Using Structure for Inclusive Teaching

Inclusive, equity-minded teaching is for all faculty, not just those who teach course content explicitly related to diversity or equity.

Our students come to us with different knowledge, educational experiences, backgrounds, and skills. Some of them come with advantages, and some are going to find our course content more challenging due to factors beyond their control, such as the high school preparation they had or having college-savvy family members. These differences can prove challenging for instructors—because we want to provide our students with equal opportunities (not simply replicate existing societal inequalities). Inclusive instructors want every student who works hard and in the right direction to have a good chance to learn and succeed.

“Structure” might not be the first thing we think about in creating an inclusive classroom, but recent hope-instilling studies suggest using structure is a good way to improve the chances of success for all students and to increase all students’ sense that they belong in the community of learners in our course.

Concerned that the failure rate in Intro Biology was twice as high for students from educationally or economically disadvantaged families, David Haak and colleagues at the University of Washington redesigned some sections of the course to be highly structured. They did this by requiring students to prepare for class, using a lot of clicker and active learning exercises in class, and giving weekly low-stakes assessments. They found that the highly structured approach resulted in better overall performance (compared to low-structure and moderate-structure sections of the course). The highly structured course significantly improved student performance overall, and did so disproportionately for the educationally and economically disadvantaged students.

Add inclusive practices to your course structure and design

Downplay high-stakes work – so that students have a chance to improve and grow.

It may take some students a while to figure out the most effective strategies for deep learning or to get the hang of our style of assessment, and as a result, they may not do well on an early major, high-stakes assessment. If we find ways to structure in a chance for growth, we may avoid the problems in which they lose confidence, get demoralized, drop the course, or even change majors.

Some options for downplaying the stakes include:

  • Make the first exam, paper, or other assessment count a just small percentage of the final grade;
  • Allow chances to improve a score through revision of work;
  • Offer students the opportunity to drop their worst score on an exam/assessment;
  • Let students replace an earlier score with a later cumulative assessment.

Give lots of low-stakes assessments (frequent quizzes or shorter writings, for example)

Frequent assessments break content into smaller (less intimidating) chunks and reward/reinforce regular preparation and study, which are habits that will benefit all students over the long term. As Hogan and Sathy note, “A course based on only a few high-stakes exams or papers [i.c. low structure] might be fine for a resource-savvy student who knows how to distribute studying and access peer support and university support services. Others will cram, not know how to approach peers outside the classroom, not know about support services before it is too late.”

Elon Professor Practices: Joyce Davis (Exercise Science)

Joyce Davis talks about her experience with frequent and low-stakes practice opportunities:

Headshot of Joyce Davis

“In my Biomechanics class, students come with different levels of experience with trigonometry and physics, and frequent quizzes seem to help me level the playing field by giving lots of low stakes practice opportunities with quantitative problems that require the use of complex formulas.

Quiz questions come directly from assigned homework problems and key terms and questions from the required textbook, so quizzes incentivize students’ taking seriously the reading and homework, helping them build study habits that lead to success.

Students also come with different confidence and ability in test-taking skills, so immediately after each quiz, we discuss the material and the strategies that help answer the questions correctly. They become more confident in both their understanding and their ability to do well on the tests. I want the test to assess the application of content knowledge rather than assessing their knowledge of how to take a test.”

Require frequent practice – inside and outside of class

Faculty and students alike underestimate the amount of practice needed for deep understanding, observe the authors of How Learning Works. This is especially true for students who don’t come to our courses already having had experience in the higher-level work of our discipline. By requiring (low-stakes) practice, we hold students accountable for regularly doing the kinds of work and thinking that we want. As Penner notes, regular practice sets up all students for success, but appears to be especially true for underserved students.

Elon’s four-hour curriculum offers faculty the chance to use class time for precisely the sort of practice on matters that students find challenging in our specific discipline (whether that be problem solving, applying concepts, discussing implications, writing, comparing, synthesizing, or creating). Using some class time is helpful because practice isn’t very effective unless students receive feedback about whether they’re doing things correctly. During class, instructors can efficiently provide feedback to everyone.

