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Center for Faculty Development

Crafting an Inclusive and Equitable Environment

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Students are diverse. They are neurodiverse. Some may experience disabilities. Some are first-time college students. Others are coming back to school as part of a career change or after serving in the military. Students carry a wealth of knowledge from previous life experiences. An inclusive environment is about creating a welcoming environment for all and continuing to build community. This is especially salient considering that some historically marginalized groups are featured less often in textbooks and research. Creating an inclusive environment is about ensuring all get an equitable education.

Classroom Strategies

Consider Student Life Experiences as an Asset

Students, especially those from marginalized or stigmatized groups, can be hesitant to participate in class. By treating students’ life experiences and backgrounds (such as those whose first language is not English) as an asset, professors build their confidence. Asset-based pedagogies or culturally sustaining pedagogies stand in contrast to deficit-based ones. In other words, rather than view students as lacking knowledge or as having a deficit, view their experiences and diverse backgrounds as a resource. Why might this matter? People who identify as having deficits have been shown to have lower self-esteem and place blame upon themselves. Teachers’ expectations of students can affect student outcomes. Having a critical awareness, or “understanding of the sociohistorical influences on traditional marginalized students’ trajectories” can affect teacher expectations and their behaviors in the classroom (Lopez 2017: 193).


  • Create assignments where students utilize pre-existing knowledge.

Example from a Sociology 101 Course: Culture in Pictures Discussion Board Assignment

We often walk around treating our culture as the “norm.” For example, I never thought much about the way in which people tend to walk on the right side of paths until I visited Tokyo. There I saw signs where people were instructed to walk on the left side when moving through public transportation areas. In Scotland, I had to drive on the left side of the road. In Tokyo I also observed a different more traditional toilet design (see picture below).

Sociology Discussion BoardTherefore, on this board, think more closely about the culture that surrounds you. 1) First, take and post a picture of something that embodies that culture or subculture. For example, I grew up in Miami where Cuban coffee and maté (traditional Argentinian drink) are popular. I could take a picture of one of these. Don’t take any pictures of criminal activity. Take the picture yourself specifically for this assignment and do not take it off the Internet. Don’t take any pictures that include people without their permission unless you are in an area open to the general public. 2) Write a post discussing the picture and how it illustrates culture. You can even reflect on whether your thoughts on the issue conveyed in the picture have ever been ethnocentric. Feel free to discuss your personal experiences. Be careful not to overgeneralize (e.g. just because your grandma had a garden and liked to fry tomatoes does not mean everyone in the culture had that same experience). Make sure to explain relevant class concepts and cite appropriately.

If you do not feel like writing about the picture, alternatively you can post a video of yourself talking about the picture. You must still reference and explain class concepts though.

  • Incorporate materials that relate to student experiences.

Example from Dr. Michelle McLeese’s Environmental Sociology Course

Two of the texts I chose specifically because of their tie to issues or matters that our students deal with especially in this region of the country (e.g., cancer alley,  Hurricane Katrina, etc.,). Dorceta Taylor's "Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility" is often one that students appreciate for its specific focus on the intersections of race and income. Mary Robinson's "Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future" showcases narratives of people from around the world grappling with the effects of climate change but with a particular focus on the impacts on vulnerable populations (especially women and indigenous peoples). One chapter features a Mississippi resident who survived Katrina and worked to raise awareness and help in the aftermath of Katrina. I then weave the readings into reflection papers on documentaries that showcase/feature important issues around environmental pollution and climate change.

  • Give students the tools to help them answer their own research questions or engage in their own creative enterprises.
  • Create dialogue circles.

Dialogue provides a chance for students to share diverse perspectives and even resolve conflicts. Some dialogue circles are based on Freire’s dialogical action. These circles should have a focus and provide an opportunity for students to learn from each other, as well as for the instructor and students to learn from each other. Students are understood to make new meanings out of their prior understanding of the world, i.e. cultural intelligence.

  • Use culturally relevant examples and datasets

Use datasets, for example in math, that deal with topics of relevance to students’ lives. Incorporate diverse examples in your lectures. Utilize pictures that reflect the life experiences of students.

 Things to Avoid

  • Avoid calling out certain experiences/backgrounds as deficits that must be managed/reduced
  • Avoid calling on people of a particular group to represent their whole group/race (i.e., asking a Latino person about their perspective in order to understand what Latinos think)
  • Avoid making jokes that trivialize a group, such as joking about being “so OCD” about something. Researchers fear that trivialization can have negative effects, for example reducing help-seeking in people with mental illnesses.

