Strategies to foster equitable and inclusive learning environments 

Several McGill instructors recently gathered to share their ideas for fostering equitable and inclusive learning environments. As co-facilitators of the gathering, we wanted to make the ideas more broadly available and perhaps inspire other instructors to adopt or adapt them. 


Before we get to the strategies, we’d like to share how the words “equity” and “inclusion” were defined. We drew from the McGill Strategic EDI Plan 2020-2025, which describes “equity” as denoting “fairness and justice in process and in results. Equitable outcomes often require differential treatment and resource redistribution to achieve a level playing field among all individuals and communities. This requires recognizing and addressing barriers to opportunities for all to thrive in our University environment” (McGill University, 2020, p. 3). Meanwhile, “inclusion” refers to “the notion of belonging, feeling welcome and valued, having a sense of citizenship. It also speaks to a capacity to engage and succeed in a given institution, program, or setting. Inclusion calls for recognizing, reducing, and removing barriers to participation created by social disadvantage or oppression, and can result in the reimagination of an institution, program, or setting” (p. 3). 

With these definitions in mind, let’s get to some of the equitable and inclusive teaching strategies instructors shared! 


Invited panelists Dr. Ananya Banerjee (Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health) and Dr. Diane Dechief (Faculty Lecturer, Science Communication Specialist, Office of Science Education) kicked off the discussion. 

Dr. Banerjee shared three strategies: 

I. Set foundations: 

  • Identify the core values of your course (e.g., fostering an equitable learning environment), and share them with your students.  
  • Invite students (in advance of the course) to share what could help them to feel a sense of belonging. Share a summary of students’ anonymized responses with the class to increase awareness and encourage collective responsibility to fostering a sense of belonging. 
  • Discuss with students what a safe learning environment looks like and how it can be fostered, taking into account their experiences and identities. 

The topic of fostering “safe” learning environments sparked lively discussion. Dr. Carolyn Samuel (TLS Associate Director) commented that trust must first be built before safety can be felt; the “safeness” of a space cannot simply be accepted because it is declared. Jennie Ferris (co-facilitator) mentioned that the terms “brave space” or “accountable space” (Ahenkoarh, 2020) are also used. Since classroom safety is a collective endeavor for which student buy-in is necessary, Dr. Laura Winer (TLS Director) suggested that an instructor could describe to students what the instructor understands “safety” in the classroom to mean. The instructor could then engage students in a discussion leading to a shared understanding and ideas for working towards a safe classroom environment. 

II. Recognize diverse lived experiences: 

  • Invite students to reflect on their positionality to help them be aware of interpersonal dynamics when working with peers, especially those with different lived realities and experiences of oppression. In Dr. Banerjee’s classroom, this reflection occurs repeatedly, including in a course-specific workshop on anti-oppression. In that workshop, students consider how concepts like power and privilege may play out in the classroom (Djulus et al., 2021), and the different roles students can play in education systems and beyond. 
  • Affirm students’ different lived experiences (e.g., gender, race, immigration status). Help students see themselves in the course material and the discipline by bringing diverse voices into the curriculum (e.g., Black feminist scholars, Indigenous scholars, queer scholars). Co-facilitator Charlene Lewis-Sutherland encouraged colleagues to consider whose ideas we learn from and build upon as we contribute to the evolution of disciplinary knowledge. Charlene noted that Dr. Maria Hwang, also at McGill, has referred to how our ideas build upon others’ ideas as “lineages of thinking.” Dr. Dechief suggested Ahmed (2017), Liboiron (2021), and McKittrick (2021) for further reading and examples of acknowledging lineages of thinking. 

III. Address history in the present:  

  • We are part of institutions that uphold certain historical practices that may not serve all learners well. Identify when certain features and practices of the educational system may reflect colonial or Eurocentric approaches. 

This last strategy resonated with other instructors who provided examples of how they incorporate diverse perspectives and re-frame historical contributions: 

  • Dr. Stephanie Weber (Associate Professor, Department of Biology) teaches about classic experiments by certain thinkers, sharing with students the names and histories of individuals who received the Nobel prize in specific areas as part of introducing students to the disciplinary canon and foundational disciplinary work. However, a brief mention of Henrietta Lacks (information here / McGill access) led to multiple students commenting appreciatively in course evaluations. Dr. Weber reflected that the students’ responses made it evident how important representation is. 
  • In an epidemiology course, Dr. Alissa Koski (Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health) was expected to introduce students to the foundations of the field, which involved addressing the field’s history. Dr. Koski used an asterisk (*) when sharing a slide to discuss a specific individual who made important contributions to scientific theories but had troubling views on colonialism. While highlighting the individual’s positive contributions to the advancement of science, she also acknowledged and critiqued their views on colonialism, giving a more complete picture of those who have contributed to the discipline. 

Dr. Dechief shared three strategies for listening closely to students: 

I. Focus on students’ names to help set a positive tone.  

  • Ask students to introduce themselves on the first day of class. This way, the first time everyone hears their name aloud it is said the way they would like others to say it. 
  • Pronounce students’ names correctly to promote student engagement and an inclusive classroom environment (Dechief, 2020). 
  • Ask students to introduce themselves to one another at the beginning of small group work. 
  • Use name memorization techniques: Use name tags or name cards for the first few classes (bonus: encourages student-to-student interactions); when a student raises their hand to say something, ask them to say their name first; memorize a few names each class and use them. 

II. Form project teams with intention: 

  • Invite students to privately share with you the names of one or two students they might like to work with. Ask if there are any students they do not want to work with (keep this confidential). Take these requests into account to the extent possible when forming teams, with particular attention to requests from students who are less represented or who are earlier on in their university experience. 
  • Support student teams via teamwork training (Chromik et al., 2020). 

III. Encourage students to provide you with feedback on their learning experience in the course. Such feedback opportunities can take place…  

  • At the start of term (see “pre-course survey” strategy): ask students what you should be aware of to support them as learners, as part of a welcome questionnaire. 
  • At mid-term: check in, posing questions that build on the previous questionnaire. Share results with students so they understand the trends. 
  • At the end of term: invite students to share how the course could be improved going forward. In subsequent courses, you can explain what changes you made based on previous feedback. 

The time together flew by, and the outpouring of strategies and discussion has led us to offer another discussion opportunity. McGill instructors are warmly invited to register and join the upcoming on-campus discussion, “Fostering equitable and inclusive learning environments: Taking action amidst uncertainty,” on October 25 from 1-2pm. 

Reflection questions 

Which of these strategies can you imagine using in your course? 

What are some of the ways that you promote an equitable, inclusive learning environment for your students? 

Image credit: Alexander Suhorucov

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