Working in academic development, I meet a lot of passionate, well-intended academics who just don’t have the time to make the changes they would like to in their courses and subjects. When such changes address equity issues, there are ethical considerations thrown in the mix too. These conversations have made me think about small ways in which we can make our higher education teaching a bit more inclusive.

Large-scale activist movements like ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ are pushing the higher education community to re-examine and critique our curricula through the lens of inclusivity. We are asking the following questions more often now than ever:

  • Where can students see themselves – their identities and histories – reflected in their curriculum?
  • What do the resources, readings, and research we teach say about whose knowledge is legitimate or not?
  • What does the design of our curriculum say about the value of students’ existing experiences and knowledges in universities?

I have written previously that oppressive curricula (e.g., patriarchal, white-dominated, ageist, or heteronormative) can be damaging for the well-being and success of both students and staff from minority backgrounds. Regarding student learning and engagement, seeing the omission of their histories from curricula can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, and marginalisation, to higher attrition rates, and to increases in inequitable sociodemographic attainment gaps. 

We know that students’ sense of belonging in higher education is absolutely critical not only to retention and satisfaction, but also to completion, academic success, and career pathways. Building belonging for diverse student cohorts is one important approach to closing those inequitable attainment gaps which reinforce societal systems of marginalisation.

Everyone also has a lot on their plates and often re-designing curricula to be more inclusive gets pushed further and further down the ever-growing list of priorities and demands placed on staff. So, what are some small steps we can take to start to increase the representativeness and diversity in our curriculum? Here are some top tips:

Watch your pronouns

Where ever you use personal pronouns when you don’t know someone’s gender identity or preferred pronouns, err on the side of caution by using them/their/they.

This might be in a situation of referring to an individual, for example, to something a student said in class: instead of saying ‘when she explained how…’ opt for ‘when they explained how…’.

You can also make sure the teaching examples you use adopt gender neutral language which are still grammatically correct but avoid reinforcing that (certain) gender binaries belong or do not belong in your discipline. For example, if you were developing a hypothetical case study for students to discuss, instead of identifying a gender for your protagonist: ‘Dr Khan was well-respected by his colleagues’, simply switch to, ‘Dr Khan was well-respected by their colleagues’.

Consider visuals

a screenshot of the google image search page for 'professor' - all of the images are of men, and mostly white men

The above image is a screenshot of the first images that came up when I googled ‘professor’. Notice any trends? What do you think these optics say to someone who aspires succeed in academia who is a woman? A person of colour? LGBTQ+? Disabled? Indigenous? The list goes on.

Statistically speaking, though, it is likely that this reflects what students see. You might not be able to change the make-up of your faculty, but you can change the images you use in public forums, carefully considering what messages they send to students.

For example, a recent open-access stock photo repository, ‘The Gender Spectrum Collection: Stock Photos Beyond the Binary’ offer a collection of stock images of people who identify as trans and non-binary. As the creators of the collection say: ‘Including transgender and non-binary people in stories not explicitly about gender identity paints a more accurate depiction of the world we live in today.’ Other similar initiatives provide stock photos across race, gender, body size, and ability.

When you put together a slide deck for a lecture or a conference, marketing material, or online content – consider using some of these images to normalise diversity and allow all your students to see themselves reflected in academic spaces.

Revise your readings

In many fields, what is considered the ‘seminal’ canon, the grandfathers of knowledge, is usually pretty white/male/straight. While readings are just one place you can start when thinking about liberating your curriculum, they do send a powerful message to students about whose knowledge is legitimate and whose voices belong in the academy.

Perhaps it is time to revisit the recommended or required readings/resources of your course and think about how historically marginalised voices are or are not included. The ground work has been done for you too, making this easy with repositories which provide advice, reading lists, frameworks, and resources like ‘Queering the Academy’, ‘Building the Anti-Racist Classroom’ and ‘Women Also Know Stuff’ – as well as others:

(Original list compiled by Women Also Know Stuff) 

Alter Activities

Changing the way students engage with you and each other can have a huge impact on their wellbeing, belonging, learning, and academic performance. Making major changes to activities to align with best practice student engagement is great – but not everyone has time or resources for this. Consider changing the in-class activities you run so that those who come into class with a lot confidence and privilege are not the only ones who participate, ask questions, or speak. For example, you could revise:

  • Think, pair, share: this is a common activity in classrooms. Instead of asking students to share their own thoughts, ask them to share good points they heard from other students. This way, someone who may not voice their own ideas may still have their ideas shared out loud.
  • Inviting questions: Instead of asking, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ (implying that some people may not), ask, ‘What questions do you all have?’ which implies that there will be questions and that is normal.
  • Question time: Try opting for written questions instead of the normal hands-up approach. Get students to write their questions throughout the class on post-it notes and collect them at the end, or on a white board during class, and then answer some of the common ones for everyone. This way everyone gets an equal opportunity to pose questions and question-asking doesn’t rely on individuals putting themselves forward in public (which comes with the attached common fear of ‘sounding stupid’).

These small changes in your activities can create a much more inviting and inclusive space for the learning and success of all students. The approaches I outline here are by no means exhaustive but hopefully they indicate that small changes are doable and can have a big impact.

For more comprehensive guides and reports on building inclusive learning spaces in higher education, have a look at:

Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education: Developing inclusive approaches

Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: a summary of findings and recommendations from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme

Inclusive Teaching in Higher Education: Practical advice for teaching staff

Creating Accessible Learning Environments

Facilitating Student Equity in Australian Higher Education

The Impact of Anti-DEI Legislation on LGBTQ+ Faculty in Higher Education

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