Utilize Critical Inquiry and Conflict in the Classroom

While some educators fear using conflict in the classroom due to fear of potentially negative outcomes, promoting intellectual conflict has been shown to have beneficial outcomes in the classroom.

Example: Constructive Controversy

Constructive controversies occur where people hold incompatible information, views, and opinions—and desire to find a way to agree and move forward.

For instance, this approach might involve the following steps:

  • Break students into groups of four, and divide each of these into two pairs
  • Assign each pair to an opposing viewpoint on the controversy/social issue. Each pair researches the topic, organizes the information, and makes a persuasive argument to the other side.
  • Students then openly discuss the issue.
  • Each pair then reverses perspective and constructs a case for the opposing position of the controversy.
  • Students then all discuss the issue, dropping any particular position, and strive for consensus on a unique joint perspective.

Caveat: Research indicates that applying these processes works well in face-to-face synchronous settings. Steps likely need to be tweaked for online environments. One alternative proposed by Hémon et al. (2022) is to have instructions on screen as groups engage in the collaborative task. 

Destigmatize the Classroom and Incorporate Flexibility

“Everyone is normal, and everyone has a disability.” (Almog, quoting a student who is legally blind).

Colleges in the U.S. have reported more students with mental health disabilities. University students may experience higher rates of depression compared to the general population. People with mental disorders can face trivialization of their experiences as well as negative judgement and stigma. Students with disabilities can spend more time on assignments and sometimes work harder than other students to manage. Students with disabilities report greater dissatisfaction and graduate at lower rates than peers without disabilities.

In higher education, sometimes we assume a framework where having a disability or mental impairment is outside of the norm. When students experience such, they can request help in the form of accommodations. However, many students experience abilities and mental health problems and do not report these. They may worry about stigma. Others may experience issues that are below the threshold for meeting an official diagnosis. Therefore, one approach you may take is to try to create a more flexible learning environment for all students.

Universal Design of Learning (UDL) is one approach used by educators to address some of these issues. UDL principles involve flexibility in the distribution of information and demonstration of accomplishments, as well as a reduction in barriers to instruction without lowering expectations. UDL is based on universal design principles for the environment as well as research in neuroscience on how people learn.        


  • Incorporate drop grades: Incorporating drop grades allow students to have challenging days and miss an assignment without notifying anyone of their health status.
  • Consider mental health on a continuum: Studies have found that continuum beliefs —or the perspective that the symptoms people with mental disorders experience are similar to what others face, though they may experience these symptoms more severely or longer-lasting— may increase social acceptance and foster more positive emotional reactions. Such a continuum puts mental health and mental illness on one continuum, not treating mental illness as a distinct category.
  • Utilize diverse formats: Traditional instructional lectures can challenge students with varying abilities to focus; providing instruction in diverse formats can be helpful (i.e., not just written but possibly a podcast). Perhaps allow students to design their own papers or projects. Providing instruction and assessing students through multiple formats can hone skills and minimize alienation.
  • Rework and resubmit: Allowing students the opportunity to rework assignments at home has been shown to minimize their anxiety.
  • Keep up with the language surrounding identities and social movements: This will help foster destigmatization and convey inclusion and visibility of these identities
  • Make the most of online environments: online environments can help students manage disability needs, have more control over the learning environment, and lessen stigma.
  • Access: Make sure your classroom materials are accessible to students with disabilities. Canvas provides tools to check the accessibility of your materials.
  • Resources: Help students access university resources.
    • Make sure they are aware of:
    • With respect to gender, here is a list of the location of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus:
      • Honor House (2 each on first and second floor)
      • Johnson Science Tower (first floor)
      • Kennard-Washington Hall (first floor)
      • Payne Center (natatorium)
      • Hickman Hall (2nd floor)
      • C. Cook Union (outside of Student Activities Hub- 109B)
      • Forrest County Hall (room 101D)
      • Thad Cochran Center (221, 222)
  • Permission: Ask for permission from students before touching them in movement centered classes.
  • Language: This website provides information on how faculty and students are identified on campus and how to make changes to their legal and preferred names.

Set Expectations/Build Community 

It is important to set expectations, establish rapport at the start of the semester, and continue to build community as the semester progresses.  


  • Create a statement on classroom environment and norms. Ask the students to read it and add their own elements.


