Diversity in teaching & learning

Getting to know your cohort   Diversity in the first year classroom   Equity in learning
    Inclusive learning environments   Supporting individuals in diverse cohorts
        Resources for teaching

Diversity in the first year classroom


In first year units of study you will find students from a wonderful variety of backgrounds, and with a wide range of skills and attributes.

Students’ diversity may be reflected in many ways, including but by no means limited to their cultural or linguistic background; their religious or political viewpoints; their sexuality; their socio-economic background; and their differing prior experiences due to age, schooling, previous employment, immigration or disability.

Even among high-school leavers who have studied in Australia, prior learning experiences and skill levels can vary widely. A student from a remote or rural community will have very different strengths, and face a very different set of challenges, from one from a selective or private school, or from a disadvantaged inner-city or outer-suburban school. Those who have previously studied Maths or English at only a basic level will often find themselves in the same classes as those who have taken these subjects at advanced level in high school.

In addition, students undertaking combined or joint degree programs are likely to have strengths, needs and interests that differ from those undertaking single degrees, and yet all can come together in the same unit of study.

In first year units you may have students from other years as well, particularly those in combined degrees who may need to take foundation units in a range of discipline areas over a number of years. In addition to uneven skill levels, there may be students with a low level of engagement who are simply there to ‘fill up their credit points’, and are not easily challenged or engaged.

Fostering an inclusive learning environment and making the most of the diversity amongst your students can be one of the most exciting, and most challenging, aspects of teaching at university.

Getting to know your cohort

Understanding the composition of your cohort, especially when it is large or is comprised of students from several different degree programs, or even different faculties, is an important part of fostering an inclusive learning environment.

  • Use student records to find out about the cohort. You can work with your local administrative team to get some information about students’ backgrounds and degree programs from the student records system. This can help you to think about how your teaching may sit with their prior knowledge and their other areas of study, and thus you can plan ways that might best engage their interest.
    One example: the Business School generates a ‘Knowing your students’ report for coordinators in their faculty, using information available through the student records system. This shows the students’ ages, countries of origin, language backgrounds, the degrees they are undertaking and the other subjects they are studying. ‘Learning and Teaching in Business’. For more information, email .
  • Use class activities that help you get to know the group, and to help them get to know each other. In groupwork situations, knowing how many students speak English as a second language and whether many students share the same first language may influence group formation. Diverse groups particularly often benefit from support structures like discussion boards and time to work together in-class.
  • Consider offering some self-reflective material or tests for students to discover more about themselves as learners. People learn differently, and developing your students’ awareness of different learning styles and of their individual responses to different types of learning activities can help them to approach their work differently.

Building inclusive learning environments

There are a number of ways that you can work to create learning environment in which students feel included and involved.

  • Think about ways to build the students’ sense of being involved in a learning community, allowing them to see connections between their varied units of study, as well as connections across the cohort, and connections into your discipline or faculty. When it comes to group work, ensure that the groups are comprised of students from a variety of backgrounds to encourage learning interactions between them. See our section on Learning community for some suggestions. The link is in the feature panel on the right.
  • Utilise your group’s diversity in your unit of study (UoS), so that students can learn from each other’s varied backgrounds and knowledge. For instance, use international or indigenous examples that are relevant to your topic, and design activities where specific cultural or regional knowledge is an advantage. Do be careful, however, never to ask a students to contribute ‘as a representative’ of a particular group. The fact that a student may identify with a certain ethnic or minority group, for example, does not mean that they are either willing or necessarily able to speak on behalf of that group. And do remember to respect students’ confidentiality. A student who is registered with Disability Services, for example, should choose for themselves whether to let others in the class know that they are living with a disability.
  • Keep in touch with the learning expectations of your student group. Students will have expectations of what they will learn in your UoS, and while they are at university. You can use quick methods for getting feedback from students, and responding to it. These and other methods are discussed in Evaluating your teaching.
  • Help students to understand that they share responsibility for their learning. Give them a clear idea of your expectations of them, their obligations in the University environment and the support that is available to help them develop self-directed learning habits. Even when you have a diverse range of abilities and prior skills amongst your cohort, it is important that students understand that their differences are valued and supported but that they still need to work independently and to be able to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcomes you have set for your unit. See Staff/student responsibilities for more on this topic.

