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Fostering safe and inclusive learning environments

Fostering safe and inclusive learning environments
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Hi. I’m Dana. And I’m a student assistant for first and second year students. I teach basic interviewing and communication skills courses in the psychology bachelor at the University of Groningen. I’m an international student from Germany. To feel well-integrated amongst other nationalities creating a safe and inclusive learning environment is especially important to me. It is also highly valued at the University of Groningen, since a safe and inclusive learning environment can enhance the learning process of the students. But also because in the academic year 2014 and 2015, 13% of the total student population was international. The increasing diversity of the student population at higher education institutions presents challenges. And creating a truly safe and inclusive classroom climate is one of them.
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Stacey previously mentioned that part of setting the right tone involves showing your students that you respect, support, and care about them. Appropriate classroom management strategies are essential for a safe learning environment. But before we look at the additional ways how to force the inclusive and safe learning environments, let us briefly define them. As Hockings’ research has shown, in an inclusive learning environment all students experience learning as accessible, meaningful, and relevant. And in a safe learning environment all students have the feeling they can express their ideas, beliefs, requirements, and identities. Also, they ideally feel accepted and valued. Experiencing learning as accessible refers to making learning cognitively available.
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Meaning the students have to be able to understand and to engage with what you’re teaching. Think back to the intended learning outcomes of a course. Last week, we saw that the learning outcomes give the course a direction. They help students understand why they have to learn something. So by stating the learning outcomes of a course, and of teaching session, you help creating an inclusive learning environment. Accessibility also means that everything has to be easy to find. For instance, to allow the students to engage with the materials, it has to be clear to them that the course content can be found in a syllabus. And that the PowerPoint slides are uploaded on the online learning environment.
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Experiencing learning is meaningful, essentially means that the content you are teaching has to resonate with the learner. Learning is an active and social process. As a learner you interact with content and with other people in order to make sense of the world. In order for content to resonate with the learner, it should hook into the prior knowledge of the learner. If you teach at a level far above or far below the actual cognitive level of the student, learning will not be experienced as meaningful.
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In a pedagogical terms, we call this teaching at the zone of proximal development, just difficult enough to challenge the students, but just close enough to their prior knowledge in order for them to understand it and to feel motivated.
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This also implies that when you use a metaphor or a concept that your students might not know it will be a bit difficult to them to make sense of it and to be able to connect it to the knowledge they may already have. For example, the Dutch expression walking the fire from the skits doesn’t translate very well into other cultures. Experiencing learning as relevant might be the most difficult one. Some courses might be compulsory and students might not perceive the immediate value of them. Referring to the entire curriculum might help to point out the relevance of a subject. And it may make the connection with previous and future courses. Remember to look at the intended learning outcome stated.
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They can help you to make that connection. You could also ask the students about their own experiences with the topic and connect them with the course content. This might increase students’ perception of relevance. In order to create inclusive learning environments, it is always good to listen to your students and to be open to their suggestions. Once, one student who had been quite inactive during our first sessions came up to me and told me that he was a rather individual learner. And that he did not like sharing with others, but that he felt like he could open up to me about his negative opinion.
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Knowing what he was thinking made it a lot easier for me to include him appropriately during the sessions so that by now he actually appreciates the course content. And this connects back to a safe learning environment. An environment in which students feel that they can express their ideas and concerns like my student did. Another way of making sure students feel they are being heard, valued, and included is, for example, to not single out students. Some students might feel very uncomfortable answering questions out of the blue. Instead, you might inform your students that you value their experiences and their ideas. And that you would like everyone to share during class. Give your students time to think about a question.
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Or use an online audience response system, for example. Try not to speak in stereotypes, or to ask students to talk on behalf of their country. As you may know from your own country, even within one country there might be great cultural differences. It might, therefore, be better to ask students about the area that they live in. Other ideas on how to force the safe and inclusive classroom environments you might have drawn from the discussion you had with Stacey when talking about classroom management in the previous activity. Like, for example, constructing some basic ground rules together with your students instead of imposing some on them.
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We also mentioned the learning communities in week two as one way of creating more safe and inclusive environment for students. In the next step, you will get to know five areas that can be causes for miscommunication and frustration between teachers and students. You might have experienced them yourself. So I’m curious to get to know what you are thinking of them.

In this video, Dana will explain what a safe and inclusive learning environment is and how you can foster it.

The concept of inclusive learning environments is currently gaining (renewed) attention due to the trend of internationalisation of higher education. Safe and inclusive learning environments are, however, important for all students since constructive environments are beneficial to the learning process.

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