Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

This is the fourth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, and  Knowing Your Students.  You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.


In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

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Take-Aways from Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning

By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

On June 5, 2017, I had the pleasure of representing Central Penn College at the Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning in Bethesda, Maryland. My presentation, co-written and co-presented with Judith Dutill, Instructional Designer at Millersville University, was entitled “Pause Procedure and Reflecting Learning in the Online Classroom” and was presented to a crowd of more than thirty educators from institutions of higher education around the country.

The session reviewed methods and techniques that online teaching faculty can use to engage their online students. First, we discussed the challenges faced by online teaching faculty in designing effective instruction for the online modality and promoted the use of microlectures and pause procedure techniques. Next, we defined the elements of a microlecture and discussed the relevant research on the considerations faculty should make before endeavoring to develop their own microlecture. Finally, we discussed methods for incorporating pause procedure into video lectures and introduced some technical tools to assist with this implementation. Specifically, we reviewed some of the software techniques being used at Central Penn, including Play Posit, Voice Thread, and Office Mix.

In addition to my own session, I attended sessions on:

  • What Lies Beneath: Rethinking Major Issues in Teaching and Learning
  • Radically Inclusive Classrooms: Promoting and Protesting a Diverse Learning Environment
  • #InteractiveLearning: Technology Tools to Engage and Support All Learners
  • Advising Online: An Orientation Module to Support Faculty Student Interactions
  • Improving Academic Integrity: Evidenced-Based Strategies


While there were many take-aways from the conference, here are a few that resonated with me:

Teaching-oriented versus learning-oriented. During the opening session, Todd Zakrajsek made an excellent point about this issue by asking: “does your lesson change if there are no students in the room?”  The question addresses the fundamental difference between teaching and learning.  If you can deliver the same presentation, run through the same information, and provide the same talking points to a room of thirty as you can to an empty room, you are probably teaching-oriented.  If your lesson plan so thoroughly addresses, integrates, and engages students that you could not possibly proceed, then you are probably learning oriented.

Understand and respect cognitive load.  There comes a point where students (and frankly, us as well) reach a point where we cannot take in any more information.  Rather than continue past this point-of-no-return, find ways to break up the material.  Incorporate reflective breaks to give students a chance to work with the information.  Think about the ways to manage the class so that there is some thinking and some doing.  Understand that no matter how brilliant the lesson, students can only retain so much.

Ends over means.  The role of lecture in the classroom was a hot topic this year, but overall, the sessions I attended seemed to reiterate the same point: engaged students are better than disengaged students no matter the method.  Sometimes, lecturing is necessary; sometimes, it’s not.  The key is that you know your own strengths and weaknesses as an educator, play to those strengths, and engage your students.

About the Author

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

We are having a paper fight! Ready. Set. Go!

By Benjamin Lipschutz, Business and Accounting Instructor

How do your students learn? How is it that they take their prior knowledge and experiences, combine that with what they are currently being asked to intake, and create real and meaningful knowledge? Experiential learning theory explores this process by breaking into steps how individuals learn. According to researcher David Kolb, experiential learning starts with learners having a concrete experience. They do, see, feel, read, or hear something that passes all their filters and actually leaves an impression. They then require a reflective observation period to mull over what has just occurred. When they have internalized what has happened, they can go through abstract conceptualization and truly learn from the experience. Finally, through active experimentation, they can test what they have learned. This cycle repeats, leading to growth.

A question remains: What does this really mean, and how can/do we apply this in our classrooms?

Let’s start at the beginning. We often ask our students to read text, watch a video, or review presentations to gain a scaffolding of understanding, and then we fill the spaces through our instruction. However, Kolb theorizes that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984), and that the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations is most readily imparted through new experiences.

One classroom activity that truly encapsulates this learning model is the “paper fight.”  I ask for eight volunteers from my class of 30 students. I split them in groups of 4, place them on opposite sides of the room and give each a small stack of paper. I then declare that we are having a paper fight. Go!

What happens? Usually, the students hesitate, but then organize themselves and start throwing paper at one another. Some crumple and launch the paper, others throw the entire stack, some throw at their own group, and others throw at the opposite group. In general – it’s chaos. However, it is a CONCRETE experience. I capitalize on this experience the students just had and lead an in-depth discussion about what just transpired. Too often, this time for reflection, understanding, and convergence of ideas is cut short, and students are left floundering with partially formed ideas that fall by the wayside. There must be facilitation to point out and smooth over any inconsistencies between the experience and their understanding and we have to provide adequate time to allow this to happen.

Some probing questions I use to help students come to a conclusion about the previous fight are: Who won? Why did they win? What was the goal? What was the purpose? What were the objectives? The abstract conceptualization comes into play by allowing them time to reflect on the experience and then come up with a novel idea or concept — in this case, a new mission, vision, strategy, or objective.

I then allow for a round of active experimentation. I run a second round with another 8 students, but allow them 30 seconds to strategize. The process begins again. This activity continues with me slowly incorporating more information and details and highlighting the various aspects of management I am teaching in the unit’s lesson.

Key Takeaways 

  1. Experiences are the basis for learning
  2. Allow enough time for true reflection and understanding before moving on
  3. Encourage and give theopportunity to create their own opinions
  4. Create an activity where they can test out their idea.


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Benjamin Lipschutz is an instructor in the School of Business at Central Penn College. He holds degrees in Accounting, Business, Business Education, and Special Education with PA State certifications in Business Education and Special Education Pre K-8 and 7-12. His focus is in student centered learning and engagement and he enjoys teaching at all levels, from students here at Central Penn College to kindergartners with Junior Achievement.

