UNF Center for Instruction and Research Technology

Instructional Design

4 Ways to Create an Equitable and Inclusive Learning Environment


Students continuously report feelings of isolation in online learning environments due to physical separation, but isolation can also occur when students don’t feel a sense of belonging (Stoytcheva, 2021; Phirangee & Malec, 2017; Rovai & Weighting, 2005).

Students enter your classes with a range of experiences—with your course subject, the University, and online learning—along with a range of thoughts, concerns, abilities, and emotions about those experiences. Similarly, students carry an assortment of personal experiences in regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, access to resources, physical health, and mental health.

These diverse representations are deserving of our attention when designing equitable and inclusive learning environments. Such thoughtful design calls us to recognize that each student comes to us with unique experiences and to provide the opportunities and resources that each student needs so everyone can reach the learning outcomes and feel like they belong in your course.

There are myriad considerations and actions we can take to create such environments, but let’s ease our way into this and consider four simple and accommodating ways we can promote equity and inclusion. In the spirit of these guiding tenets, a variety of options are shared for each recommendation, and you’re encouraged to select the options that speak to your needs.

#1: Cultivate a safe and supportive space.

  • Include support statements in your syllabus. A diversity, equity, and inclusion statement lets your students know that you’re committed to inclusion and that you support diversity in your course. Visit the University’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion for examples of inclusive language for your syllabus.

    You can also include an accessibility statement that outlines contact information and processes for obtaining services from Student Accessibility Services. This section can also encourage students with accommodations to contact you privately to make you aware of their needs so that you can best support them. The Office of Faculty Excellence offers sample accessibility verbiage in their syllabus template.

  • Provide information for support resources, and explain how to acquire support. Outline a list of academic and student support resources available to UNF students along with contact information and a brief description of why students might reach out to each resource and the services provided. Visit our Student Help and Support page for a list of resources to include in your syllabus, or you can directly link to this page in your Canvas course.

    Level Up: Consider featuring a support resource in your weekly announcements to raise awareness about available services. You could also partner with various departments to arrange for synchronous or asynchronous Q&A sessions with your students.

  • Be aware of personal pronouns, preferred names, and pronunciations. Canvas allows users to designate personal pronouns that appear next to their name in the Canvas gradebook and discussions. Preferred names can be sourced from the Detailed Class List via Faculty Self-Service in MyWings, and you can use your diversity, equity, and inclusion statement to invite students to designate their pronouns in Canvas or privately share this information with you. Similarly, encourage students to share phonetic pronunciations of their first and last names, and be mindful of accent marks and capitalization in names when providing assignment feedback (e.g., Andrés, K’Levan, María, Ørjen).

    Level Up: Select and display your personal pronouns in Canvas. You can also share this tutorial with your students to raise awareness about the feature.

  • Remind your students that you’re here to help. Research shows that inviting students to contact you with questions or concerns normalizes the idea of asking for help and encourages students to reach out (Gurung & Galardi, 2021). Such support statements can be included at the end of an announcement, recorded lecture, and assignment feedback, and might arrive at just the right time for a student in need.

    Level Up: Transcend academics and encourage students to contact you if they need help accessing resources, including basic needs (e.g., food, shelter), medical care, psychological care and counseling, transportation, or access to technology. This Personal Investment statement might spark an idea for your own unique messaging.

#2: Create opportunities for your students to be seen and heard.

  • Distribute a student survey at the beginning of the term (or right now). Ask questions that will help you understand who your students are, what their previous learning experiences were like, and what kind of support they might need in your course. This will give you information that can be used to tailor your instruction and better teach (and reach) your students, and it provides a channel for your students to share things they might not otherwise feel comfortable approaching you about. This information can also be used when preparing for student interactions and adjusting instruction to meet their unique needs and interests. Here is a sample survey you might gather ideas from.

  • Create approachable discussion spaces. Discussion boards are go-to instruments for online interaction and assessment, and while some students enjoy the opportunity to engage with their peers, some students might not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and work in a communal space. To accommodate both preferences, you can present the option of responding to a prompt in a traditional discussion board or in a private assignment. Replies are feasible in both options—the conversation will either be with peers in the discussion board or with you in the private assignment.

  • Ask students to submit a completion statement with their assignments. One of the best ways to identify knowledge gaps and understand how your students are doing is to ask them. Inviting students to submit a completion statement will let you know how they’re doing and what they need, and it will prompt reflective and metacognitive strategies as well. Here are one-sentence stems you might consider:

    I think I performed [adjective/adverb] on this assignment because [explanation].
    I think the best/strongest part of my assignment is _________ because [explanation].
    The part of this assignment I struggled with most is _________ because [explanation].

  • Evaluate your office hours. Offering virtual office hours reduces barriers to meetings such as transportation, travel time, parking, and scheduling. You might also consider the time of the day you’re hosting office hours. Many college students work full- or part-time (US Department of Education, as cited by Perna and Odle, 2018), and low-income students typically work the longest hours (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2018). Offering time in the evening (i.e., after typical working hours) creates flexible opportunities for students to meet with you while respecting their work obligations.

#3: Diversify your content.

