Supporting an Inclusive Course Climate in the Heat of Challenging Moments

How to support meaningful discussion

Course climate, defined as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn” (Ambrose et al., 2010), is at the core of creating a classroom environment that fosters learning for every student. In a learner-centered classroom, the primary goal is to create a climate in which “all students feel as if they belong and as if their points of view matter” (Davis, 2009). While much of course climate relies on instructors and how they design a course, it is the responsibility of both instructors and students to co-create the conditions that lead to learning, making the most successful educators those who “seek to understand and strengthen the potential for shared meaning” (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2003).

An inclusive learning environment “embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others” (Hockings, 2010). Approaching learners as individuals involves avoiding assumptions about learners based on stereotypes, and promoting an environment that recognizes and values the differences between individuals by allowing everyone equal time and space to express themselves and their experiences (Steele, 2011). In order to create an inclusive learning environment that embraces each individual, educators should strive to foster belonging for all students through both instructor-student rapport and student-student rapport (Barr, 2016; Weimer, 2013).

Proactively supporting an inclusive learning environment can be helpful in promoting learning when difficult moments arise. When students express views that alienate and offend other individuals, these moments should be directly and thoughtfully addressed: if educators give learners the chance to stop and reflect critically on the assumptions and positions that emerge in these discussions, these challenging moments can become teachable moments that embody collective opportunities for deeper thinking (Davis, 2009; Sue et al., 2009; Tsukada & Perreault, 2016).

Tips for productively addressing challenging moments:

  • In order to help foster an environment of mutual respect and collaborative inquiry, encourage civil discourse from the first time you meet by collectively establishing participation guidelines with your learners (Salazar et al., 2010).
  • If a learner makes an alienating or inappropriate remark, give them the benefit of doubt when possible (Souza, 2016). Focus on the comment or behavior itself, and acknowledge the effect it has on others while using “I” statements to model a respectful stance that supports rapport-building (Davis, 2009).



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Barr, J. J. (2016). Developing a positive classroom climate. The IDEA Center IDEA Paper #61, 1-9.

Davis, B. G. (2009) Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2003). Diversity and motivation: culturally responsive teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hockings, C. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education: A synthesis of research. York: Higher Education Academy.

Salazar, M., Norton, A., & Tuitt, F. (2010) Weaving promising practices for inclusive excellence into the higher education classroom. To Improve the Academy, 28(1), 208-226.

Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Souza, T. (2016, May). How to create a transformative learning experience for students by managing hot moments and difficult discussions in the classroom. Magna Online Seminar.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.

Tsukada, H., & Perreault, A. (2016). Complicating how classroom climate works: Advancing the framework. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 9(2) 1-17.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.