Invitation Only: Guest Speakers in Online Classrooms

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

We all know the benefits of inviting experts into our classroom space: abstract theoretical concepts become more relatable and concrete; difficult, contentious topics have a knowledgeable spokesperson; essential skills and ideas are given professional application; different perspectives on discussed topics, just to name a few.   When teaching online, however, we tend to forget about these ‘guests’ and the rich experiences to our onsite classrooms.

Online classrooms, whether synchronous sessions or asynchronous lessons, can benefit from inviting experts to speak about topics.  Here are a few ways to invite experts into your online course:

Guest Lecturer

For onsite classes, many of us already use guest lecturers as a way to put a face to a debate, theory, or idea.  The same thinking should apply in an online course.

Creating It

In my online courses, I use the guest lecturer in two different ways.  First, I might use an internal guest lecturer for a particular topic.  This might be another faculty member or a staff member (such as Career Services, Counseling, Library, or The Writing Center).  Another way to use a guest lecturer is to invite an external expert.  This might be someone who has particular knowledge or experience that will enhance the student’s understanding of the topic.

Using It

In either case, I will embed the video into Blackboard and surround it with directions on how to view it (“Please pay particular attention to this question/answer.”) as well as critical thinking questions (“What did you notice about the emphasis placed on this concept?”).  I will ask the students to follow up on these points in a discussion forum, a journal, or a blog.



Interviewing an expert helps students to learn more about the topic by interjecting the ‘human element’ into the conversation.  Moreover, by watching you interview an expert on the topic, students learn how 1) to engage in critical thinking and analysis, 2) to ask probing, thoughtful, and respectful questions, and 3) sustain a collegial discussion and debate with a peer.

Creating It

Obviously, when taping an interview, it is important to have the written permission of all involved and let them know the terms and conditions of recording process.

Using It

For an online course, there are several ways to use this recorded artefact: 1) to augment a particular topic, 2) to lead off a discussion board forum, and 3) to provide a starting place for a blog or journal.  You can also students the opportunity to do a synchronous ‘Q&A’ if the participant is available.



If you want a less formal format than lecturing and interviewing, storytelling is a more informal approach.  When you invite an expert to ‘tell a story,’ you are giving your students an opportunity to apply their observation skills and synthesize examples with topics.  I use storytelling in my courses as ‘case studies’ when I am trying to highlight a particular topic as well as give students an opportunity to hear examples from experts in their field.

Creating It

When you ask a guest to ‘record their story,’ you want to provide them with the class topic and perhaps present them with a certain scope.  This will help them frame their experiences and provide you with applicable material.

Using It

Much like interviewing, you can use this artefact 1) as a ‘case study’ to augment a particular topic, 2) as a prompt for a discussion board forum, and 3) to provide a starting place for a blog or journal.  You can also students the opportunity to do a synchronous ‘Q&A’ if the storyteller is available.


Are there other methods that you use to ‘invite’ expert voices into your classroom?  How do you frame these experts in an online environment?  Have you ever tried a ‘Q&A’ session?  What has been your students’ feedback about these ‘guests’?

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

The First Day of Class

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Make a great impression and leave them wanting more. This is the advice my peer advisor gave me as I prepared for my first day of college teaching. He knew (and I quickly learned) that the first day of class is one of the most valuable. The first day is when you begin to build your classroom community and set the tone for the entire term.

Do you want to spice up your traditional first day of class activities this term? Here are some suggestions from author James M. Lang:

Syllabus review
Rather than reading the syllabus to students, use syllabus review time as an opportunity to get students engaged and participating early.

  • After distributing the syllabus, have students work in pairs to review the syllabus and identify three questions they want to know about the course. Then, ask students to share their questions so you can answer them.

Ice breakers
Use ice breakers to foster a feeling of community and allow students to share in the ownership of the classroom space.

  • Stand by the classroom door, shaking student hands and introducing yourself to them by name right away.
  • Pass students dry erase markers as they enter class and have them write their names on the board before they sit down.

First impressions
Spend the first day or two of class trying to find out what information students know (or think they know) about the subject matter.

  • Ask students to write a paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic. (For example: “Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?”) Afterward, have students pair up to share and discuss their responses before inviting students to share their responses with the class.
  • Use students’ responses to help you plan the content you cover in the first week or two of classes.
  • Revisit students’ first-day responses at the end of the term to close the loop on the conversation and to acknowledge new insights students have gained throughout the course.

Big and interesting questions
Develop an activity that invites students to engage in the intrigue of course-related central questions, mysteries, or puzzles.

  • Example 1: A statistics professor informs their class that, “once there are thirty people in the room, the probability that two people have the same birthday is more than 75%” They then poll students until they find the birthday matches in the class (they report they’ve always found at least one).
  • Example 2: A writing professor shows their students a poem that presents the reflections of an older narrator on a childhood experience with his father (one that many students are able to identify with) and asks students to write down in their notebooks whether they believe the narrator’s attitude towards this experience is positive or a negative one. This activity leads to a group discussion about the influence of past experience on understanding. The group also discusses analysis, using evidence as support, and other skills that students need to be successful in the course.


Another worthwhile first day activity is to collect student contact information. At a recent professional development meeting, Dr. Scolforo suggested distributing index cards and having students write down the following: their phone number, the phone number of a close contact, scheduled events during the term, and current obstacles to success. Having this information readily available makes it easier to reach out to at-risk students later in the term.

Do you do something noteworthy on the first day of class? Tell us about it in the comments section! Did you try one of these ideas on your first day? Let us know how it went!


Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.