Cultivating Inclusivity: How To Infuse Belonging in Your Classroom

Belonging in the classroom: collage of silhouetted faces

Our Cultivating Inclusivity article series takes a deep dive into one of the most talked-about topics at OPEN 2022: the concept of belonging in higher education. We’ll unpack how the innovation and entrepreneurship community can further this important work.

In a given space, feeling like we belong—whether we’re included or excluded—is crucial to our professional development and success.

At VentureWell’s 2022 OPEN conference, panelists shared their personal stories surrounding diversity and inclusion in higher education. They discussed several strategies that can serve to foster a sense of belonging for underrepresented populations—and how to create that environment in the classroom.

In our first article of this series, which studies the impact of belonging, higher education professionals weighed in on how that concept directly supported their career growth. Dr. Gilda Barabino, President of Olin College, said, “The extent to which we feel seen, connected, included, and valued in a community—our sense of belonging—impacts how we form our sense of professional identity, professional development, and career progression.”

We’ve seen that the numbers don’t look good. Diverse representation in the innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) realm is sorely lacking. In Making the Startup Ecosystem More Equitable, Engine reports that:

  • Startups with at least one woman founder, while increasing, are still less than 30 percent.
  • According to a 2020 report, just 1.7 percent of Black founders received venture capital funding and just 1.3 percent of venture-capital–backed startups had Latinx founders.
  • In 2020, Black and Latinx founders raised just 2.6 percent of total venture capital funding.
  • Almost 80 percent of startup executives are white, while only 2.1 percent of executives are Black and 2.6 percent of executives are Latinx.

One place to rectify these statistics is in our colleges and universities. That starts in the classroom—and in particular, the way we teach. Here are a few ways to address this.

Review a few key definitions.

If diversity is a matter of counting and recruiting more representation, inclusion is how we create spaces for people to know they belong and they have a contribution to make. Belonging hinges on our willingness to bring our whole selves to our work, whether as a student, a faculty member, or a mentor.

Start by connecting directly with students.

It’s all about cultivating authentic relationships on a more personal level. To do that, we can:

  • Intentionally create opportunities for students to reflect and share (storytell) who they are, where they come from, and what their hopes and fears might be. Encourage individual and group sharing, while offering the option to remain anonymous or quiet if that is preferred.
  • Make a point of knowing both names and pronouns.
  • Invite and demonstrate learning from authentic lived experiences (especially including failures). It can be helpful to hear about the challenges that successful people have faced.
  • Listen attentively, question assumptions, interrupt microaggressions, and model and require a climate of respect, empathy, and inclusivity.
  • Look at what might lie underneath impatience or detachment. Relate to the challenge of “having an entrepreneurial spirit but being challenged by the sluggishness of conventional higher education approaches and opportunities,” as described by Justin Henriques.
  • Redirect defeatist attitudes and impostor syndrome, and describe metacognition and the advantages of a growth mindset over a fixed one. Champion the power of YET—or growing our capacity to learn and solve problems—by assigning this Carol Dweck TED Talk. Within I&E, discuss the differences between sustainable and scalable mindsets.
  • Scrutinize issues of culture and power dynamics—at all levels. Openly discuss real and perceived authority, and work to share airtime, decision-making, and aspects of evaluation.

Make room for inclusivity in the curriculum.

Own and optimize the sphere of influence in your classroom. Your actions, your words, your nonverbal cues—they all make an impact. The microculture you create can foster belonging, call students in instead of out, and empower students to realize their full potential. Here are a few ways to make this happen:

  • Seek external review of your syllabus and the framing of your curriculum. Try to view expectations of attendance, late assignments, formatting, and camera-on (for Zoom) mandates through the experience of each individual student, and interrogate whether your expectations pertain to the learning objectives of your course or the “hidden curriculum.” For further reading on this topic, check out The Student-Centered Syllabus and ACUE’s Curriculum Crosswalk.
  • Co-create community agreements about course expectations, as well as about specific assignments and the interactions around them. Provide ample structure and clarity about required standards.
  • Engage students in evaluation of group work, where peers can determine the effectiveness of each team member.
  • Provide multiple and varied low-stakes opportunities to demonstrate learning (and for you to identify gaps). Be creative and invite students’ creativity! If you will be giving higher-stakes exams, provide review sessions and sample questions.
  • Incorporate group projects and ensure there is support at all stages, elements of choice, and accountability. It’s also important to shift the dominant demographic by putting at least two members of underrepresented groups into a small group. See: Group Projects Don’t Need To Be Miserable.
  • Solicit frequent feedback from students. Demonstrate that you are listening, learning, and willing to adapt.

Engage students in experiential, real-world learning.

The advantages of engaged and active learning pertain to both the content and delivery of instruction, especially when inclusivity is infused. Consider opening up the curriculum to real-world examples, including:

  • Ground student learning in real-life. This might include case studies using a data set or scenario from published research, or even consulting on a current problem within the community. Provide structure while infusing a “real-world” perspective. See: Using Case Studies To Teach.
  • Engage mentors and guest speakers (Zoom is helpful here) while being intentional about the diversity of the influencers you invite. Remember to refer to the “you can’t be what you can’t see” maxim.
  • Animate with micro stories that represent widely diverse perspectives to engage students and promote deeper learning. See: Leveraging Micro-Stories to Build Engagement, Inclusion, and Neural Networking in Immunology Education.

Work toward long-term, pervasive change.

Cultivating inclusion is not a one-and-done experience, nor is it a solo activity. It’s an iterative, incremental process, starting fresh with each new semester, student, and colleague. Growth and change—and our responsiveness to them—are the constants, which is why it’s important to stay engaged with this practice. Here’s how:

  • Garner visible support from positional leaders on campus who identify and publicly advocate for students from underrepresented groups.
  • Scrutinize departmental and institutional policies and structures for unintended inequities. Boldly address injustices and elevate the voices of those who are doing this work as well.

Take advantage of all the resources available to you.

Exchange strategies and resources among your peers! To further expand your repertoire, we’ve put together a few more resources on inclusion and belonging:


This is the second in a series of articles on equity and inclusion, as raised at the OPEN 2022 conference, with a special focus on equity and inclusion. Throughout the summer and into fall 2022, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the concept of belonging in higher education, and what our colleagues recommend in terms of what we can do to further this important work. Next up: We’ll delve into storytelling approaches and the impact they can have on your students.

In the meantime, check out VentureWell’s video archive and resources for advancing equity for more ideas.

KD Maynard has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Frontier Set, seeking best practices to promote the retention and success of college students. Leveling the playing field has been a theme in her career, which spans a number of roles in a variety of different institutions. Previously, KD also consulted on Venturewell’s Pathways to Innovation National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, working to reframe the delivery of engineering education to undergraduates.

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