W woman wearing a face mask standing in front of a laptop. Behind her is another woman wearing a face mask.
Sarah Golding, Ph.D., (left) and Allison Johnson, Ph.D., talk with faculty during a Leaders for Inclusive Learning faculty development workshop in summer 2021. In the yearlong Leaders for Inclusive Learning program, faculty worked to increase student success through inclusive teaching and learning practices and have taken those practices back to their faculty peers in their departments for even greater impact. (Alexis Finc, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences)

The goal? Success for every student

Leaders for Inclusive Learning program trains instructors on how best to serve their students and lead systemic change.

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Kacie Caracciolo, a full-time student at Virginia Commonwealth University, worked two part-time jobs in the fall of 2021. She walked dogs for Wag and Rover and clocked hours at a local beauty salon. She put in 25 hours a week in part-time work in addition to her full slate of classes and extracurriculars. There were times she took zeros on quizzes and labs in her classes just to grab a couple more hours of sleep. So when her professor, Matthew Scott in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, offered an optional cumulative final for the HPEX 310: Fitness and Health class, Caracciolo signed up.

Anyone in the class could choose to take the final and that grade would replace the lowest test grade of the semester. Unlike the standard tests given throughout the semester, this would be harder – a cumulative final that encompassed all the material from the course. Students would have a little less than three hours to complete it, in person, during their allocated final exam time slot. Caracciolo studied for two weeks, focusing on a few chapters a night, and eventually aced the final. She received an A for the course, in large part due to the cumulative final exam. “I appreciated the flexibility of the final. It really gave me an extra boost I needed,” Caracciolo said.

A portrait of Matthew Scott
Matthew Scott, teaching assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies, Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. (Contributed photo)

Flexibility. Caracciolo had hit on the right word, for that was precisely what her professor had in mind. “I had some hesitation earlier in my teaching career about building in flexibility,” Scott said. “The Leaders for Inclusive Learning program made me realize how creative I could be without lowering my standards.”

Scott was one of 25 faculty members who participated in Leaders for Inclusive Learning, a unique yearlong program that sought to increase student success in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences through inclusive teaching and learning practices. The program reshaped how Scott thought about his courses, his teaching practices and how to best support his students.

A program where all students benefit

The program was the brainchild of Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology and assistant director of the VCU Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence in STEM initiative.

“At VCU, we take pride in the diversity of our student body, yet when we look closely, like most universities, we see disparities in our graduation rates. How can we correct these disparities? I believe as instructors it is our responsibility, not the students’, to create an environment where all students can achieve their goals,” Golding said.

Golding partnered with Allison Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in VCU’s Life Sciences and program director of VCU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence initiative, and Kim Case, Ph.D., director of faculty success for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and Faculty Success, to develop the yearlong program. It was based on the Institute on Inclusive Teaching (a five-day summer faculty development workshop), whose main goal is to increase the use of inclusive methods of teaching in STEM classes and therefore boost student success.

“Leaders for Inclusive Learning was a logical expansion of the work we were doing in the VCU HHMI Institute on Inclusive Teaching. The program was aimed at creating a cohort of faculty experts who had training in both inclusive teaching and leading faculty development. These leaders could then help scale inclusive teaching methods across VCU’s largest college,” Johnson said. “Like HHMI, our ultimate goal is to increase students’ sense of belonging on campus, increase student persistence and support student success for those who are at most risk of adverse outcomes due to systemic bias.”

A call for nominations went out in the spring of 2021, and faculty members were selected from across the College of Humanities and Sciences to participate.

A portrait of Punit Gandhi
Punit Gandhi, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. (Contributed photo)

“The pandemic really brought into focus the struggles that our students at VCU face, things that are out of their control and prevent them from being successful in their courses,” said Punit Gandhi, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics and a Leaders for Inclusive Learning participant. “I saw the LIL program as an opportunity to learn how to better serve our students.”

The desire to serve students was a common thread for most of the program participants.

“As an instructor, I really wanted to improve my teaching practices, and not only that, but evidence-based teaching practices, with the goal to best support my students – making sure that all my students’ voices are heard and that every student in my class has the opportunity to learn,” Scott said.

After the five-day summer workshop, the group of educators met bimonthly during the academic year for workshops, lectures, small-group discussions and data sharing. The group learned about personal, structural and institutional biases that contribute to disparities in student persistence. Guests included a mix of faculty and staff from across campus and beyond, with keynote speakers Bryan Dewsbury, Ph.D., from Florida International University, who spoke on the importance of inclusive teaching, and Rebecca Covarribus, Ph.D., from University of California, Santa Cruz, who discussed the cultural wealth of minoritized students.

Along the way, the Leaders for Inclusive Learning group became a community, spitballing ideas and sharing their classroom successes and challenges with one another – and they began to transform their teaching practices.

A transformation in the classroom

When Scott ran the numbers, he saw that Caracciolo wasn’t the only student who benefited from the optional cumulative final exam. Of the 262 students in his class, 110 opted to take the final and 63% did well enough that they raised their letter grade. Even more importantly, many of the students who took the optional final were able to move from failing to passing, a critical piece in continuing in the major, as the class was a requirement. Having seen the success of the optional cumulative final, Scott plans to continue offering it in future classes.

Another Leaders for Inclusive Learning participant, Grace Gipson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, already knew how important it was to connect one-on-one with students.

