Resources and Strategies for Creating More Inclusive Teaching-Learning Spaces

written by admin on January 11, 2021 in CEL Review and Diversity and Inclusion and Engaged Learning with no comments

by Andrea N. Hunt

The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning (2017) at Brown University defines inclusive teaching as “an explicit intellectual and affective inclusion of all students into our fields and disciplines, through course content, assessment, and/or pedagogy.” This definition was developed based on an overview of the literature on diversity, equity, and inclusion across disciplines. Inclusive teaching involves intentionality in how we teach and an acknowledgement that identities and systemic inequalities shape our teaching and learning. While efforts around inclusive teaching have been around for decades yielding a number of meaningful publications and resources, the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others have reignited attention on systemic inequalities. For educators, this means an interrogation of what happens in our teaching and learning spaces.

Kathryn Oleson’s (2021) recent monograph Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education adds to the existing literature on inclusive teaching by taking a social-psychological approach grounded in empirical evidence from multiple disciplines. Oleson focuses on four areas – instructors, students, context and content, and class dynamics. Each chapter has accompanying downloadable resources that are a good place to start for examining and reconceptualizing your course to support inclusive teaching. In the preface, Oleson identifies Lewin’s (1946) psychological field theory as the foundation for her work. The basic premise is that behavior is best understood through the interdependence of the person and their environment. In Chapter 1, Oleson focuses on instructors and discusses the research on the development of the self, intersectionality, the relevance of personal and social identities in the classroom, and strategies for mitigating the influence of bias in the classroom. Chapter 2 shifts to students and uses self-determination theory (see Ryan and Deci 2000) to understand students’ psychological needs, expectations in the classroom, personal and social identities, doubts related to academic abilities (e.g., imposter syndrome) and belonging, and strategies for mitigating students’ worries and concerns about their learning. Both chapters pay particular attention to implicit biases and stereotype threat in higher education.

Oleson (2021) returns to Lewin’s (1946) psychological field theory in Chapter 3 to highlight the importance of learning spaces (both physical and symbolic) and universal design (see CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Guidelines). Examples of course redesign are provided using the universal design principles of engagement, representation, and action/expression. This chapter also addresses ways to be more inclusive with course content and methods of instruction such as collaborative learning. Chapters 4 and 5 describe different types of classroom dynamics beginning with a discussion of Billson’s (1986) research of the classroom as a small group with norms and processes. Chapter 4 also describes the pedagogy of discomfort and the debate around safe spaces and brave spaces, with a brief overview of Verduzco-Baker’s (2018) modified brace space. Chapter 5 explores how microaggressions operate in the classroom with specific examples of how different groups might be affected and the impact this may have on teaching and learning.

Oleson provides an impressive body of work with Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education and includes resources to guide instructors along in their practice towards more inclusive teaching. The monograph serves as a broad framework for course design and redesign. At times, the examples are too broad and do not dig deep enough into specific areas such as race or are too focused on disciplines where issues of diversity are a part of the course content at the expense of strategies to decolonize STEM fields. Nevertheless, there are numerous areas of insight that are worth highlighting in more detail, such as Oleson’s use of Dweck’s (2006) growth mindset for understanding biases and the distinction between trigger warnings and content forecasts. Both of these areas are vital in facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom.

Using the Growth Mindset for Understanding Biases

In Chapter 1, Oleson examines explicit and implicit biases of faculty members and suggests that they approach this work with a growth mindset. Dweck (2006) refers to a growth mindset as based on the belief that an individual’s basic qualities can be changed through learning, application, and experience. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset where qualities are seen as stagnant and unchanging. Oleson argues that the growth mindset allows faculty to develop knowledge about their own biases and how their biases operate and affect their classroom practices. Further, the notion of a growth mindset can also be used as a tool for approaching and navigating difficult conversations in the classroom. This is consistent with the current focus on cultural humility, which suggests that change is a lifelong process of learning that includes self-examination and refinement of one’s own awareness, knowledge, behavior and attitudes on the interplay of power, privilege, and social contexts (Tervalon and Murray-Garcia 1998).

