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Strategies to Create Learning Environments for All

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.


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.

Gratuitous to Grade Grammar?

I’m a TA for a graduate-level course, and many of the students are not native English speakers. I am grading assignments with significant grammatical errors: incorrect tenses, wrong plurals, missing articles, etc. I’m struggling with the tension between not unfairly penalizing students, since English isn’t their first language, but also holding them to a high standard for academic writing, given that they are getting a graduate degree. How have other TAs or instructors handled this? —Grammar Nerd

(This week’s answer is courtesy of Katie Malcolm, Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning.)

Thank you for asking—this is a question we hear often in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Although we recommend that TAs check with their supervisors to see if their departments have specific policies about this, the TAs we have worked with over the years and our own teaching experiences have given us some helpful perspectives. When thinking about how to fairly assess my own international and multilingual students’ writing, I ask myself two questions: 1) What are my goals for the assignment? What do I need to prioritize? and 2) How can I communicate these goals to my students in ways that will help them succeed?

1. First, I think about what is important to prioritize for my students in each assignment, given my realistic learning outcomes for a 10-week course. What is the primary goal I want students to achieve through each writing assignment?

In my own assignments, my first priority is for students to develop and sustain a logical argument in conversation with relevant research. If students’ errors leave me unable to understand their argument, I can’t assess it meaningfully, and—whether English is their first, second, or fifth language—I will ask them to edit and revise the assignment in order to receive credit.

Because my primary goal is not for students to write as though English were their first language, if incorrect verb tenses or missing articles do not detract from my ability to understand a student’s point, I tend to overlook or “read through” them, or point out a couple of occurrences in the margins and then make a note of these patterns in my end comments. (Showing students the patterns of their errors helps them learn how to avoid these kinds of errors in the future). Just as students need time and practice to develop fluency in their pronunciation and speaking, they also need time to develop fluency in academic, discipline-specific English writing.

2. Once I have articulated my expectations for students’ writing, I clearly communicate these expectations to students in several ways:

  • At the same time that I introduce an assignment, I share the assignment grading criteria, usually in the form of a rubric. When writing style is an important aspect of the assignment (as it often is), I make sure that it is part of the grading criteria and weighted appropriately.

  • I assign multiple drafts so that students know that I do not want them to start a paper the night before it’s due (often a major culprit of unedited papers). I’ll ask students to bring an early draft to class for peer review, or to bring a draft to my office hours, and/or to visit the Odegaard Writing and Resource Center (OWRC) to get feedback on their writing early in the process.

  • I share writing resources with my students, including information about OWRC, which has drop-in hours for graduate student writers in the Allen Library. There are also a number of great online resources on proofreading that may be helpful to students, such as the Purdue OWL’s “Finding common errors” page and their pages dedicated to multilingual writers. UNC also has some helpful editing resources.

Again, thanks for asking this great question — if you would like to talk more about this or other aspects of your teaching, please don’t hesitate to contact us at thectl@uw.edu.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Addressing Difference and Growing Your Support

Are any of these thoughts affecting you?

“I should understand that theory or concept already!”
“If I speak up to say I don’t understand something, I’ll look stupid in class.”
“I’m not participating the way everyone else is, so there must be something wrong with me.”
“Where is my community?”

Every graduate and professional student experiences doubt, anxiety or critical self-talk due to the demands of their educational programs. At the same time, there is no universal graduate student experience, and the long-held idea that you’ll automatically be successful if you just work hard enough is a myth. The reality is not everyone enters graduate school with the same access to social, cultural, professional and financial resources and not everyone is treated with equity. This is especially true if you are a first-generation graduate student, person of color, woman, person with visible or invisible disabilities, international student, or a member of the LGBT, Queer or Trans community (one can also embody multiple, intersecting identities and backgrounds).

Sometimes asking for help can feel like taking a risk—that it calls attention to your difference and to your vulnerability. It’s no wonder then that asking for support on campus can either feel truly unfamiliar or feel like a daunting task for many.

Core Programs’ mission is to promote an environment where all graduate and professional students can thrive and to suggest strategies that encourage students to seek out the support they need to reach their intellectual, professional and interpersonal goals. We also see our work as aligned with larger, institutional efforts to address the complexities of difference at the University of Washington.

Here are some tips to help you remind yourself that you belong here and that your work is important:

When you feel you don’t belong. Also known as imposter syndrome, it’s the persistent, internalized belief that “you’re not smart enough, competent enough, or productive enough” to be in graduate school, and that peers, faculty members, and your department chair are somehow going to find out. Notice when these thoughts come up and stop yourself.  As communication studies scholar Dr. Felicia Harris states, “The nagging voice that says I don’t belong discredits everything I’ve done to get to a certain point. Pursuing an advanced degree is an admirable and challenging feat, and I remind myself of this by celebrating every milestone.” Milestones can be getting your reading done, mustering the nerve to ask a professor for their mentorship, or gaining teaching, research, or career experience. Read more from Dr. Harris.

Mentoring needs. There are numerous reasons why you seek out mentors in graduate and professional school.  The obvious ones are to develop intellectual and professional relationships with faculty advisors whose research or career backgrounds resonate with you. Sometimes a single mentor can support you in multiple ways. Yet it also turns out that we often need a mentor network for different dimensions of our lives. Start with an inventory and see where your needs are being met and where you may have gaps. Some dimensions include:

Academic — Specific skills or techniques, new knowledge domains
Career — Sponsorship, exposure, coaching, protection, challenging
Psychosocial — Role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, friendship
Values — Worldviews, belief systems, politics

Grow your support. In our first fall quarter newsletter, we encouraged you to get to know the campus community by attending departmental and welcome events to make meaningful connections with peers, staff and faculty. Other ways to grow your support system are identifying those safe people you can confide in when things feel tough. These can be close friends, loved ones, members of your faith-based or spiritual community, and even a qualified mental health professional (there’s no shame in seeking counseling).

Jaye Sablan & Kelly Edwards
Core Programs, The Graduate School

Additional Resources

What Influences Your Mentoring Needs, UW Graduate School