish accountability by having students discuss and propose how the class and instructor will handle situations where the rules are not followed. For example, if someone intentionally or unintentionally does not follow the rules, others can pause the conversation and remind them of the ground rules.


Timing. Clearly establish how much time groups will have together and provide suggestions for how to assure everyone participates, for example: In groups of 3, you will have 10 minutes total, each member will have 2 minutes to share their thoughts, then you’ll have 4 minutes as a group to decide on your group response. Have a plan to re-group, for example, give 1 minute countdown, ring a bell, or clap your hands 3 times to bring attention back to the whole group.


Groups and roles. Help students form groups to assure all students are included, consider purposefully assigning roles such as:

  • Leader: Gets things started, assures others are engaging in their roles,
  • Timekeeper: Helps makes sure the group is on time and everyone gets a turn,
  • Moderator: Assures group stays on topic/task, and/or
  • Reporter: Shares group thoughts with the whole class.
  • Be sure to rotate roles to assure all students get the opportunity to lead group discussions.

Clear Instructions. Offer instructions in multiple and accessible formats, for example out loud and in writing. If students are repeatedly confused about a prompt, consider revising!

Be Flexible. Structure is important, but also be ready to adjust if the discussion is really engaged and robust.

Learn more

Some resource with even more ideas for inclusive classroom environments:

Strategy #10: Deliver Inclusive Exams

Hogan and Sathy (2022) share many strategies for inclusive assessment, this section focuses specifically on some of their recommendations for inclusive exams.


Offer practice. Offer plenty of low and no-stakes practices that align with summative exams, so the questions and topics are not a surprise to students.  Consider these factors:

  • Level of cognition. Do practices use exam-level questions? Do questions go beyond recall and ask students to apply, analyze, evaluate, etc.?
  • Question format. Do practices use the same question types as exams?  For example, if the exam has essay questions, do the practices also include essay questions?
  • Length and duration. Are there practice opportunities of similar length and duration of the exam?
Provide exam descriptions. Support transparency and structure by sharing exam descriptions before the exam, when possible. Consider information such as:
  • Format and length of the exam, including the number (how many questions) and format (multiple choice, essay, etc.) of questions.
  • Clarify the exam conditions, when/if students can use outside materials or collaborate with others, if testing software will be used, and if there are enforced or unenforced time limits.
  • Include information about scoring and evaluation methods such as how many total points, checklists/rubrics, etc.
  • Communicate support of student success and shared responsibility, for example, “These exams tell us as much about how well I have taught as they will tell you about what you have learned” (Hogan & Sathy,  p. 182).
In-class exams. Consider some of these ideas for inclusive in-person exams.
  • Start class with an activity to put students at ease or helps students encourage each other before the exam, such as a brief poll or pair chat, a fun video, or motivational playlist.
  • Provide instructions about what students can use as resources during the exam and what should be put away, as well as how to request leaving the room during an exam, such as for a bathroom break.
  • Post a countdown timer for the exam period and post in the moment clarifications for everyone to see.
  • Consider bringing supplies that students may need, such as extra pencils, sharpener, cough drops, tissues.

After the exam. Consider ways to incorporate inclusive evaluation, grading, and feedback practices such as:

  • You might incorporate policies that allow for an occasional bad day or mistake such as dropped lowest scores, resubmissions, option to replace one midterm exam score with the final exam score if they performed better, etc.
  • Grade items anonymously with names withheld.
  • Develop and use evaluation rubrics.
  • Provide positive, growth-minded tone in feedback that conveys high standards and belief in the students ability to meet those standards.
  • Develop policies to handle questions that most students answer incorrectly, such as drop or give back points.
  • Discuss results with students such as a distribution of scores and use the conversation to foster growth mindset.
  • Consider ways to offer revisions and feedback including self, peer, and instructor assessment.
  • Explore ways to use technology tools/features to help provide feedback.
  • Contact individual students to invite them to meet with you or join an office hours or congratulate students who did well.
  • In a shared document, invite students to share tips for what worked when preparing for the exam.
  • Offer metacognitive wrappers to support students improve their learning strategies.
Even more strategies. Here are a few more strategies for inclusive exams:
  • Consider flexibility in how exams are delivered, can they be online or asynchronous, for example, a take home exam? Can students take an exam during a range of dates?
  • Explore incorporating non-traditional approaches, like the 2-stage exam:
    • 1st attempt is done individually,
    • 2nd attempt students collaborate in groups,
    • Averaging or weighting the scores can provide accountability for both attempts.
  • Offer opportunities for students to explain exam items that are unclear to them, asking something like “Did any questions seem ambiguous to you and why?” (Hogan & Sathy, 2023, p. 180)
  • Remove jargon and bias in writing and find ways to embrace diversity in questions, including a diversity of names and scholars. Find ways to use humor (such as GIFs or memes) to help reduce anxiety.
  • Avoid “All of the above/None of the above” response options. These response options penalize weaker test-takers who know the content but are challenged to demonstrate that learning due to the response set.

Learn more

Some resource with even more ideas for inclusive exams/assessments:



Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom (First edition.). West Virginia University Press. Read this book online with Minnesota State University, Mankato Library access.



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