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Inclusion and Belonging in the Classroom – Undergraduate Perspectives

Four Stanford undergraduates share what they want teachers to know about promoting inclusion, diversity, equity, and access in the classroom

This resource is intended to support instructors, teaching assistants (TAs), and other teaching staff with recommendations from a student panel on how to make learning environments more conducive to Stanford IDEAL principles. 

In 2023, the TEACH Conference, which is now the Teaching Commons Conference, explored facilitating Stanford’s IDEAL values, engagement, well-being, and belonging among teachers and learners at Stanford and beyond. In an undergraduate student discussion panel, we focused on these themes from the student perspective. These principles and experiences emerged from our discussion.

About the CDA+ student panel

We are a group of dedicated students who work directly with IntroSems to help shape the educational environment at Stanford. We take an active role in various initiatives and events, such as the IDEAL initiative and the Teaching Commons Conference, to ensure that our classrooms are inclusive, diverse, and conducive to learning for everyone. We believe in the power of student voices in shaping policies and practices that affect our learning experience and are committed to making our classrooms more inclusive and equitable.

Set the stage for mutual understanding

Meet students where they are

Students come to Stanford from many different places, school systems, and cultural contexts. Some students will undoubtedly have more background knowledge of your course subject matter than other students, due to differences in background, education systems, and access to educational resources. For example, Student A may have been offered more AP courses at their secondary school than Student B. This is very common: see “Closing Advanced Coursework Equity Gaps for All Students”.

As a facilitator of the learning environment, you can survey the domain knowledge levels your students are entering with, and adapt your course materials accordingly.  A pre-course survey is an excellent way to achieve this. See a downloadable sample pre-class survey here (Google Form; right-click and select Make a copy for your own use). The content of your survey will depend on the size, discipline, and level of the course you are teaching.

Suppose you are teaching an introductory computer science course with mostly first-year students and sophomores. In that case, you might consider sending out a survey due early in the quarter that asks about their experience with coding and code in the classroom. If you are teaching a higher-level course, have clear prerequisites in the course description so that students know what background knowledge is necessary. Actions like these can help prevent students from feeling less competent due to circumstances out of their control.

Set clear communication expectations

Setting clear expectations for course communication benefits all parties involved. At the beginning of the quarter, post a communication plan to Canvas, the course syllabus, or both. Specify how students can communicate with the teaching team (instructor email, mailing list, Ed Discussion, Canvas, etc.) and how soon they can expect a response (e.g., within 48 hours). Be sure to let students know how you plan to communicate with them (Canvas announcements, emails, etc.) so that they know where to look for important course communications.

Tip: encourage students to configure their Canvas notification settings to ensure that they receive important announcements and course updates. Students, not instructors, are in control of which notifications they receive from Canvas. See this helpful guide for managing Canvas notification settings.

No question is a bad question 

Mustering up the courage to speak up in a room full of your peers can be daunting, especially in your first or second year at Stanford. But asking questions is crucial to everyone’s learning experience. As an instructor, with every student question you respond to, you have the opportunity to make the student feel understood, heard, and more confident in their understanding of course content.

Make a habit of acknowledging each question. For example, saying "Thank you for your question," is a way to acknowledge that you have heard and value the question, especially if it comes from a student who you have not heard from before. This will make your students feel more comfortable in the classroom, more receptive to the material, and more likely to succeed in the class.

Please do not ever ridicule or dismiss a student with seemingly silly questions – you were once a beginner too! If a student is asking questions that require a bit more time than you have to answer, kindly redirect them to talk with you after class or during office hours.

Foster meaningful connections 

Make room for one-on-one interactions

Host office hours regularly, either on a drop-in basis or by appointment. If you have a smaller class, encourage every student to meet with you one-on-one at least once. This will go a long way toward establishing a connection with each and every student.

It may sound silly, but students often perceive instructors similarly to how they perceive celebrities, especially when instructors are renowned in their field. Having an individual conversation with your instructor is like talking to a living, breathing embodiment of the subject itself. A positive or negative interaction can inspire a student or deter them from the field for years to come.

Get to know your class

Small actions, such as addressing students by their names, can go a long way toward increasing student comfort and engagement. In your pre-class survey, you could ask about your students’ interests which they are willing to share, and take the time to read over all responses. Students appreciate when you express genuine interest in their hobbies, goals, and successes as individuals. If you have a large class size and can’t memorize every student’s profile, reference their responses to this form before conducting one-on-one meetings. 

Assign groups thoughtfully 

You can also facilitate belonging among students through the ways in which you assign discussion or work groups. While some students appreciate having the freedom to choose their own groups, other students may feel uncomfortable or anxious about finding a group. Consider designating student groups for some activities and assignments, as you see fit.

Here are some suggestions for how to assign student groups in a creative way. To determine groups in a relatively random way, try grouping students by birth month, which side of campus they live on (east campus vs. west campus), or flavor preferences (sweet vs. salty vs. sour vs. spicy). We suggest avoiding demographic features, like students’ grade levels and where they lived before coming to Stanford, to form groups, as this can reduce the diversity of ideas within each group.

Student perspectives

These reflections and direct examples are based on the following prompt:

What is something your instructor did to make you feel like you belonged? Describe a memorable and positive classroom interaction.

Julia

I felt most welcome when the instructor of a large lecture course knew my name without me ever having to introduce myself. In classes with hundreds of students, I don’t typically expect the instructor to remember my name, even if I have talked with them over email or during office hours. One day in this class, I decided to raise my hand to respond to a question that the professor had asked. The professor smiled at me and said, “Julia?”, making sure that she had gotten my name correct. I was stunned–how did she know my name? I was both honored and impressed that she had gone out of her way to learn her many students’ names.

Although I had previously viewed myself as just another anonymous student, I realized that she truly saw me as an individual. At a research conference later that month, the same professor stopped by to say hello to me. We chatted about how this was my first conference, and she congratulated me on this accomplishment. Even after the quarter had ended, she continued to show me that I was valued as a student. Small gestures often have a much larger impact than we expect them to.

Cat

My most memorable and positive interaction with a teaching team was when I got to tag along for lunch with the TAs and professor of my neuroscience IntroSem before class. The teaching team had catered lunches at the lab every Wednesday, and our IntroSem was at 1:30, so if students wanted to come to eat and chat an hour before class we were welcome to do so. As a freshman at Stanford, I had no idea where my life was going to take me or even what my major would be. But I had the insightful opportunity to ask every lab member about how they ended up here at Stanford Medicine, what they studied during undergrad, and what they value most about their contribution to the lab. Some of them did not even have a neuroscience background during undergrad, yet here they were! This made me feel so relieved – it’s okay to pivot, I thought to myself.

The experience was a great reassuring moment to me that I didn’t have to have my whole life figured out in my first year at Stanford. The teaching team assured me that life is long and fruitful, which made me even more excited to immerse myself in the course content. This simple incentive of free, non-dining-hall lunch to learn more about my teaching team and their work is one I still remember fondly post-graduation. 

Sam

I felt most welcome when I built relationships with instructors that felt less transactional. For example, I was in a seminar last year where our final project was an argumentative policy proposal on a topic of our choosing. When I met with my instructor to share my ideas, he smiled, gave me some guidance, and thanked me for teaching him something new. When professors, lecturers, or even teaching assistants find some way to close the inevitable power dynamic of classroom settings, I feel welcome.

Sometimes, however, it is infeasible for professors of hundred-person classes to provide individual feedback. Even when this is not possible, taking the time to share small personal anecdotes or your favorite hobbies are all incredible ways for instructors to relate to their students. Instructors play a pivotal role in directing students’ academic journeys and making room for kindness and genuineness in the classroom by minimizing power differentials in shaping the future of education.

Moises

I felt most welcome when I was in a class where I did not know many students and the teacher made an effort to have everyone talk and feel comfortable. She did it in a fun way though: when we arrived at the class we sat chronologically according to our birthdays, and then she grouped up the people with the same months. 

Learn more

Works Cited

"Provost’s Statement on Diversity and Inclusion" (2021) by The Office of Provost Persis Drell

"2023 TEACH Conference: IDEAL Belonging & Wellness" (2023) by Stanford Teaching Commons

"Closing Advanced Coursework Equity Gaps for All Students" (2021) by the Center for American Progress