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How do I create an inclusive learning environment?

Getting started


  • What does creating an inclusive learning environment actually mean?
  • What can I personally do to ensure I create a safe learning environment for my students?
  • What support is available to me?

What Is An Inclusive Environment?

An inclusive learning environment is one in which all those participating feel able to actively engage, feel safe and feel welcome. An inclusive learning environment also acknowledges and celebrates difference as part of everyday life.

The Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Teaching and Learning Plan 2008 - 2011 outlines the Faculty's strategic goals for teaching and learning. The goals are drawn from the Faculty's strategic plan. The Teaching and Learning Plan makes it clear that the Faculty is committed to recruiting students from diverse backgrounds and to meeting the educational needs of those students. Goal number 8 states that the FMHS will,

"Continue with our commitment to increasing the representation of Māori in the health workforce through access to our programmes."

Goal number 10 states that the Faculty will

"value and encourage diversity in our students, and recruit appropriately from under-represented and international groups."

The commitment to meeting the needs of diverse students is explicitly stated in goal number 12 which states that the Faculty will,

"Support teaching and learning with appropriate facilities, staff and student support and resources aligned with priorities."
Glenis Wong-Toi from the University's Student Learning Centre talks about some practical ways in which you can create learning environments to support a range of students' needs:
Click to play the video (requires Flash Player).

The University of Auckland's ‘Equity’ web pages provide a range of information on equal opportunity policies, strategies and support structures. The page has information for students from diverse backgrounds. Visiting these pages is highly recommended.

Additional reading would include Kia Oritē - Achieving Equity: The New Zealand Code of Practice for an Inclusive Tertiary Education Environment for Students with Impairments. 

Positive and Affirmative Action

Inclusive education considers the impact of previous educational and life experiences at all stages of a student's engagement with tertiary education:

  • Pre-entry - in recruitment and promotional literature, admissions and selection processes
  • During the programme or course itself - teaching and learning methods, assessment processes, social activities, access to learning resources, timing of classes, assignments and opening hours of libraries or learning spaces
  • On and after graduation - In helping students consider potential careers or further study.

Nicolette Sheridan, the Faculty's Associate Dean (Equal Opportunities) talks about some of the ways the UoA supports staff to address the diversity and WP agendas:

Click to play the video (requires Flash Player).

A range of positive or affirmative action programmes can be set in place under law to encourage applications from and support specific previously under-represented or disadvantaged groups. In the Faculty, such schemes include the MAPAS (Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme)  and the ROMPE (Rural Origin Medical Preferential Entry) schemes. The University has an undergraduate targeted admission scheme policy.

Monitoring student progress in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, domestic responsibilities and graduate employment helps to identify whether positive action or other inclusivity schemes are having a positive impact.

Diverse educational experiences that promote learning help to prepare citizens to engage effectively in multicultural settings and, in New Zealand and other countries with an indigenous population, in bi-cultural settings also.  Enabling students, particularly those who are going on to be health professionals, to work and interact effectively with others who hold different perceptions and have different norms and values is essential.

Cultural Competence and Safety

In the classroom, laboratory, e-learning or workplace teaching setting, teachers need to consider how the design and delivery of learning opportunities helps meet the needs of a diverse student body. Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us that students will not be able to learn effectively if their safety and belonging needs are not met. Teachers need to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and safety in classroom and workplace practice (for example in patient-centred care) as well as in the wider learning environment.

Cultural competence and safetycan be defined as follows:

"cultural awareness is the beginning step in the learning process, which involves understanding difference, while cultural sensitivity is an intermediate step where self-exploration of the student begins. Cultural safety is the final outcome of this learning process". 

