OIA Mini-Primer: Inclusive Excellence in Teaching

Have you ever found yourself noticing things like these?

  • When I have students with very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds than my own, I don’t know if I should treat them differently, provide extra tutoring, or go about business as usual.
  • Some students seem to fit in more naturally with my course than others.
  • I understand how to facilitate disability related accommodations, but don’t know what to do with students who are not disabled and ask for more time.
  • When I ask for participation in class the same students volunteer, how can I encourage students to participate so I can check for understanding?
  • I don’t think that diversity and inclusiveness are really an issue in my discipline.

Or, are you curious about conceptual lenses that help think about inclusiveness as a core factor in effective teaching and learning? Then this mini-primer is for you! Short definitions of core concepts introduce sets of specific and practical questions that you can use to consider inclusive teaching practices while planning, implementing, and assessing your courses.

Inclusive Excellence in Teaching: At the Intersections of Learner-Centered Teaching, Universal Design, and Intercultural Competence

Why these big terms?

Higher education is changing, and it is doing so at an increasing speed. These changes include growing numbers of students who differ by cultural and linguistic backgrounds, economic and geographic contexts, diverse perspectives, age groups, gender identities, and social roles. These differences also manifest themselves in the classroom, and as we move from a sense of accommodation of difference to treating it as an asset (Milem, Chang, Antonio, 2005), we need concepts and approaches that allow us to reconsider and refine our teaching practice so all students are considered. Luckily, the scholarship is growing quickly, enriching the evidence needed to make meaningful decisions in teaching.

For this Mini-Primer, Inclusive Excellence is the umbrella-like perspective to discuss the connections between a variety of large concepts, including Learner-Centered Teaching, Universal Design, and Intercultural Competence. Each field of scholarship and practice is evidence-based and more complex than we could even indicate. We offer only very short and rough definitions of these concepts below in order to focus on an integrated perspective to present a set of guiding questions that arise out of the areas in which the large concepts integrate. We have selected specific and practical questions you can ask yourself to prepare and refine your teaching practice. This resource is meant as a “teaser” that hopefully will spark thoughts and questions and guide you to other campus resources (listed below) for further engagement.

If you’re interested in learning more about the research behind Inclusive Excellence, Learner-Centered Teaching, Universal Design, and Intercultural Competence, we invite you to explore the references listed at the end. You will find that these concepts, and the practices that underlie them, enhance student engagement, diversity and retention, critical thinking, and collaborative skills for all students, and that they may even save the instructor time in the end because less effort goes into reactive accommodation.


Inclusive Excellence

Inclusive Excellence is a vision and initiative that addresses diversity with a mindset of inclusion and equity, conceptualizing diversity as an asset to and integral part of academic excellence. Inclusive Excellence describes an encompassing cultural and systemic transformation process of an educational institution that thinks about inclusiveness and excellence as one and the same, engages everyone on campus and allocates shared responsibility among all community members. On the individual level, it increases academic engagement, critical thinking, and (inter)cultural competence.

  • A helpful explanation of Inclusive Excellence: “Making Excellence Inclusive” (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2017)
  • What does Inclusive Excellence mean for The University of Arizona? Have a look at the UA's diversity and inclusion website
  • Instructional example: In the first week of classes you engage your students in a conversation about inclusive name and pronoun use; ground rules for interaction and discussion in person and online; criteria for participation that are based on the learning preferences of the class participants; and available resources for students on campus.

We are using Inclusive Excellence as an umbrella because it expresses the notion of an inclusive approach to diversity as an asset for academic excellence. The following concepts will provide perspectives and principles that help with enacting Inclusive Excellence in teaching.