  • Strive for diversity in your instructional materials. Have you selected learning materials from authors with diverse backgrounds? Are a variety of voices and experiences reflected in your examples and case studies? Review your material and determine if it is inclusive and relatable to your students. Variables for your review can include race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age group, ability, socioeconomic status, and religion, among others. If you distributed a student survey, your data can lend insights for increasing the inclusivity of your learning materials.

  • Provide options and multiple means of access. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles encourage course design and instructional choices that are accessible to students of all abilities and learning preferences. You can promote UDL and accessibility with Plus-One Thinking from Thomas Tobin, which encourages offering at least one alternative mode of access or interaction to assist with learning. For example, videos can be supplemented with closed captions or transcription, and your documents can be delivered in readable text so text-to-speech features can be enabled.

    You can also take this approach with your assignments. Consider a writing assignment in your course—could your students demonstrate the same knowledge and skills through an alternative assignment, such as a slide presentation, video, podcast, or project? When possible (and meaningful), give your students the option of completing the conventional assignment or through another medium.

  • Determine if your learning materials are mobile-friendly. According to a 2018 Wiley Education study, 61% of students used their mobile devices to complete some or all of their online course-related activities. To ensure a functional mobile learning experience, consider these recommendations for mobile-friendly course design (Pacansky-Brock, 2020).

    Level Up: Download the Canvas Teacher app for your Android or iPhone and take your course on a test drive for mobile friendliness.

#4: Be mindful.

  • Be aware of terms that connote gender and use-gender neutral vocabulary. For example, instead of greeting a group with Hi, guys! say Hi, everyone!, and refer to first-year students as first years instead of freshmen.

  • Consider that your students might not possess context for your subject matter. Level the playing field by defining complex terms and jargon and providing context for examples and references. In addition, don’t assume that everyone is familiar with the seemingly colloquial; provide descriptions if you use acronyms or abbreviations (e.g., WFH¹), (pop)culture references (e.g., Tiger King²), and unique locations (e.g., the Green³).

    ¹WFH: Work(ing) from home
    ²Tiger King: A mini-documentary series that was televised at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and was watched by many (oftentimes in one sitting) due to the stay-at-home orders in effect across the world
    ³The Green: The large grassy area on campus outside of the Fine Arts Center (Building 45)

  • Monitor student progress. Students want to know how they’re performing in your course and how they can be successful. By infusing low-stakes formative assessments throughout your curriculum, you give students opportunities to monitor their progress and target learning needs before attempting an assignment. This also allows you to identify learning gaps and address specific areas of need to help each student succeed. These formative assessments can take the form of quizzes, exit slips, mind maps, or reflections. If you use quizzes, you can use the auto-grading feature in Canvas to deliver immediate feedback.

    Level Up: Another handy Canvas tool is the Message Students Who: feature in the gradebook, which enables you to message students who have scored below (or above) a particular point value on an assignment and those who have yet to submit the assignment. This tool can help you intervene with students who need help or a reminder and show that you’re invested in their learning.

  • Monitor student affect. Personal situations and wellbeing have an effect on student performance, and much like learning needs, identifying and addressing personal needs can have a positive impact on student success. You can use informal surveys to check in on your students to see how they’re doing on a personal level and if they need to be connected with a support resource, such as Student Academic Success Services, the Counseling Center, or the Lend-a-Wing Pantry.

Be sure to monitor your progress and affect, too. Combing through your course and weaving in equitable and inclusive components is an undertaking, but it takes one step to better support your learners. So start with that first step—which one of these practices is most approachable? It just takes a few minutes to designate your personal pronouns in Canvas or to message your students who struggled with a recent assignment (or your students who showed significant progress in that assignment). You’ll find a rhythm with each additional step you take, and keep in mind you don’t have to travel your journey alone, and you can always contact your instructional designer for support.


Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.(2018). Balancing work and learning: Implications for low-income students.

Gurung, R. A. R, & Galardi, N. R. (2021). Syllabus tone, more than mental health statements, influence intentions to seek help. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632

Hogle, P. (2017). Design for access to enhance accessibility and engagement. Retrieved from: https://learningsolutionsmag.com

Muilenburg, L. Y., & Berge, Z. L. (2005). Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study. Distance Education, 26(1), 29–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587910500081269

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2020). Yes! Use your phone in class: Tips for more equitable temporary remote teaching & learning. Retrieved from https://onlinenetworkofeducators.org

Perna, L. W., & Odle, T. K. (2020). Recognizing the reality of working college students. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org

Phirangee, K., & Malec, A. (2017). Othering in online learning: An examination of social presence, identity, and sense of community. Distance Education, 38(2), 160-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2017.1322457

Rovai, A. P., & Wighting, M. J. (2005). Feelings of alienation and community among higher education students in a virtual classroom. The Internet and Higher Education, 8, 97–110. Retrieved from https://www.journals.elsevier.com/the-internet-and-higher-education/

Stoytcheva, M. (2021). Developing a sense of belonging in a collaborative distance learning course: Breaking isolation in online learning. Applications of Mathematics in Engineering and Economics, AIP Conference Proceeding 2333, 050010-1–050010-8. https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0043330

Wiley Education Services. (2020). Online college students: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences.

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