There has been much attention on the differences between cultural competency and cultural humility. Cultural competency has been used in practice-based settings to increase knowledge and skills to improve one’s ability to effectively interact with different cultural groups. Kumas-Tan, Beagan, Loppie, MacLeod, and Frank (2007) found that instruments often used to measure cultural competency framed culture as synonymous with the ethnic or racialized Other with whiteness as the norm. When cultural competency is the framework, the goal is to learn about differences, often of minoritized or marginalized group identities and group boundaries (Yeager and Bauer-Wu 2013). In contrast, cultural humility extends learning about others to also a focus on the self. Greene-Moton and Minkler (2020) suggest that it is time to move beyond juxtaposing the two concepts and recognize the need to learn more about identities and communities of all types along with the lifelong embodied practice of deep cultural humility. Oleson strives to do this throughout her work.

Trigger Warnings and Content Forecasts

Oleson’s discussion of the pedagogy of discomfort was one of the most interesting parts of her work, which Zembylas (2015) describes as the idea that discomforting feelings are valuable in challenging dominant beliefs and practices that maintain social inequities. Essentially, we need vulnerability and discomfort to learn. Of central concern is making sure that the discomfort is intended to create transformative learning. Oleson summarizes the literature on safe spaces and brave spaces, and suggests that safe spaces may actually create an environment where students do not want to feel discomfort. Verduzco-Baker (2018) conceptualizes the modified brave space where faculty integrate personal experiences of oppression into the curriculum from others not in the class to take the burden off of minoritized students who often experience microaggressions during class discussions or are tokenized. The practice of calling in rather than calling out and modeling what being brave looks like if called in are also central to a modified brave space.

Oleson also reviews literature that suggests traditional trigger warnings are not effective and can actually increase student anxiety. In contrast, she suggests using content forecasts (Stringer 2016) as a way to forewarn students about sensitive material which in some disciplines pertains to material that is essential in preparing students for emotionally difficult careers. Oleson’s discussion here could have been strengthened by including a short section on trauma-informed pedagogy. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2014) defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physi­cally or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the in­dividual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Mays Imad’s (2020) work is foundational for an understanding of trauma-informed pedagogy. She suggests that educators need to consider how trauma shapes student experiences in the classroom and overall well-being, and offers some suggestions that are in line with inclusive teaching practices. These include transparency through connection and communication, promoting collaboration, empowering students, and using an intersectional lens. These are all consistent with the practices that Oleson describes in her monograph. Oleson’s work along with trauma-informed pedagogy provides a fuller framework to understand that trauma results from marginalization and oppression (both first-hand and secondary experiences), how it affects students’ learning, and ways to create classroom environments that are truly inclusive.


Billson, Janet Mancini. 1986. “The College Classroom as a Small Group: Some Implications for Teachign and Learning.” Teaching Sociology 14(3): 143-151.

CAST. 2018. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from

Dweck, Carol. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

Greene-Moton, Ella, and Meredith Minkler. 2020. “Cultural Competence or Cultural Humility? Moving Beyond the Debate.” Health Promotion Practice 21(1): 142-145.

Imad, Mays. 2020. “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now.” Inside Higher Ed.

Kumaş-Tan, Zofia, Brenda Beagan, Charlotte Loppie, Anna MacLeod, and Blye Frank. 2007. “Measures of Cultural Competence: Examining Hidden Assumptions.” Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges  82(6): 548-557.

Lewin, Kurt. 1946. “Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total Situation.” In Field Theory in Social Sciences: Selected Theoretical Papers by Kurt Lewin, edited by D. Cartwright, 238-303. Harper & Row.

Oleson, Kathryn C. 2020. Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education. Stylus.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. 2000. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” The American Psychologist 55(1):68-78.

Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration. 2014. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Tervalon, Melanie, and Jann Murray-Garcia. 1998. “Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education.” Journal of Health Care to the poor and Underserved 9(2): 117-125.

The Harriet Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. 2017. “Connecting with Your Students.” Brown University.

Verduzco-Baker, Lynn. 2018. “Modified Brave Spaces: Calling in Brave Instructors.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 4(4): 585-592. 

Yaeger, Katherine A., and Susan Bauer-Wu. 2013. “Cultural Humility: Essential Foundation for Clinical Researchers.” Applied Nursing Research 26(4): 251-256.

Zemblays, Michalinos. 2015. “Pedagogy of Discomfort and its Ethical Implications: The Tensions of Ethical Violence in Social Justice Education.” Ethics and Education 10(2): 163-174.


Dr. Andrea Hunt is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the Mitchell-West Center for Social Inclusion at the University of North Alabama. She was a member of the 2014-2016 research seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research through Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning.

How to cite this CEL Review:

Hunt, Andrea. 2021, January 11. “Resources and Strategies for Creating More Inclusive Teaching-Learning Spaces.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog).