Designing culturally inclusive teaching and learning spaces | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Designing culturally inclusive teaching and learning spaces

Staff and students at UniSC have a variety of ideas about what constitutes good teaching and learning. These ideas are influenced by their own culture and life experiences. For many students and staff, the educational environment at UniSC could be a new and possibly challenging experience. Much of what we do in education is actually framed by cultural ‘rules’ that are often tacit. This includes the ways we teach and learn, the curriculum intent, design and content, and our attitudes and values about schooling and education.

Culture is the basis of what people ‘take for granted’ or what they notice about others but is largely invisible to themselves. The invisibility of culture in educational settings can have unintended consequences. Despite the best of intentions, teachers and students might be unaware that what they say, do or teach in the classroom could seem strange or offensive to others. Sometimes doing what seems ‘normal’ means unintentionally excluding others from participating fully.

Strategies and tips for designing a culturally inclusive teaching and learning environment:

  • set up an introduction system so that all students can get to know something about you, their class colleagues and the diversity of experience in the class
  • use Blackboard to talk about your approach to teaching and learning; include some information about your own cultural origin and any cross-cultural teaching/learning experience you may have had
  • provide opportunities for students to introduce themselves to you and other students
  • when you interact one on one with students, ask what form of address they prefer
  • use inclusive language that doesn’t assume Western name forms - ‘family’ name, not ‘last’ name - ‘given’ name, not ‘Christian’ name
  • students from more formal educational cultures, where status differences related to age or educational qualifications are important, might be uncomfortable in addressing teaching staff by their given names. A compromise can be for students to use your title and given name eg ‘Professor Marie’, ‘Dr Ivan’
  • if in doubt, ask

Make the class a safe place for all students

  • Establish a classroom in which teachers and students demonstrate mutual respect.
  • Manage behaviour that might stimulate ‘classroom incivilities’:
    • teacher incivility can include: prejudice and neglecting the needs of individual students or groups of students.
    • student incivility can manifest as: poor punctuality; lack of preparation for or non-participation in classes; disruption of classes; distraction of teacher and fellow students; and cheating.
  • Establish inclusive class ground rules that safeguard against racism and harassment. In small classes, guide students to negotiate their own code of conduct and in larger classes, provide a framework and ask for student feedback and ratification of ground rules.
  • Define how class members discuss issues, especially potentially sensitive issues.

Treat diversity positively

  • Avoid over generalising behaviour (expecting particular culturally based behaviour from an individual because that person comes from a certain cultural group) or having stereotypical expectations of people (positive or negative) eg ‘All Asian students are quiet in class’.
  • Don’t expect any individual student to speak as a representative of his / her culture.
  • Utilise diverse experiences and perspectives as a resource.
  • Plan opportunities for all students to contribute input related to their own culture (but avoid making any student a cultural representative).

Establish clear expectations in the classroom

  • Explain and clarify academic expectations and standards regarding written work.
  • Check that your students understand the Australian university context and what is expected of them.
  • Clarify the format and purpose of the particular session type you are teaching and the type of student participation expected.
  • Explain the written topic outlines, objectives and outcomes that are provided to students, checking that everyone understands.
  • Teach appropriate citing, referencing and how to avoid plagiarism in papers. Provide relevant information and resource sessions if necessary.
  • Make your marking scheme quite clear. Let students know if the emphasis is on communicating information and ideas or on language accuracy. Sometimes students can be anxious about being penalised for poor English expression.

Appreciate the challenges and adjustment stresses

  • When people live and work in a new culture they may experience ‘culture shock’. This is characterised by a series of phases influencing how people perceive and respond to others and events around them.
  • Recognise that people for whom English is a second or subsequent language can experience frustration and isolation from not being able to express themselves fully in English, especially when they are used to being highly successful in their own language and culture.
  • Use a respectful tone of verbal and non-verbal communication. Be aware that there may be an unconscious inclination to ‘talk down’ or to talk simplistically to international students or local speakers of other languages if English is not their first language.

More information

Download the Designing culturally inclusive learning and teaching spaces information folio (PDF 337KB) 

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