IncludED: A guide to inclusive teaching

This resource outlines key principles of inclusive teaching that apply across different settings and contexts. Following these principles can help to create a more inclusive learning environment where all students feel valued and that they belong.

What is inclusive education?

Inclusive education goes beyond supporting specific groups through a discrete set of policies and interventions. Instead, teaching, learning and assessment are designed and delivered taking students’ varied learning needs into account from the outset.

By doing so, it aims to improve the educational experience of all students, and so gives everyone an equal opportunity to achieve to their full academic potential.

Why does this matter?

Inclusive education is an approach that values individual differences and recognises the benefits that diverse students and staff bring to the University of Oxford. It therefore reinforces the commitments to diversity that underpin our access and admissions policies.

The University’s Access and Participation Plan highlights the gap between the academic attainment of undergraduate students overall, and those from under-represented groups – particularly impacting students from areas with low rates of participation in higher education, Black and Minority Ethnic groups, and those with disabilities.

Inclusive teaching practices contribute to students feeling that they matter and belong, and to them being:

  • able to identify and communicate their learning needs
  • motivated to learn
  • confident that they can participate, and encouraged to do so
  • clear about what they are expected to do and achieve.

Enhancing these feelings among students has been shown to decrease student awarding gaps and ensure that all students can thrive at university.

What can I do to make teaching more inclusive?

Inclusive teaching doesn’t need to be an additional burden. Small changes can make a real difference, and there are many Oxford-specific resources that already exist to support inclusive practices.

1. Find out about your students

Before we start teaching, we can start to address inclusivity by thinking about who our students are and what they need to achieve in their learning. This can help us to design teaching that is appropriate and meaningful for our students.

The level and type of information we know and can find out about our students will likely vary according to the type of teaching we're doing, as well as our role and responsibilities. For example, it would not be practical to find out detailed information about each student we are teaching in a large lecture. However, we can still consider relevant factors such as:

  • the year group of students and whether they are going through points of academic transition (eg from school to university education)
  • common reasonable adjustments that can benefit all students, particularly those with disabilities
  • whether individual students have Student Support Plans outlining required adjustments to teaching
  • the skills and knowledge that students need to build and develop during their course
  • what students may have already studied during their degree
  • how students will be assessed
  • what we want students to gain from our teaching
  • differences between students' prior knowledge
  • whether students have different disciplinary or educational backgrounds.

Information about students and their programme of study comes from various sources including TMS, course handbooks, colleges and departments. We can also find out information directly from students, for example, by encouraging them to share their academic interests, or designing activities that will help us to gauge their prior knowledge and learning.

2. Communicate with your students

What we communicate to students and how we do this impacts on their learning. This can range from practical details – such as giving students information about how and when they can contact us, or setting out how frequently we will be meeting with them – to broader issues such as the language and examples we choose to use when explaining concepts.

One of the keys to communicating with students is clarity of expectations. Students will have different expectations about how they should participate and complete work, the desirable qualities of the work produced, how they should use reading lists and other resources, and so on. By making our expectations explicit, all students will be better placed to work towards and achieve specified goals. 

As well as clarifying expectations, inclusive communication means:

  • using online tools such as Canvas as a single portal for communicating all key information about teaching and learning
  • connecting students’ learning, making it clear why students are learning something, and what else it links to in their degree
  • establishing an environment in which students are encouraged to ask questions and try out ideas
  • promoting respectful discussion, which may require clarifying appropriate language and communication, particularly when discussing sensitive topics
  • using language that is respectful of different student identities.

3. Make your teaching accessible

The term ‘accessibility’ relates to whether all people can use, participate in, or benefit from a particular resource, service or environment regardless of any disabilities or other needs. In an educational context, it refers to the removal of barriers disabled students might face in acquiring and reading teaching materials and participating in activities.

By following accessibility guidelines, using tools such as Canvas that include ‘built-in’ accessibility, and taking one or two steps to improve accessibility in our day-to-day practice, we can remove most common accessibility issues from the outset. It is good practice to follow these guidelines for all students, regardless of whether they have disclosed a disability. Doing so will:

  • benefit all students by increasing readability of material, giving them time to prepare for sessions and so better participate, as well as enabling greater autonomy in their learning
  • reduce the need for students to disclose a disability
  • support students with mild and undiagnosed Specific Learning Difficulties
  • reduce the need for tutors to retrospectively adapt teaching to meet the needs of students.

A key aspect of accessible and anticipatory practice is the provision of materials in advance, ideally online in a digital format. This is invaluable for students with accessibility requirements. However, clear guidance should be provided to all students about how we expect them to use these additional materials to avoid simply adding to their workload.

4. Diversify your teaching

Even if we're not actively reflecting on this issue, many of us diversify what we teach and how we teach it. Doing so can shape our students’ experience of learning by increasing their engagement, sense of inclusion and even attainment. It is a way of recognising and valuing the diversity of our students. When we diversify in a way that is inclusive, we don't ask students to do more work, but instead offer different ways of engaging with learning. This sometimes means swapping or replacing existing materials to create greater variety, rather than greater quantity. Use of digital tools, for example, can increase opportunities for engagement with more diverse materials and media such as texts, images and videos.

Many of us draw on diverse feedback methods, for example, recording video feedback, using peer assessment activities, and providing accessible typed comments. Sometimes we take this one step further by giving students some choice about how they receive feedback, acknowledging that this can be particularly important for some students, such as those with specific learning requirements.

Most of us give students a range of ways of demonstrating and reflecting on their learning, for example, by asking them to do writing tasks, give presentations, work on group projects, engage in debates, or contribute anonymously. This involves identifying tasks that will support students in developing the skills and knowledge that will be assessed during their degree. This can reduce the number of adjustments we have to make to assessment tasks (eg providing extra time). We might also give students a range of questions, topics or formats to choose from, allowing students to follow interests that motivate them. When we do offer choices, it is best to limit the options and provide guidance to help students make an informed decision so as to avoid overwhelming students with too many unfamiliar tasks.

Currently, many of us are thinking about ways we can recognise and promote a variety of perspectives in our teaching – for example, by showing different approaches to a question or alternative arguments, so that one single perspective does not dominate. This includes representing a range of contributors to the field, thus showing that voices from different cultures, genders, races, and backgrounds are present and valued. Some examples of these can be found in the Racially Inclusive Teaching Toolkit.

Next steps

To find out more about inclusive education, you can: