By 2021 - 22 CITLS Distinguished Teaching Fellow, Professor Nandini Sikand

Rainbow interlocking hands


To share student perspectives on inclusivity in the classroom and how they can be used to create more inclusive learning environments. 


Addressing classroom bias is important for understanding student success in the classroom and how to create safe or brave spaces for students of all backgrounds regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, accessibility, class or religion. To try to better understand microaggressions and systemic issues around race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, class or religion in classroom environments, I administered a voluntary and anonymous survey to three Film and Media Studies courses inviting input from students about inclusivity in the classroom. The survey consisted of two main questions, described below.

I first asked what factors contribute to an inclusive classroom from their perspectives based on a list of choices. The resulting percentages were as follows:

  • Sharing preferred pronouns (82.4%) 
  • Attention to classroom dynamics (82.4%) 
  • Sharing preferred names (79.4%) 
  • Attention to issues of race and racism (79.4%) 
  • Attention to gender and non-binary identities (76.5%)
  • Attention to religious holidays (73.5%)
  • Discussion and implementation of trigger warnings (70.6%) 
  • Open discussion of how to participate in a classroom setting (67.6%) 
  • De-emphasizing competition in classroom (67.6%) 
  • Discussion of difficult material in the curriculum (67.6%) 
  • Discussion of news events in the classroom (64.7%) 
  • Regular check-ins with students (64.7%) 
  • Gender-neutral language (64.7%) 
  • Land Acknowledgement (55.9%) 
  • Informal mid-semester evaluation (38.2%) 
  • Other (0%) 

The second question I asked students was what teaching practices would make their learning more successful?  

  • Normalizing self-care (80%) 
  • Normalizing mental health (80%) 
  • More peer and small group interaction (62.9%) 
  • One-on-one contact with Professor (62.9%) 
  • Ungrading (60%) 
  • No penalties for late assignments (57.1%) 
  • More class discussion (57.1%) 
  • Fewer exams (51.4%) 
  • More short assignments, as opposed to long ones (48.6%) 
  • More visual aids (45.7%) 
  • No attendance policies (37.1%) 

Note: Given that these surveys were part of my classes and not used for research purposes, Institutional Review Board approval was not needed to share these findings.

Reflections and Recommendations

Implementing changes in the classroom based on my students’ perspectives was relatively easy and worked well to signal my commitment to their success. 

No matter the class, on day one we have a conversation about setting up our classroom community, how to engage with one another. I begin with introductions and ice breakers, sharing preferred names and pronouns, and a land acknowledgment. I spend time emphasizing self and collective care, a key abolitionist principle, and explicitly ask them to choose their health over the course. I do not have an attendance policy and do not take points off for late assignments. 

In my syllabus, I include the following language:

Health: I am interested in building a community of care in the classroom and believe if we are struggling personally or professionally, we cannot learn. If you need a mental health day, please take it. I just ask that you keep me informed so we can get you caught up as needed.

My assignment prompts are intentionally broad strokes with a lot of room for flexibility. Before an assignment is due, I will go over the assignment expectations in class and take questions. I find this helps to alleviate anxiety, as students tend to ask similar questions and when done in a group setting, students often have similar concerns and it helps them to discuss the assignment as a group. It is an important first step to getting the assignments done. Where previously I would give students directives around completing assignments, I now share an assignment or an expectation and ask, “What do you need from me to complete this assignment?” This approach has fundamentally changed how I teach. It allows me to specifically address the unique needs of each student.

It typically ends with me asking if they have everything they need to begin the work. The written prompt is followed with in-class discussion of the assignment when assigned and also followed up with regular check-ins to ask how the work is going and if they need additional assistance or have further questions.  

Since 2020, I have maintained a GroupMe chat for each class. Students use this frequently to text me quick questions about readings, assignments and any class-related housekeeping details. It also serves as a quick reminder for students who may schedule a meeting and forget to attend. They get to ask questions about a reading or assignment clarification. Often other students will weigh in as well.

The practice of ungrading allows for my focus to move from evaluation to learning and I have been able to make this the norm in all my courses since Fall 2019. During the summer of 2019, I spent a lot of time reading and learning about these methods of evaluation. In the syllabus I explain as follows:

I have chosen to separate learning from grading and focus on “qualitative feedback, peer review, self-assessment” (Stommel, 27)[1] instead. You will do self-assessment work throughout the semester and determine how you are doing in the course. My goal is to reframe collectively how we think about evaluation, failure, errors and instead focus on feedback, discovery, peer-learning and yes, education. We are the experts in our learning.

You will grade yourselves during the semester for each assignment and we will have one on one assessments during the midterm period and another during the final week to discuss your final grade. I do reserve the right to change grades, only if needed. For the assessment meetings, you will complete a self-reflection at midterm and at finals, these meetings and reflections and your assignments will form the basis of your grade.

Assessments are coupled with a 20-30-minute meeting with each student to discuss progress over the course. At the beginning of the course, I also encourage them to add their individualized learning outcomes which we discuss at mid and semester end. During these meetings, I give students feedback on their work making the reflection sessions more of a dialogue rather than a one-way evaluation, which I find makes the feedback more effective.

After talking to a few students about their class participation grade, I realized I was inadvertently penalizing students who were wary of speaking up in class. Invariably these students were women, students of color and/or non-binary. The blogs were a way to ensure that they had a way to interact with the class material that wasn’t in real time.  Zoom allowed for that functionality via the chat. I have since amended that and made class participation a grade that includes many factors such as citizenship, attendance, blog writing, presentations and peer feedback.

To further address issues of equity in the classroom, I ask students to let me know if they need help with book purchases. If so, I have procured books for them and also lent them older editions. I remain conscious of expenses incurred on book purchases and use articles that are easily accessible. I approach this matter by not assuming each student has access, but rather assuming that each student struggles and I construct my class materials accordingly. In this way, students who have concerns about costs and other issues do not feel burdened by having to speak out for access. 

[1] “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel in Ungrading ed. Susan D. Bloom. 2020. West Virginia University Press.