Learning is an interactive experience, and I expect everyone to participate actively as much as they can. Everyone will not always agree, but the classroom environment must remain one of respect. We will be covering some sensitive topics so if you ever feel uncomfortable discussing a particular topic for any reason, please let me know and we will work out alternative arrangements. If you do not follow this policy, your grade maybe be negatively impacted. Note that the University of Southern Mississippi offers to all people equal access to educational, programmatic and employment opportunities without regard to age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy, gender identity, genetic information, religion, race, color, national origin, and/or veteran status pursuant to applicable state and federal law.

  • Humanize yourself as an instructor by making opportunities for students to know you. You could require at least one meeting between yourself and students. Try to get to know your students’ names. Be transparent in sharing some of your own struggles and expectations. Ask for student feedback on classroom materials like books, and assignments like projects. Perhaps invite students to your office for informal coffee chats. You could even invite students who are having a tough time and want to be in the company of others to eat lunch in your office with you. Certified in Mental Health First Aid, Dr. Jess Valles explains her role to students, reminds them weekly that she is a safe space for students, and discusses how she can serve as their first line of defense in a mental health crisis.
  • Focus students on the positive.

Example from Dr. Jess Valles

Pre-lecture check-ins and "Big Wins": at the beginning of each class, we go over housekeeping items, reminders about deadlines and something called a "Big Win" where I ask students to share their "win" or good thing that has happened to them that day/week. They can be as "big" as a new job or an award or as "little" as being able to fill up their gas tank that day or getting out of bed and making it to class on time.

  • End-of lecture check-in and "I GOT THIS!": At the beginning of the semester, I introduce students to a tradition I have that came about as the result of research regarding negative self-talk. I explain that throughout our day, when someone asks how we are doing, we almost always respond with negativity - "I'm so tired/stressed/etc." And that if I can break up that negative thought train for at least .5 seconds, once a week, I will. So, at the end of each lecture, I say "I don't know what you've got going on outside of here, but not matter what..." and students must yell, with passion and gusto, "I GOT THIS!" -- many admit to its cheesy nature, but enjoy it nonetheless.
  • Use a get to know you survey.


Experiences and Issues Related to Impairment and Disability in the Classroom

Almog, N. 2018. “‘Everyone Is Normal, and Everyone Has a Disability’: Narratives of

University Students with Visual Impairment.” Social Inclusion 6: 218-229.

Banks, J. 2019. “Faculty Perceptions of Postsecondary Students with Disabilities at a Historically Black University.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 12: 297-306.

Beyene, W. M. 2019. “Towards Inclusive and Adaptable Information Services in Digital Library Environments.” PhD dissertation, Oslo Metropolitan University.

Crawford, N., S. Kift, and L. Jarvis. 2020. “Supporting Student Mental Wellbeing in Enabling Education.” In Transitioning Students into Higher Education: Philosophy, Pedagogy, and Practice, edited by A. Jones, A. Olds, and J.G. Lisciandro. New York: Routledge.

Grimes, S., E. Southgate, J. Scevak, and R. Buchanan. 2019. “Learning Impacts Reported by Students Living with Learning Disabilities.” Studies in Higher Education.

Kutscher, E.L. and E.D. Tuckwiller. 2019. “Persistence in Higher Education for Students with Disabilities: A Mixed Systematic Review.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 12: 136-155.

Moriña, A. and I. Orozco. 2020. “Spanish Faculty Members Speak Out: Barriers and Aids for Students with Disabilities at University.” Disability & Society.

Newman, L.A., J.W. Madaus, A.R. Lalor, and H.S. Javitz. 2020. “Effect of Accessing Supports on Higher Education Persistence of Students with Disabilities.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Nguyen, T. T.H. and M. Walker. 2014. “Sustainable Assessment for Lifelong Learning.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 41: 97-111.

Smith, S.A., E. Woodhead, and C. Chin-Newman. 2019. “Disclosing Accommodation Needs: Exploring Experiences of Higher Education Students with Disabilities.” International Journal of Inclusive Education.

Verdinelli, S. and D. Kutner. 2016. “Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students with Disabilities.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 9: 353-368.


Critical Pedagogy, Inclusion, and Universal Design

Corcoran, Roisin, Alan C.K. Cheung, Elizabeth Kim, and Chen Xie. 2018. “Effective Universal School-Based

Social and Emotional Learning Programs for Improving Academic Achievement: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 50 Years of Research.” Educational Review Research 25: 56-72.

Dalton, E.M., M. Lyner-Cleophas, B. T. Ferguson, and J. McKenzie. 2019. “Inclusion, Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education: South Africa and the United States.” African Journal of Disability 8.