Grace Gipson wearing a shirt that says \"AND STILL I THRIVE\"
Grace Gipson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies. (Contributed photo)

“Not all students are open to engaging in the classroom. It can be intimidating. One-on-one conversations allow professors to get to know their students in a way that can be more comfortable than a large classroom,” Gipson said.

In the past, Gipson offered office hours and would speak informally with her students, but after reconsidering her syllabus with the lens of inclusive learning, she devised a new system. Students were offered additional points for one-on-one meetings. Over half the class took Gipson up on the opportunity, a significant increase from past semesters.

“I used this time to check in and learn about a student without them feeling worried or having the conversation just focused on grades,” Gipson said. “We often talked about something outside of the class, and many of the students were free and open.”

The conversations allowed Gipson to learn more about the stresses her students faced – housing and food instability, family responsibilities, job demands – and offer appropriate resources. It also allowed her students to view her as a resource and champion for their success. And Gipson removed a final exam and replaced it with a final project.

“There are other ways to evaluate student learning, and the LIL program got me to broaden my thinking. I have a lot more fun formulating the syllabus now,” she said.

A portrait of Judi Crenshaw
Judi Crenshaw, an instructor in public relations for the Robertson School of Media and Culture. (Contributed photo)

Judi Crenshaw, an instructor in public relations for the Robertson School of Media and Culture, also revamped her syllabus while participating in Leaders for Inclusive Learning. Crenshaw made small changes – “office hours” became “student hours,” learning objectives were revised with student success in mind, land acknowledgement and inclusion statements were added – to large changes about assignments and finals. Instead of penalizing students for late work, they were rewarded for turning in assignments early. She built in more peer review time, which encouraged students to experiment with assignments.

“Once your eyes are opened to inclusive learning practices, it becomes blatantly obvious how many syllabi are self-centered. One change can make a ton of difference,” Crenshaw said. “I also learned that I need to keep adapting. My students are going to be different every time and have different needs. As an instructor, I have to be sure that they are actually learning with the tools I am providing, and if not, I have to adjust.”

Gandhi was one of four instructors from his department to participate in the program. Based on the discussions that the group had, Gandhi and two other math instructors applied for and were awarded a You First grant from VCU to study first-generation student awareness and resource usage in introductory level math classes.

“Success rates in these classes have been lower for first-generation students relative to their continuing generation peers. We want to understand how students are making use of resources provided by the university, such as office hours and tutoring sessions,” Gandhi said. “We suspect that there may be significant differences in awareness and usage between these groups of students on average, and the ultimate goal is to make these resources more accessible and useful for all students.”

Gandhi also pivoted away from lectures and introduced more small-group learning.

“I now try to get students to talk to each other and to me about the material. For example, I have started to ask students to solve problems in groups and present them to the class, either live or through pre-recorded videos. I’m also starting to allow students some flexibility in how they demonstrate their mastery of their material,” he said.

Leading change among their peers

As Leaders for Inclusive Learning wrapped up this spring, the group began to think about ways to share with their departments and schools.

“The LIL program charged us to go back to our department and to be equipped to make changes that spread out and impact the students beyond our own classes,” Crenshaw said.

That was always the goal when the program was developed. “We believed if we could train a critical mass of committed faculty by fully immersing them in inclusive learning and change leadership, we could begin to create more systemic transformative change across our college’s classrooms,” Golding said. “Our hope is that our Leaders for Inclusive Learning become leaders in their units, mentors to other faculty, and will continue to grow and learn together as colleagues in the coming years.”

Many have begun offering their own training. Scott and the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences have partnered with VCU’s Transfer Center (a Leaders for Inclusive Learning workshop focused just on transfer students) to become Transfer Champions. They will provide training to all their faculty on ways to support these types of students. The department is also offering an inclusive learning workshop for faculty at the start of each semester. 

“At VCU, we take pride in the diversity of our student body, yet when we look closely, like most universities, we see disparities in our graduation rates. How can we correct these disparities? I believe as instructors it is our responsibility, not the students’, to create an environment where all students can achieve their goals.”

Sarah Golding, Ph.D., assistant director of the VCU Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence in STEM initiative and a founder of the Leaders for Inclusive Learning faculty development program

Crenshaw took her LIL training and used it to examine the current Robertson School faculty/staff handbook.

“There are some glaringly obvious omissions, like pronoun usage or intentional diverse hiring practice guidelines. We need to make sure that VCU policies and philosophies truly line up with what we are doing in our own departments and with the Quest 2025 goals,” she said.

Beyond the classroom, Gipson used the training to revamp student community efforts in her department. The Department of African American Studies added a lecture series for students and rethought the two student organizations, Black Excellence and The Black Experience.

“We are bringing in students as co-collaborators. These won’t be organizations where just faculty are running things,” she explained. “I’m excited for the fall. There are so many new people – faculty, students – who will be bringing their voices to the department.”  

Ultimately, Leaders for Inclusive Learning participants say everyone benefits from inclusive learning and teaching practices.

“At VCU, we have a mission to serve all students,” Crenshaw said. “Inclusive teaching and learning practices enable all students to learn. You get the best outcomes in student learning. It’s the best and, really, the only way to fulfill our mission at VCU.”

View a full list of Leaders for Inclusive Learning participants here.

* The LIL program received funding from the dean’s office in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, VCU’s Office of the Provost and the VCU Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence in STEM Award. Faculty interested in participating in the 2022-23 HHMI Institute on Inclusive Teaching should keep an eye on the VCU TelegRAM for information.