How do I create an inclusive classroom?

Even in a seemingly homogeneous group of students, many differences between students exist. In an inclusive classroom, visible and invisible differences, for instance in class, religion, ethnicity, gender, culture, sexuality or (dis)ability, are not seen as a disadvantage, but are used as a means to increase awareness and to show more perspectives on academic and societal matters.

This may also be used to exemplify that there is not always one correct answer. In an inclusive classroom, this awareness of differences is reflected in the learning goals, the course content and the teaching, learning and assessment methods[1].

[1] If the course content is more straightforward or if it is not possible to discuss about it from multiple perspectives, another crucial aspect of inclusive education is to be aware of the implicit assumptions and expectations about teaching and learning. Lecturers and students both have expectations about their role in and out of class, how to work together, what needs to be learned and how it will be assessed. Assumptions are made about what students know and are able to do. When such expectations are not made explicit and assumptions are not checked, this can lead to confusion or unexpected or unwanted behaviour and disappointing results.

Getting started


  • Be(come) aware of your own (cultural) expectations and assumptions about teaching and learning, for instance, by discussing these with international colleagues or colleagues from different departments.
  • Consider the literature that you are using for the course: is there a (or some) diversity in the perspectives and origin of the literature?
  • Consider the examples you use in your teaching: are they based on information students should all be able to know about? If you use very specific or local examples, your students may not be able to understand you. In some cases, what a lecturer presents as a problem, may not be perceived as being a problem for students with a different cultural background.
  • Find out who your students are and what they expect from the course prior to the course, by using a simple online questionnaire (e.g. in Brightspace).
  • Discuss with colleagues how your course relates to their courses, so you can relate your course to the prior knowledge and skills of your students. 

In class

  • Greet your students when they enter your classroom for the first time, it is a very simple way of showing you are interested.
  • During your first meeting with the students reserve some time to ask the students to share with you and/or each other a bit about their educational experience. Have they written essays before (and what do they mean by essay)? Have they worked in groups before or have they given feedback to each other?
  • Reserve some time in the first meeting to explain what you expect of the students, how they should, for example, collaborate and especially why you choose certain learning activities. It is not common for all students to share their thoughts, give feedback or work together. Therefore explaining why you find this important may help to increase student understanding.
  • When students have to work in groups and you want to mix them based on their cultural diversity, be sure that the mix is relevant for the assignment they are working on. It helps if the assignment asks for different perspectives or experiences that your students may be able to bring forward.
  • Ask students about their experiences and examples pertaining to the course content; this may lead to interesting and unexpected discussions, but also enables you to check your assumptions about expected prior knowledge and skills.
  • Tell students that if they have specific needs in order to learn well, they can mention this to you (privately) and that you will do your best to help them.
  • In big lecture halls, walk around the room and also go to the back of the room. Use a microphone and inform your students you will walk around (managing expectations!). In this way you can also connect with the students in the back.





Internationalisation and diversity

Our globalised world necessitates fostering graduates’ and teachers’ international and intercultural competence; the ability to situate knowledge in an international context and show awareness of the culture-specific and social nature of knowledge and values, including their own. For students, such competences are of crucial importance for employability and their roles as global citizens in an increasingly diverse society. To that end, universities seek to offer students an international experience at home and abroad, and also stresses the importance of providing students with international perspectives, by including the comparative analysis of global issues in curricula. As a result, classrooms become increasingly diverse, giving rise to plenty of opportunities and challenges for teachers and students.


  • Students gain an international experience during their programme at home; students complete part of their educational programme abroad
  • Graduates are interculturally and internationally competent
  • Teaching makes use of diversity to enrich all students’ learning
  • The international and/or intercultural dimension of the educational programmes is reflected in the graduate attributes (‘eindkwalificaties’)
  • All educational settings and activities are inclusive for all participants, and welcome students with different backgrounds and with a variety of abilities and talents


What are the key aspects?

A first aspect of fostering students’ intercultural, international and inclusive competence is discussing the culture-specific and social nature of knowledge and values, specifically those pertaining to their own field of study. By attending to cross-border or global issues and by actively invoking alternative perspectives, as well as international comparative research, teachers can foster students’ appreciation of the (potentially implicit) conjectures in their field.  Typically, becoming aware of personal, gender-specific, cultural and/or societal “biases” increases students’ engagement, as students learn to see their field in a new light and novelty tends to bring about interest and engagement.