Learner-Centered Teaching

Learner-centered teaching, also known as student-centered learning, comes from a constructivist approach to learning theory and is based on the assumption that people have to actively construct knowledge to learn. It shifts the focus from the teacher to the student and includes explicit skill instruction. In a learner-centered class, instructors don’t just deliver or cover content but rather take on the role of the “guide on the side,” providing opportunities for students to actively discover and contribute to the content. That means students are engaged with the material and exercise complex, higher-level thinking tasks in practice or informal assessment, both alone and in collaboration with peers. Students take on more control and responsibility for their learning and also practice reflecting on their process of learning.

  • A helpful video on active learning: "What is Active Learning?" (Northwest Iowa Community College, 2011)
  • For implementation ideas and strategies, have a look at the OIA Mini-Primers “Active Learning Strategies,” “Backward Design,” and “Learning Sciences Strategies.”
  • Instructional example: At the start of a new course unit, you ask the students to individually predict how to solve a certain problem. Then you present them with a variety of resources; e.g., readings, visuals, lectures, videos, or handouts. In small groups, the students next develop and refine problem-solving strategies with the information they have reviewed. The group results are shared and feedback is given. Later, you present the students individually with a similar type of problem to see if each student can apply the problem-solving strategies.

Universal Design

Universal Design (UD) aims at inclusive and accessible environments that can be used and understood by everyone to maximize learning opportunities for all students. This is reflected in curriculum choices and the design of physical and online learning environments, as well as the materials and tools used in teaching, the composition of instructional strategies and techniques, integrated modes of communication, and the level of flexibility and options for learning and assessment. Please be aware that there may by a variety of abbreviations used in the literature, such as Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Universal Course Design (UCD), Inclusive Design (ID), etc.

  • A helpful video and infographic on Universal Design: “About Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2017). An alternative infographic is available via the National Center on UDL.
  • How does the implementation of UD in instruction look like? Have a look at the “UDL Quick Tips” (The University of Arizona, 2017) and at the handout “Designing an Inclusive D2L Course Site Best Practices” (The University of Arizona, )
  • Instructional example: You give students three different options to demonstrate their learning about a certain topic. A student may choose between giving an oral presentation with visual aids, writing a paper, or creating a digital portfolio.

Intercultural Competence

Intercultural Competence (IC) has as its goal fostering effective interactions with people from other cultures. With an attitude of openness and some learned knowledge and skills, people can engage with others in ways that are mutually productive and beneficial.

  • A helpful video on Intercultural Competence: “Intercultural Competence (Interculture TV, 2017) .
  • What does this mean in practice? Have a look at “What is an Interculturally-Competent Person like?” (University of Jyväskylä, 2017).
  • Instructional example: Providing students with a guide to working successfully in groups, and even assigning different roles for group work. This will help students from different cultural backgrounds understand what the expectations are of group work and help make sure that all students have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

Guiding Questions

As an invitation to think about your teaching from different, integrated conceptual lenses, we have selected a variety of specific and practical questions that can help you prepare your courses. The list of questions is roughly divided by timing, starting with preparing yourself for designing or refining a course, planning your course, teaching your course, and assessing and reflecting on your course to determine future development.

Preparing Yourself

Do I feel ready to design my class with diverse learners in mind? As instructors, we are the designers of our students’ learning experiences. Therefore, we ought to gain awareness of our own attitudes and knowledge. The more clarity we have on where we stand, the more informed we can take action. Click here for some initial questions you may think about.

Designing and Refining

How do I create an inclusive course? Each course is part of a larger degree curriculum. There are institutional, departmental, and disciplinary requirements and expectations. Yet instructors have at least some power to design the course and learning environment for their students; often, they have much more decision-making power than they think. Click here for a few questions that help you assess whether you are developing an inclusive course and learning environment. Feel free to use this table to take notes for the preparation of your course.

Teaching Your Course

How do I monitor and nourish inclusive excellence? It is highly recommended to gather informal, anonymous input from students as well as inviting peer observers to one’s teaching sessions. Such measures of feedback complement one’s own perception of the course and allow for responsive adjustments that may help increase the quality of the course and learning environment during the ongoing semester or session. Click here for some questions you may ask yourself.

Assessing and Reflecting

How did it go, and what do I do next? Various resources provide data about one’s course that is useful for analysis and reflection. Such resources include instructor reflections (e.g. notes or a teaching journal), student work for course assessments, informal surveys and TCEs, and peer observations. Click here for some questions that help to reflect on your course.  Feel free to use this table to take notes for the preparation of your next course.

We are Here for You! Campus Resources

Are you puzzled by some of the questions in the worksheets? Do you struggle with finding answers? Do you have other questions? If so, we have reached our objective of engaging you in a deeper thinking process about your teaching practice! Here we list a few campus resources where you may benefit from consultations, assistance with processes, resources, and more. We are looking forward to meeting you!


The Office of Diversity & Inclusion serves as a hub for information and networking to enhance the transformation into a leading Inclusive Excellence institution. The website provides information about campus-wide programs, organizations, and consultation.


The Disability Resource Center (DRC) works closely with our campus community to ensure all UA faculty, staff, students, and visitors can participate in UA-related activities, classes and work environments without barriers to access. DRC will consult regarding accessibility including the accessible design of events, course materials, building renovations and technology purchases. As an instructor, don’t hesitate to contact the DRC proactively to learn more about accessible course materials, including course-related technologies and class activities.


Towards the goal of achieving an accessible electronic and information technology environment, the UA has created its own itAccessibility Program. The website includes resources and guides, including pages specific to Creating Accessible Course Materials, and the accessibility of Academic Technologies and the program offers free consultations.


The Office of Instruction and Assessment works closely with our campus community to assist all UA instructors with course design, instruction and assessment, and technologies. OIA faculty developers and instructional technologies support specialists are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the ILC. Professional development is available through Mini-Primers, Mini-Courses and Workshops, and even a graduate certificate program.


The Center for English as a Second Language can offer some guidance on working with international students, such as the handout “Working with International Students,” and invite questions from and collaborations with colleagues on campus. You are welcome to contact Sumayya Granger.


Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Barnett, B., and Felten, P. (eds). (2016). Intersectionality in Action: A Guide for Faculty and Campus Leaders for Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Institutions. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Burgstahler, S. (Ed.). (2013). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/doit/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Universal%20Design%20in%20Higher%20Education_Promising%20Practices_0.pdf 

Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Cheng, M. H. M., & Wan, Z. H. (2017). Exploring the effects of classroom learning environment on critical thinking skills and disposition: A study of Hong Kong 12th graders in liberal studies. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 24, 152-163.

Dimitrov, N., & Haque, A. (2016). Intercultural teaching competence: A multi-disciplinary model for instructor reflection. Intercultural Education, 27(5), 437-456. doi:10.1080/14675986.2016.1240502

Langley-Turnbaugh S. J., Blair, M., & Whitney, J. (2013). Increasing accessibility of college STEM courses through faculty development in UDL. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE-promising-practices/college_stem.html

Milem, J. F., Chang, M. J., & Antonio, A. L. (2005). Making diversity work on campus: A research-based perspective. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/mei/milem_et_al.pdf.

Price, K. M., & Nelson, K. L. (2014). Planning effective instruction: Diversity responsive methods and management (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage.

Selingo, J. (2017). “The Future of Enrollment: Where Colleges Will Find the Next Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 10, 2017.

Spitzberg, B.H., & Changnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing intercultural competence. The sage handbook of intercultural competence. Deardorff, D. K. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. 2-52.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Please also consult the OIA Mini-Primer: Finding Teaching Resources on the Web for additional great ways to explore the scholarship of teaching and learning.

You are welcome to contact one of our faculty developers to discuss your teaching ideas, concerns, or questions, related to this mini-primer, or any other topic related to teaching and learning. We are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the OIA.


Much thanks to Sumayya Granger (CESL) and Diedre Lamb (DRC) whose collaboration made this mini-primer possible.