Howevver, theNursing Council of New Zealand suggests goes beyond the first definition to define cultural competency very broadly:

"cultural safety education is delivered according to the Nursing Council's definition, which is broad in its application and extends beyond ethnic groups, includes age or generation; gender; sexual orientation; occupation and socioeconomic status; ethnic origin or migrant experience; religious or spiritual belief; and disability. From 

Practice Points

In practice, many of the skills in creating an inclusive learning environment are those of the effective small group facilitator, such as:

  • Providing opportunities for all members of a group to engage in the learning process
  • Managing the teaching environment so that shy or reticent learners can make positive contributions e.g. through splitting the class into pairs and small groups and mixing groups so that students learn to work with a range of different people
  • Role modeling culturally safe and competent practice
  • Showing respect for a diverse range of views
  • Being able to challenge students' views or behaviours which demonstrate a lack of respect towards others
  • Providing opportunities for learners to bring their previous experiences positively into the learning process
  • Avoiding the use of cultural stereotypes and gendered or ethnically biased language or visual images
  • Being aware of the potential impact on learning of earlier educational or cultural experiences.


Merit in Addressing Diversity might be evidenced by a contribution to creating a learning environment that addresses the needs of diverse and under-represented student groups e.g. needs analysis, policy development. This page has provided you with some basic information to get started with creating a learning environment that addresses the needs of diverse and under-represented students.

  • You might want to start an ePortfolio record to evidence what you have done to address the needs of diverse students. If you decide that you need to more in this area, you can start a record to evidence the actions that you take and the results of those actions.
Achieving excellence in addressing diversity might be evidenced by a contribution to the 'diversity agenda' at an institutional level. Achieving distinction might be evidenced by a contribution to the 'diversity agenda' at an international level.

Taking it further

Nisha, D., & Val, W. (2006). Can We Assess Students' Awareness of Cultural Diversity? A Qualitative Study of Stakeholders' Views. Medical Education, 40(7), 682-690.
Personal attitudes of doctors towards cultural diversity may influence the delivery of clinical care. Yet whether medical schools should assess a student's cultural awareness and if so, how, has not been specifically debated. The purpose of this study was to establish the views of key stakeholders in medical education on the assessment of awareness of cultural diversity within the undergraduate curriculum.


Fitzjohn, J., Wilkinson, T., Gill, D., & Mulder, R. (2003). The demographic characteristics of New Zealand medical students: the New Zealand Wellbeing, Intentions, Debt and Experiences (WIDE) Survey of Medical Students 2001 study. New Zealand Medical Journal, 116(1183).
This paper reports on the first nationwide survey of all medical students in New Zealand. This paper reports the demographic characteristics of medical students and compares them with the general population.

 Howard, J. (2010). The Value of Ethnic Diversity in Teaching Profession: A New Zealand Case Study. International Journal of Education, 2(1), 1-22.

Changing demographics in many contemporary Western countries have resulted in multiethnic societies with teaching workforces that have not kept pace with the increased diversity of student populations. International research indicates that teachers from minority language and cultural backgrounds can impact positively on minority students’ self-esteem and academic performance, and that all students can benefit from a diverse teaching workforce. This paper reviews the literature on race-matched teaching and the impact of diversity in the teaching profession, and then reports on a case study which explores these issues specifically in the New Zealand context. The generation 1.5 Asian New Zealand and third-generation Anglo-European New Zealand student participants and their parents reported both challenges and benefits associated with strictly race- or ethnicity-matched teacher assignment and also with increased teacher diversity. Participants also highlighted the need for all teachers to be trained to work effectively with diverse student populations. The paper concludes by discussing the role of teacher education programmes in developing a culturally responsive teaching workforce for a future New Zealand where minority ethnicity students will outnumber the present Anglo-European majority. This paper has relevance for many other educational contexts with large multiracial, multiethnic populations.
Patricia, G., Biren, A. N., & Gretchen, E. L. (2004). The Benefits of Diversity in Education for Democratic Citizenship. Journal of Social Issues, 60(1), 17-34.
The positive benefits of diversity are demonstrated in a study comparing students in a curricular diversity program with students in a matched control group (n=174), and in a longitudinal survey of University of Michigan students (n=1670).

London Deanery, Diversity, Equal Opportunities and Human Rights

This module offers you the opportunity to consider your role in relation to equality and diversity and explore the key principles involved. 

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How do I create an inclusive learning environment?

“A teaching philosophy can help you to reflect on how and why you teach. If you don’t have a teaching philosophy, you might want to consider writing one. You can take a look at What makes a good teacher? to get started. If you already have a teaching philosophy, you might want to reflect on how the work that you are doing here fits with that philosophy”.

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