In particular, it’s a great idea to give students a chance to practice the types of questions or tasks they’ll be asked to do on higher-stakes assessments.

Set interim deadlines on projects

Scaffolding projects – with required work on steps of the process – helps students learn how avoiding procrastination improves the quality of their work.

Add structure to active learning during class meetings

Some individual students appear to be less involved in class activities. We don’t always know why – whether it’s because they lack confidence, don’t feel well, are introverted, are nervous, don’t think participation is necessary, feel different from their peers, feel self-conscious, or simply don’t feel welcomed or comfortable. Sometimes students don’t feel they belong based on personal characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. A sense of belonging has been shown to influence achievement.

When done carefully, adding structure can create opportunities for all students to have a chance to participate in ways that are educationally valuable and viewed by students as less threatening.

Ways to add structure so all students participate:

Incorporate Think/Pair/Share

In this classic active learning technique, the instructor:

  • First asks students to think and write down their thoughts for a couple minutes before anyone speaks. This helps because many students feel more confident about participating if they’ve had time to gather their thoughts.
  • Next, each student talks with a partner, with the instructor encouraging each to have equal time. This is beneficial because stakes are lowered in exploring ideas with one person rather than the large group.
  • Finally, the instructor decides how some of the ideas or solutions will be shared with the whole class. Options include volunteers or random calling.

No matter how large a class, think/pair/share offers the opportunity and expectation that every student will participate.

Elon Professor Practices: Aaron Trocki, Karen Yokley, Jim Beuerle, & Jan Mays (Mathematics)

Supported by a CATL Diversity and Inclusion Grant, a team of Mathematics faculty teaching Calculus I Aaron Trocki, Karen Yokley, Jim Beuerle, & Jan Maysadded new structures to prompt students from diverse backgrounds to participate and share their thinking during class. After adding think-pair-share activities, a team member noticed a “larger percentage of the class asked questions or contributed than I have typically seen in other semesters […] I was able to reinforce material in a more deliberate way through warm-ups, and the think-pair-share activities resulting in students interacting more with their peers.”

According to another member of the grant team, the added structure didn’t just increase participation, but improved learning: “The warm-ups and think-pair-shares held students accountable for their learning. They gave them practice in applying what we had covered in the previous class. These informal assessments gave students a chance to monitor their own understanding and the chance for me to formatively assess whether or not students were understanding.”

Use a classroom response system

Instructors design a question that requires good thinking, then asks each student to record his/her answer on a clicker or a polling app. This technique also insures that every student participates, but lowers the stakes by allowing anonymity. The process gives both students and the instructor feedback on students’ depth of comprehension.

Elon Professor Practices: Heidi Hollingsworth (Education)

Headshot of associate professor, Heidi Hollingsworth

Heidi Hollingsworth uses a variety of tools for quick in-class and out-of-class student responses:  “I use for short online responses that allow for me to hear from each student individually (with names or anonymously, depending on the purpose of the question or task). Sometimes I also use Flipgrid for each student to submit a short video recorded response. I can adjust the setting to allow the whole class to view each others’ responses, and in that way, students are hearing their peers’ multiple viewpoints. To date, when I’ve asked students to leave comments in response to their peers’ recordings, the comments have been very positive, which I think could increase students’ sense of belonging in class.”

Use a note card shuffle

In this low-tech method for anonymous participation, the instructor asks each student to write a response on a note card; then the instructor collects all the note cards. The instructor might choose to read random students’ responses or shuffle the cards and redistribute them, asking each student to read someone  else’s response aloud.

Wrap (turn taking)

At the beginning of a discussion in a small group, the instructor does a quick “wrap around the room” in which each student is expected to comment on a matter from the reading – they might offer a quotation or idea that seemed significant, a subject they’d like to be discussed, or a question they have. (This is low-stakes/less intimidating when students have been given a chance to prepare and know they’ll be asked to contribute something).

Incorporate small group tasks

Start with small group tasks or discussion prompts, so students can test their ideas in a venue that seems less intimidating.

Tips on structure for small group work:

Elon Professor Practices: Damion Blake (Political Science and Policy Studies)

Damion Blake structures small group work so that his courses benefit from broader student participation:

Headshot of Assistant Professor, Damion Blake“I do weekly small group breakout discussions in which students have set roles: one discussion leader, one recorder/reporter, and two to do research on the topic. I keep track of roles to insure that by the end of the course, every student has been in the role of discussion leader.

I take the time to set up the class environment, stressing the importance of respectful participation. I changed seating arrangements so that now we’re in a semi-circle with name tags so the students use one another’s names. I also build in a different opportunity for class participation; students who are more hesitant can email me before or after class to share their thoughts.”

Assign and rotate roles

Unfortunately, a confident and/or extroverted student might dominate even in small groups, and sometimes the other students are content or feel powerless to do something about that phenomenon. The practice of rotating roles can make participation more equitable. You might assign someone to be a facilitator whose job is to keep the group on task and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute; a recorder; a reporter; and a timekeeper, for example.

Use random ways to assign groups or speakers

This practice makes it clear that you’re not assigning roles due to personal biases or are rewarding or punishing any individual students or types of students. In addition, when students don’t know in advance who will be asked to report the group’s ideas, all have the incentive to take the group’s task seriously. Instructors might assign groups or roles by having students count off, using an on-line randomizer, or choosing an arbitrary factor (“Today the reporter is the person who grew up farthest from Elon,” or “Today the reporter is the youngest member of the group”).

Other Suggestions

Do an occasional listening exercise

If class is discussing potentially controversial or sensitive topics, or if you’re concerned that some students’ ideas aren’t being heard, you can ask all students to concentrate on listening before responding. You can ask students to pair up and repeat back what they heard their partner saying, or in a large group, not allow any student to comment until they first summarize what the previous speaker said.

Add wait time

Research suggests that after asking a question, instructors usually only wait a few seconds before calling on a volunteer. If we increase our wait time, it gives all students more time to think and opens the floor for more students to participate. Add structure by telling students you won’t call on anyone until at least five students have raised their hands.

Offer alternative ways to participate other than speaking during class

Some faculty utilize on-line discussion boards. Some have all students write a “minute paper” at the end of class. Damion Blake offers quiet students a chance to participate in another way – by emailing him before or after class.

Ask students how to build community and inclusion

We should structure time to build community into our course. Students should know and use one another’s names and know one another as people. We can go further by giving students a voice in building classroom norms, and asking them for ideas for how to make the classroom inviting for all to participate and have a sense of belonging.

For more tips about inclusive teaching, visit our Inclusive Teaching website.


Works Cited & Resources

Susan Ambrose, et al., How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010), chapters 4 and 5.

Sarah L. Eddy and Kelly A. Hogan, “Getting Under the Hood: How and For Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE – Life Sciences Education 13, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 453-468.

David Haak, Jenneke Hille Ris Lambers, Emile Pitre, and Scott Freeman, “Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology,” Science 332, no. 6034 (June 2011): 1213-1216.

Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy, “Structuring the Classroom for Inclusive Teaching,” UNC Center for Faculty Excellence;

Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy, “Why We’re ‘Speaking Up about Inclusive Teaching Strategies,” ACUE Community Q Blog, March 14, 2008,”

Ann Medaille and Janet Usinger, “Engaging Quiet Students in the College Classroom,” College Teaching 67, 2 (March 2019): 130-7.

Marsha R. Penner, “Building an Inclusive Classroom,” Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 16, no 3 (Summer 2018): A268-A272.

Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan, “Want to Reach all your students? Here’s how to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2019,

Terrell L. Strayhorn, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students (Routledge, 2012).

Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, 1 (2007): 82-96.