UW Graduate School

March 16, 2017

Strategies to Create Learning Environments for All

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The UW Office of the Provost sent an e-mail to faculty and teaching assistants outlining concrete recommendations for sustaining “vibrant classroom discussions at a time when current events have produced sharp political differences among us.”  The goal of the message was to equip all of our instructors with best practices to “establish… respectful class discussions in which students from across the spectrum may fully engage.”  As we all wrap up the Winter Quarter and prepare for Spring, there might be a few ideas from that message to consider.

While designed for instructors, the Provost’s recommendations can be shared and practiced by all UW students—as we all have the capacity to foster inclusive learning environments.  We at Core Programs have adapted and expanded upon these tips as you’ll see below.  If you are interested in learning more, check out these resources curated by the UW Seattle Center for Teaching and Learning.

Engaging Each Other.  Collaborate with your peers to come up with discussion guidelines that will help you down the road, if a discussion feels challenging or becomes heated. UW Professor Gino Aisenberg and doctoral student Ada Onyewueni provide excellent examples of guidelines for engagement from their course syllabi:

  • Listen well without interrupting
  • Practice being present to each member of the group
  • Notice if you’re speaking a lot, then step back to make room for peers to speak
  • Assume that you might miss things that peers see and see things that peers miss
  • Surface your feelings in such a way that makes it easier for peers to surface theirs
  • Regard your views as a perspective onto the world, not the world itself
  • Reiterating these discussion guidelines periodically can help ensure that all students’ voices are heard

Creating Norms. Fundamental to any inclusive learning environment is honoring the belief that disagreement is okay, but disrespect is not.  This is accomplished by setting up and practicing norms for intentional, respectful dialogue. Consider these practices offered by the University of Michigan:

  • Criticize ideas, not individuals in your group
  • Avoid blame, speculation, or derogatory language
  • Avoid assumptions about members of your discussion group
  • Avoid generalizations about social groups based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, or citizenship
  • Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social or cultural group

This Takes Practice.  Creating intentional and respectful dialogues among peers takes consistent and sustained practice.  There will be discomfort, yet in discomfort there is also the possibility of learning.  As we work together, we will all make mis-steps in different ways and need to recover.  There is a lot going on in any one person’s history and life, and it can help to give a generous read to see where a person might be coming from.  Depending on how much energy you have in the moment, you can choose what to do with a conversation mis-step.  Each day will be different.  Consider what could work for you and your peers.

We hope that as the new quarter begins, you may try out something from these recommendations and see what works for you and your peers.

Best,

Kelly, Jaye, and Ziyan
Core Programs Team

Additional Resources

Watch a recent panel discussion on the meaning of free speech in the context of a public university called Speech and Counter Speech: Rights and Responsibilities, sponsored by the UW Race & Equity Initiative.