Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on inclusive teaching hosted by the Center for Teaching and Learning — the group on campus charged with helping Penn instructors with their teaching and generally improving the quality of education at Penn. This event brought together faculty, staff and students devoted to the idea of fostering inclusive learning environments for all students at Penn.

Given the incredible diversity in the Penn student body, it is important that we consider how to support all of our students and create classrooms that are conducive to learning for students of all backgrounds and experiences. I applaud CTL for bringing this essential conversation to the forefront so that teachers and students alike can seriously think about these issues.

The event started with a presentation on the diversity that exists in the Penn undergraduate cohort. Penn students, as we all know, come from a wide range of backgrounds: ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically and more. Despite all that makes Penn students different from one another, there was one uniting factor for all Penn students: their high levels of achievement in high school that brought them to Penn. I found this to be an interesting thought on which to start a discussion on inclusive teaching — as Penn students, we may have a lot of differences, but at the end of the day, we are still brought together for the same purpose of furthering our education at an incredible institution.

Since the majority of attendees at this seminar were teachers in some capacity, much of the discussion focused on what instructors can do create spaces where students feel supported and welcome to promote learning and discussion. These conversations really opened my eyes to what inclusion in the classroom really means. At a surface level, it is easy to consider this issue in terms of race, gender, country of origin and other seemingly obvious pieces of students’ backgrounds.

However, there is another piece to it; inclusive teaching also encompasses thoughts about students with different learning styles and educational backgrounds. The sometimes less apparent aspects of students’ experiences also play a crucial role in shaping their abilities and behaviors in a classroom setting, and this is something that is important for instructors to consider.

One misconception that I had about this topic was that the professor is the sole arbiter of the inclusive classroom. Coming into these talks, I expected that the onus should be exclusively on the instructor to create a learning space that met the needs of all students. However, as we worked through strategies for professors to support their students, I began to realize how much of a role students can play in creating inclusive classrooms, as advocates and supporters for their peers and themselves.

As students, we can and should do more to help faculty and staff in creating learning environments that are inclusive for all of our classmates. It starts with being advocates for ourselves and for our peers. In situations in which teachers may knowingly or unknowingly create spaces that exclude certain students, it is our duty to speak up.

The mode of how we address this is up to our discretion. In some situations, addressing the professor directly is appropriate, while in others, it may be better to discuss the occurrence with an advisor. Regardless, being a bystander only serves to perpetuate the incidence of exclusion in the classroom.

Creating conversations that allow professors to confront these issues is an important step in making Penn the most inclusive that it can be.

As students, it is important that we also pay attention to our own biases and actions in the classroom that may affect other students. For example, in class discussions, we should be aware of our own roles. Do we tend to take a backseat and listen to what’s being said? Or do we more often dominate the conversation?

Our actions can profoundly affect our peers’ ability to participate and get the most out of the class. Just as it is a professor’s responsibility to monitor these discussions and provide a space where everyone’s voices can be heard, it is our job to also be cognizant of the impact we may be having on other students. Once we realize this impact, we should take an active role in promoting inclusion in our classes.

At the end of the day, an inclusive learning environment serves the best interests of all students, by providing a safe space for individuals to explore their interests and get the most out of their education. Discussions like the inclusive teaching seminar are just the first step in making Penn the most inclusive it can be.

SHAWN SROLOVITZ is an Engineering junior from Manalapan, N.J., studying bioengineering. His email address is “Srol With It” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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