Creating LGBTQ+ Inclusive Classrooms for Equitable Active Learning

For the educators in the room, have you ever had undergraduate classes that refuse to engage with your course content? I’ve been thinking a lot about those students, and wondering how we can change our teaching to help them engage more actively.

This week, I attended the Dalhousie Conference on University Teaching and Learning. This is the largest conference in Canada that deals with University teaching and learning and had over 150 participants and 52 presentations (unfortunately with too many concurrent sessions for me to see everything).

The conference this year was focused on active learning, a project which the centre for learning and teaching at Dalhousie university has working on this past year. Active learning is the process of more actively engaging students in the learning process. This can be done a number of ways, through activities like Think-Pair-Share, group exams, group work, clicker questions, group discussion and so on. (As an aside, if you are wondering what a group exam is or how it is administered, I am planning a future blog post on this topic!) These activities are designed to help students be a bit more active in the classroom, rather than just listen to a lecture for which they will lose focus after about 10 minutes.

I had the pleasure of speaking at this conference, but about something a bit more specific. I understand the requirement for active learning in the classroom, and I understand the benefits, but I wondered, “Would I have engaged in the active learning process during my undergrad?” I worried that, especially in my first year, I would have been far too uncomfortable to do so. Let’s back up so I can explain.

I came out to my family as gay in the fall of my first year of University. This came with a period of very personal and emotional stress. Entering into the classroom environment in this state, I felt very uncomfortable and very tense. Because of this, I think I would’ve been very unlikely to participate well in any of the aforementioned active learning activity.

My talk at the DCUTL conference was titled “Creating LGBTQ+ Inclusive Spaces for Equitable Active Learning.” My key message was that students who do not feel comfortable in their surroundings are unlikely to participate in the active learning process. I drew on my personal experiences in my first year to explain this discomfort and how an educator might help alleviate that discomfort.

The primary “action items” I asked people to consider including in their classrooms were the following:

My purpose here was to encourage the normalizing of pronoun usage in the classroom. Introducing yourself, as the instructor, with pronouns at the beginning of the semester signals to LGTBQ+ students that you are aware of them and you are a supportive individual. The same is achieved through the inclusion of pronouns in email signatures and in class syllabi. These small actions help non-binary and trans students to identify their pronouns in class without feeling singled out or alone.

My second suggestion is what I’m referring to as “Visible Allyship.” This essentially means that it is not enough to simply be an ally, your students also need to know that you are an ally. This can be done through the use of small things like rainbow pins, rainbow flags, and other LGBTQ+ identifying paraphernalia. Importantly, these small objects, when hanging in your office or classroom, signal to LGBTQ+ students that this is a space where they are welcome.

This has been my experience anecdotally. My current PhD supervisor, then honours supervisor, has a “celebrate diversity” pin on his office cork board. When I first met him to discuss doing research, I saw the pin, knew I was in a safe space without having to broach the subject directly. This takes an enormous amount of stress off of the student and made me immediately more comfortable in that environment.

The very same Celebrate Diversity pin that my supervisor had (has) in his office. (
The very same Celebrate Diversity pin that my supervisor had (has) in his office. (

This is a big one. Much like conferences should always have an explicit code of conduct, which explains what behaviours are not acceptable during the conference, so to should the classroom have a code of conduct. These documents can be short, and signal to students that they have entered into a location where their peers are expected to engage in respectful and courteous ways with you and others within the classroom environment. This can include statements like:

“We expect all classroom participants to treat each other with dignity and to conduct themselves in a proper and professional manner.”

“Harassment and sexist, racist, homophobic, or exclusionary jokes will not be tolerated”

These codes of conduct should be made explicit on day one, and be included in the syllabus. It is also a good idea to have a plan for what the students should do if this code of conduct is breached, and make that explicit in your syllabus as well.

For many LGBTQ+ youth, finding role models is hard. This is especially true in traditionally heterosexual and cis-gendered environments like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. For this reason, I think it is incredibly beneficial to students to highlight those in your programs (and beyond) that identify as a member of a minority group. Doing this allows students to find role models, and recongize the folks they can be immediately open with and ask questions (about being LGBTQ+ in STEM).

A word of caution. DO NOT highlight LGBTQ+ staff, faculty, or students without express consent from them. It is possible for a staff member to be open with their immediate workplace, but not want their identity on speakerphone to the whole institution (or beyond). Without express consent, it is quite easy to accidentally out a faculty member to their family/friends and this can be EXTREMELY harmful. Just ask before you highlight anyone.

My talk was designed to offer these suggestions to make the classroom a more equitable place for all to feel comfortable engaging in the active learning process. I hope that some other educators can find these suggestions useful in navigating what can be a complex classroom environment, and make sure that all students feel welcome.

A final note: remember that sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you don’t say. I believe that most educators are not EXPLICITLY making an unwelcoming environment for students. However, without active signals that the classroom is a welcome place for LGBTQ+ students, they may feel uncomfortable regardless. Be mindful of how environments might feel for diverse students and use these 4 suggestions to more actively make the classroom comfortable for LGBTQ+ students.