A second aspect likely benefitting students’ intercultural, international and inclusive competence is international experience. International experience can be gained by studying or working abroad, but also results from having students and teachers with diverse backgrounds collaborate. Offering (parts of) the educational program in English facilitates both, as international students and colleagues can join with relative ease and everyone can become acquainted with learning and teaching in English.

Diverse and inclusive classrooms

A diverse and inclusive classroom entails that students and teachers encounter various visible and invisible differences, perspectives, habits and beliefs. This diversity can be an asset, as it brings a variety of perspectives into our classrooms and may necessitate explicating taken-for-granted practices and understandings. Diversity can also contribute to students’ and teachers’ intercultural sensitivity. For this to happen, however, a classroom should not only be diverse, but also inclusive (see Teachers tales: on the road to inclusive teaching).

All students need to feel included and valued to perform to their best abilities. Research shows that when teachers fail to do so, students’ engagement drops, potentially resulting in a lack of motivation and even drop-out. Therefore, it is essential to understand students’ background and needs, preferably at an individual level, for all students to feel welcome, at home and challenged at the same time.

A first step of teaching lies in diagnosing students’ understanding; getting to know your students:  checking assumptions about students’ needs, experiences and their level of knowledge. For example, by having students explicate their existing knowledge, values and assumptions in the classroom or in online discussions, (preparatory) assignments or student polls. Yet, owing to personal preferences and cultural differences, some students are vocal about their own identity and their specific learning-needs, whereas others may not be. What is more, for some, discussing these issues in groups and/or with a figure of authority present, such as a teacher, may be especially sensitive or different from their previous educational  experiences.

How do we know we’re making progress?

Making progress comprises (re-)designing education as well as keeping track of results. But how can you know that you are making progress? Summarizing the general process of educational design and specific models for curriculum re-design we propose the following three-step approach:

For example:

1) To what extent do students gain international experience abroad today and in the future? Examples of measurable answers: (%) students have credits from another university

2) To what extent are Leiden graduates interculturally and internationally competent today and in the future? Examples of measurable answers: (%) students gained international experience (at home or abroad)

3) How does teaching make use of diversity to enrich all students’ learning today and in the future? Examples of measurable answers: by including (x) international examples; (x) comparative research studies; (%) lecturers followed training in educational diversity/inclusive education

4) To what extent is the international/intercultural dimension of educational programmes reflected in the graduate attributes today and in the future? Examples of measurable answers: (%) graduate attributes reflect cultural responsiveness

5) How does the welcome students with different backgrounds and with a variety of abilities and talents today and in the future? Examples of measurable answers: (x) welcome activities for students;

Further reading

Leiden University website pages on internationalisation and diversity:

Carroll, J. (2015) Tools for Teaching in an Educationally Mobile World. Routledge

George J. Sefa Dei (2016) Decolonizing the university: the challenges and possibilities of inclusive education. Socialist Studies/ Études socialistes 11 (1)

Smit, J., AA van Eerde, H., & Bakker, A. (2013). A conceptualisation of whole‐class scaffolding. British Educational Research Journal, 39(5), 817-834.

Based on theoretical exploration and a classroom experiment (in a multilingual mathematics classroom), the article describes ways of diagnosing students’ understanding in whole class settings.

UNESCO (2004) Changing Teaching Practices using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity

This results from the project International Student Lifecycle, focusing on the ways that lecturers and other teaching staff can maintain and improve the quality of teaching and learning for international students:

Example: heritage protection in a global context (Social and Behavioural Sciences)

Course:  Heritage protection in a global context (MA)

What is the course about?

This course explores the discourses and institutional practices surrounding heritage from an anthropological perspective, drawing on case studies from various parts of the world. This course asks how “heritage” gets constructed in specific instances through the various discourses (institutional, legal, national, international) around the concept, as well as policies aimed at its preservation. Through reading and discussion, some of the key issues with which both anthropologists and heritage professionals are struggling are examined, including: representation; strategies for “decolonizing” or “reclaiming” museums and heritage; repatriation and illicit trade; globalization, and tourism.

What are the objectives?

Students learn to:

  • critically analyze institutional discourses regarding heritage preservation and the way in which these shape and are shaped by the specifics of social, political and economic realities on the ground;