Equity in learning environments

Inclusive teaching
The Institute of Teaching and Learning (ITL) Inclusive teaching project includes resources on teaching diverse cohorts, and links to professional development programs for staff, as well as links to theories and ideas around inclusive learning.

Inclusive Equity
The Inclusive Equity research project from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences aims to improve the learning community at the University of Sydney for all students, and especially for students from disadvantaged groups. This project focuses on sharing strategies that students and teachers have found helpful, with a view to increasing the participation and retention of students from all equity groups.

Acknowledging particular groups
Simply recognizing the diversity in your student group goes a long way towards helping students feel valued. You can do this by mentioning relevant resources in lectures, and relating topics to the interests or backgrounds of students you know to be in your cohort. For example you may focus on issues relating to mature or indigenous students’ strengths or needs. Even when these groups are a very small percentage of the total cohort, they do appreciate the sense that they are not invisible.

Creating spaces for learning
Outside the classroom inclusive learning continues in the informal and virtual spaces the students move through.

  • Consider inclusivity in your online learning activities. For example, online discussion groups and forums can allow students to find their voice, and to make more considered and thoughtful contributions than may be possible in the classroom.
  • Faculties can also create informal communities where students are encouraged to mix with others outside their usual social groups, including with faculty staff. See our section on developing a Learning community for more suggestions. The link is in the feature panel on the right.

Supporting individual students needs within diverse cohorts

Identifying an individual student’s needs within a diverse cohort will help you to support them to achieve the learning outcomes in your particular UoS, and to work towards developing appropriate graduate attributes.

Methods of support and assistance that may be required include:

  • developing students’ academic skills, with particular focus on those who are having difficulties. See Academic skills development.
  • helping students see connections between their units of study, particularly if these are across different departments or faculties. See Service teaching for some suggestions on this.
  • providing different modes of learning within your UoS to support the diverse ways that people learn best. See Active learning.
  • recommending participation in a student mentoring or PASS program. Individual mentors can play a key role in helping first year students feel supported and involved in the larger faculty community. Check with your department head to see what mentoring or study programs are in place in your area.
  • providing reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities. In some faculties, student registered with Disability Services will have a Personal Academic Plan, which should be sent to you automatically, and which you can refer to when advising them. In others, you will be advised by Disability Services when adjustments are necessary, and you will need to work with the student concerned and, in some cases, with your faculty Student Disability Liaison Officer to ensure that these are made.

Resources for teaching students from diverse backgrounds

ITL’s strategies for teaching to diversity provides a range of resources for teachers and other staff interacting with particular groups.

Social Inclusion conferences are discussed in ‘Supporting future champions of social inclusion’ from ITL’s Teaching@Sydney bulletin, including links to their websites.

Within diverse student cohorts you may find students have different values and ethics from yours. The resources from Merlot Pedagogy can help you understand more about cultural differences and also provide you with some ideas and exercises to use when teaching.

Learning Solutions offers a course on Cross cultural communication skills. All Learning Solutions courses are free for University staff.

‘The Guide for Reflective Practice: Cultural Diversity in Learning and Teaching’ (which includes tips for teachers, students and general staff).
‘A Plan for Cultural Diversity Awareness and Inclusiveness in Learning and Teaching’.
Download these from the ITL website.

‘Diversity & Complexity in the Classroom: Considerations of Race, Ethnicity and Gender’ from Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching.

‘Quality teaching for diversity: Engaging and sustaining learning through productive pedagogies’, from ITL’s Synergy journal.

From ITL’s Teaching@Sydney bulletin you will find short articles on the following: