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Inclusive Peer Learning: Things to Consider

What makes a learning environment inclusive? When have you felt truly included in a class, group project, workshop, or other learning setting – and what were the qualities that helped you feel that way? Have you ever had a conversation with somebody else about their feelings of inclusion in a learning setting?

Feeling included means that you feel a sense of belonging, that the space (physical or virtual) is equally yours and every other person’s in that environment. We know that this feeling of belonging makes a difference in students' experiences and outcomes in college, and that this is especially important for those whose identities are historically marginalized in higher education or in particular disciplines. To break this down, a sense of belonging can mean

  • Believing that other people value your presence in the environment
  • Comfort in being yourself in the environment, without feeling you need to adjust significantly to match others’ expectations
  • Seeing your own values and experiences reflected, at least to some degree, in the content of the learning materials, class discussion, and other course activities
  • Knowing that others in the environment want to support you in doing your best

Inclusive learning

The term inclusive learning has come to reflect a set of teaching practices that instructors can use to ensure that their classrooms are welcoming to all students. But students themselves also contribute to shaping the experiences of others, and to creating inclusive climates. In this way, we all play a role in helping to counter the impact of social and structural forces that create inequality in our educational systems.

Whether you are in a formal leadership position (peer tutor, peer mentor, group leader, etc.) or are a participant (class member, project group member, etc.) in a learning space, your contribution matters. Your words and actions make a difference for your fellow students, and you serve as a model for others. The best way to develop your inclusive leadership skills is to reflect on and notice the assumptions you might make, and the actions that might follow. Consider, for example:

  • We don’t all come into college with the same level of “insider knowledge” of how a university operates. The so-called hidden curriculum – the set of unspoken rules that allows you to smoothly navigate a university system – is “hidden” because it’s not automatically visible to everybody in the community. For instance, a student with close relatives who have graduate degrees is likely to enter college already understanding how to work effectively with an advisor, how faculty office hours work, how to communicate their needs to instructors, and so forth. For other students who have not yet had that kind of exposure, it might take a while to figure these things out.
  • We don’t all have access to the same set of resources or privilege – and it’s easy to overlook this kind of diversity. Imagine that a student in your study group says that they never encountered particular chemistry material in high school, to which another replies, “Really? You never studied this?” Comments like this one can contribute to the imposter feelings that many students feel, which is exacerbated by systems that historically exclude certain voices and which can especially impact those with marginalized identities. Another example: One student says that he is discouraged because he doesn’t have anything lined up for summer work, to which another replies, “Can’t your parents help you get an internship?” The question assumes that everybody has parents with means or connections to find this kind of opportunity. An alternative approach would be to engage with curiosity: What are you hoping to do? Who (whether at home or at Northwestern) might be able to help you explore possibilities?
  • It’s easy to make assumptions that blame the individual, framing a problem as a deficit in the person rather than a result of external factors or deficits in the broader environment. A student who arrives late for a group project meeting, seems tired, and doesn’t participate much (easy to assume she is checked out) may have been sick, up late with a family crisis, or struggling with mental health challenges. Likewise, a student who seems behind in understanding class material (easy to assume they are either not smart enough or not working hard enough to do well) may be extremely bright and working very hard, but not have had exposure to the background material in high school.
  • We often overlook the strengths others bring when those strengths are not the ones most highly valued in a given environment. It’s not just the person with the greatest technical expertise in a group who contributes value. In fact, cognitive diversity can help teams function more effectively. The person who asks thoughtful questions that get the group to think, or who brings in alternative viewpoints that expand the group’s perspective – these individuals will benefit the group’s processes and outcomes in ways that can be hard to measure but which can improve a group’s outcomes significantly.
  • We often don’t realize how our words or actions impact others. Sometimes, seemingly insignificant comments can reinforce or amplify negative stereotypes and land hurtfully. These microaggressions might even be intended as compliments (as in “You speak English really well” from a continuing-generation American to somebody whose parents immigrated but who grew up in the U.S., or “Wow, I’m amazed at how good your section of the paper is” from a white student to the quiet Latina woman in the project group). Questions or statements that could suggest others might not belong (Where are you from? Are you in this class?) can also marginalize, even if that is not the intent. If you’re not familiar with this topic, you can learn more about implicit bias and microaggressions, hear students’ experiences, and consider how to respond.
  • Exclusion happens all around us. Paying attention to small interactions, such as who speaks and who gets interrupted or how people position themselves in physical space, can bring to the fore some of the hidden ways in which power and inclusion get distributed in everyday life. If you identify with privilege in a given space, recognizing that people with marginalized identities are disproportionately burdened with navigating that terrain can also bring unconscious actions into awareness, and can help dismantle exclusionary spaces that exist as part of our history of segregation and discrimination.  
  • We may tend to give our attention to those who reflect traditional forms of power, both in terms of their identities (traditionally, white male identity is often most associated with authority), and in terms of their personal qualities (extraversion, for example, has traditionally been valued as a leadership trait). People who do not match expectations are often regarded as less effective or judged with different criteria. Consider: Do you notice that you tend to listen more when particular people speak? Why is that? Whose perspectives might you be missing out on?