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Here’s what I learned when I made my teaching flexible and inclusive

23 Nov 2022 | Anna J Davis Anna Davis, Associate Fellow of Advance HE and DPhil Researcher at the University of Oxford, reflects on making her teaching flexible and inclusive, and the positive benefits it has had for her students.

When it comes down to it, inclusive teaching is about honesty. Honesty with our students. Honesty with ourselves. Honesty with our discipline. When I decided to go flexible and inclusive with my teaching, I started being honest about the purpose of higher education and what it takes to perform well in it. Here at the University of Oxford, we are in the middle of a busy Michaelmas Term, and the task of going inclusive and flexible with our teaching has become increasingly recurrent in conversation and practice. Inclusive teaching means recognising and minimising barriers to students’ learning and participation whilst flexible learning focusses on students’ needs, accommodating when, where, and how they may need to study. Together, flexible and inclusive teaching (FIT) often means making small changes with big impacts that benefit all students.

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As an Associate Fellow of Advance HE and DPhil Researcher at Oxford teaching postgraduate students, it has been just over a year since I made the conscious decision to go flexible and inclusive with my teaching in higher education. Don’t get me wrong, there is a wealth of resources and training available to educators here at Oxford as well as at many other higher education institutions. But resources alone do not create a flexible and inclusive learning environment. Going inclusive and flexible is a choice, a conscious choice, which each educator must make for themselves because ultimately, we are the ones responsible for holding ourselves accountable to our students.

Creating inclusive learning environments is easier said than done. Quite often, we don’t know who we need to include, and in what way, or for what reason. This is especially true when situations our students are dealing with are not always visible to the naked eye or detectable in our interactions with them. Because I have scoliosis and underwent surgery for it when I was a teenager, I can empathise with this one. My undergraduate experience in the United States of classmates glaring at me and my ‘special’ classroom chair, complaining that I ‘get to’ park in a disabled bay, and even a professor arguing with my institution’s disability services about whether I should receive extra time on exams were all part of my daily student life. Although the majority of my professors and peers were either actively supportive or did not seem to care very much, those whose behaviour was better suited for the rubbish bin sure did make their mark on me and my outlook on the university learning environment.

Not only might such situations be invisible and undetectable to us as educators, but they may also not yet even be known to the students themselves. Here at Oxford, about 17% of students are registered with the Disability Advisory Service and about ‘10-15% of all students [at Oxford] require some form of adjustment to teaching due to a disability.’ These are only the students who decide to declare a disability and who know that it exists. Scholarship indicates that, for mental disabilities, the onset ‘often occurs from ages 17 to 25, and so many students with mental disabilities are experiencing symptoms for the first time’ as they begin university[1]. The likelihood that students who need flexible and inclusive teaching are already in our classrooms without us knowing it is quite high. In my teaching of one-on-one tutorials, seminars, and discussion groups, I have learned three important lessons about what happens when I go flexible and inclusive.

  1. When my students observe my efforts to be inclusive in the learning environment, they become more confident in their abilities.
  2. When my students realise that my learning environment is made to be inclusive for all, their engagement with me, their peers, and the learning material increases.
  3. When my students realise that the learning environment is adaptable and inviting for all of them, they are more open to expressing ideas to improve accessibility that I may or may not have thought of yet.

Honest inclusivity removes the shroud that impedes students from engaging in the learning environment. Honest inclusivity strips the learning environment of unnecessary obscurity, unrelatability, misconceptualisation, alienation, loneliness, stigmas, and exclusivity. What remains is the normalisation of equity and a learning environment intuitive towards the complexity of students’ identities. This is worth changing for.

Anna J. Davis holds an Associate Fellowship with the Higher Education Academy. She is a DPhil Researcher in Area Studies of Russia and Eastern Europe at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford working on how international identity in the former Soviet Union is developed through civil nuclear energy relationships with Russia. At Oxford University, Anna also teaches tutorials, seminars, and classes for postgraduate students in Area Studies Research Methods, International Politics, and Russian and East European Studies. Her beliefs centre on students as active and engaged learners, and she specialises in inclusive and accessible teaching methods. Her teaching philosophy is to bridge a connection between students and the subject by empowering students to construct their own understanding of the material and gain confidence in their ability to master the subject.


[1] Allison K. Kruse and Sushil K. Oswal, “Barriers to Higher Education for Students with Bipolar Disorder: A Critical Social Model Perspective,” Social Inclusion 6, no. 4Students with Disabilities in Higher Education (2018): 194–206, https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v6i4.1682.

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