Freire, Paulo. 2018. Pedagogy of the Oppressed 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Lesser, Lawrence M. and Sally Blake. 2007. “Mathematical Power: Exploring Critical Pedagogy in Mathematics and Statistics.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 5.

Lopez, Francesca A. 2017. “Altering the Trajectory of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Asset-Based Pedagogy and Classroom Dynamics.” Journal of Teacher Education 68: 193-212.

Maclure, Liam. 2023. “Augmentations to the Asset-Based Community Development Model to Target Power Systems.” Community Development 54: 4-17.

Meyer, A., D.H. Rose, and D. Gordon. 2014. Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield: CAST Professional Publishing. 

Scott, S.S., J.M. McGuire, and T.E. Foley. 2003. “Universal Design for Instruction: A Framework for Anticipating and Responding to Disability and Other Diverse Learning Needs in the College Classroom.” Equity & Excellence in Education 1: 40-49.

Souma, A. and D. Casey. 2017. “The Benefits of Universal Design for Students with Psychological Disabilities.” In Universal Design in Higher Education, 2nd ed, edited by S.E. Burgstahler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 


Constructive Conflict

Hémon, Brivael, Anthony Cherbonnier, Estelle Michinov, Eric Jamet, and Nicolas Michinov. 2022. “When Instructions Based on Constructive Controversy Boost Synergy in Online Groups.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, DOI: 10.1080/10447318.2022.2132028

Johnson, David W. and Roger T. Johnson. 2009. “Energizing Learning: The Instructional Power of Conflict.” Educational Research 38:37-51.

Saltarelli, Andy J. and Cary J. Roseth. 2014. “Effects of Synchronicity and Belongingness on Face-to-Face and Computer-Mediated Constructive Controversy.” Journal of Educational Psychology 106: 946-960.


Mental Illness, Stigma, Trivialization, and Community

Fennell, D. 2022. The World of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Experiences of Living with OCD. New York: NYU Press.

Karp, D.A. 1997. Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Link, B.G., E.L. Struening, S. Neese-Todd, S. Asmussen, and J.C. Phelan. 2001. “Stigma as a Barrier to Recovery: The Consequences of Stigma for the Self-Esteem of People with Mental Illnesses.” Psychiatric Services 52(12): 1621–26.

Pavelko, R. and J.G. Myrick. 2016. "Tweeting and Trivializing: How the Trivialization of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder via Social Media Impacts User Perceptions, Emotions, and Behaviors." Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research and Clinical Practice 36:41-63.

Pescosolido, B.A., T.R. Medina, J.K. Martin, and J.S. Long. 2013. “The ‘Backbone’ of Stigma: Identifying the Global Core of Public Prejudice Associated with Mental Illness.” American Journal of Public Health 10: 853-860.

Schomerus, G., M.C. Angermeyer, S.E. Baumeister, S. Stolzenburg, B.G. Link, and J.C. Phelan. 2016. “An Online Intervention Using Information On The Mental Health-Mental Illness Continuum To Reduce Stigma.”  European Psychiatry 32: 21-27.

Subramaniam, M., E. Abdin, L. Picco, S. Shahwan, A. Jeyagurunathan, J.A. Vaingankar, and S.A. Chong. 2017. “Continuum Beliefs and Stigmatizing Beliefs About Mental Illness: Results From an Asian Community Survey.” BMJ Open.

Thibodeau, R., L.N. Shanks, and B.P. Smith. 2017. “Do Continuum Beliefs Reduce Schizophrenia Stigma? Effects of a Laboratory Intervention on Behavioral and Self-Reported Stigma.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 58: 29-35.


Shifts in Prevalence of Mental Disorders Vary by Context

Baxter, A.J., K.M. Scott, A.J. Ferrari, R.E. Norman, T. Vos, and H.A. Whiteford. 2014. “Challenging The Myth of an ‘Epidemic’ Of Common Mental Disorders: Trends in The Global Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Between 1990 and 2010.” Depression and Anxiety 31: 506-516.

Booth, R., D. Sharma, and T. Leader. 2015. “The Age of Anxiety? It Depends Where You Look: Changes in STAI Trait Anxiety, 1970-2010.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 51: 193-20.

Ibrahim, A.K., S.J. Kelly, C.E. Adams, and C. Glazebrook. 2013. “A Systematic Review of Studies of Depression Prevalence in University Students.”  Journal of Psychiatric Research 47: 391-400.

Schürmann, J. and J. Margraf. 2018. “Age of Anxiety and Depression Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of Two European Community Samples (1964-2015).” International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology 18: 102-112.

Twenge, J.M. 2000. “Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79: 1007-1021.

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