Diverse learners

How do you approach student diversity as a teacher?

So, it’s your first day of teaching either a seminar or class. In a physical setting, you may encounter a sea of diverse faces in your student groups. Whether students are domestic or international, they will range across visible axes of difference, such as appearance, language, able-bodiedness, age, and gender. Other diversities may be hidden or not as visible, such as learning skills, work experiences, socioeconomic status (SES), rural/regional background, first in family, and health issues etc. And in an online teaching environment, most of these diverse characteristics will not be readily apparent.

As a teacher, it is important to be aware of such diversity, but not to try and pigeon-hole or stereotype your students as representative of a particular ‘category’. Diversity is a multi-faceted landscape wherein students face complex intersections of identity and experience.

Thus, welcome diversity as a valuable resource. It is a rich repository of knowledge and experience to be embraced as a strength not feared as a problem. Inclusive curriculum content and teaching practice should reflect and draw on different socio-cultural perspectives to enhance students’ engagement and their learning journeys.

So how do you do this? Here are key guidelines to get you started.

Create supportive and inclusive learning environments

It is therefore incumbent upon you to plan for diversity and proactively create supportive and inclusive teaching and learning spaces. Devlin et al. (2012 CC BY-NC 3.0) offer the following key practical suggestions. While these were written as a guide to teaching low socioeconomic status (LSES) students, they are integral to teaching inclusively, irrespective of student backgrounds.

Know and respect your students
Understand students are time poor; communicate with them, embrace and integrate their diversity and enable contributions of their knowledge to everyone’s learning.

Offer your students flexibility, variety and choice
While upholding academic standards, offer students flexibility, choice in assessment and variety in teaching and learning strategies. For more information and teaching tips see the sections below: Accommodate learner variability and Use multiple modes of content delivery. See also topics Online/blended learning, Teaching large groups, and Make assessment inclusive for tips and examples.

Make expectations clear, using accessible language
Speak and write in plain language to ensure students understand the concepts being taught, your expectations of them and what is required to be a successful student. For more information see the sections below: Teaching tips for international/CALD students and Break down language barriers.

Scaffold your students’ learning
Take a step-by-step approach to teaching to ensure students build on what they bring to higher education and are taught the particular discourses necessary to succeed.

Be available and approachable to guide student learning
In addition to being available, be approachable so that students may make use of your expertise and guidance to improve their learning and performance. See Get to know and engage your students for strategies, tips and examples.

Be a reflective practitioner
Reflect and seek to act on your own reflections, those from peers and informal feedback from students, to continuously improve your teaching practice and your students’ learning.

Employ inclusive teaching strategies

  • Reflect upon your own biases or adoption of stereotypes (both conscious and unintentional).
  • Treat and respect each student as an individual.
  • Foster an open cultural climate in your student group—ask if any aspect of the unit content is making them uncomfortable and respond to their feedback.
  • Be sensitive to and rectify any language patterns or case examples that exclude or demean any groups. For more information see the section below: Use inclusive language and examples.
  • Introduce discussions of diversity at staff meetings (teaching team, discipline, school, faculty).
  • Develop cultural competency and become more conversant about socio-cultural groups other than your own.
  • Be fair and equitable in how you provide feedback, constructive criticism or acknowledge students’ good work.
  • Try to select materials that offer gender-neutral language and are free of stereotypes, or cite and critically examine any shortcomings that do not meet these criteria.
  • Strive to include multiple perspectives and global experiences (PDF 1.1MB) in your curriculum design.

(Adapted from Diversity and Inclusive Teaching, Vanderbilt University, CC BY-NC 4.0)

Use inclusive language and examples

Select and communicate unit material that uses inclusive language and examples. This will contribute to building student engagement and success.

The following recommendations have been adapted from the University of South Australia (2014):

  • Use learning resources that reflect the diversity within the Australian community. These should not portray stereotypes or present people from diverse backgrounds as 'special cases'. Not every resource needs to include someone who is 'diverse'.
  • Avoid including people only in relation to their diversity. For example, the use of people with disabilities only in situations where their disability is foregrounded or a focus.
  • Put the person first to emphasise their identity more than any particular diversity characteristic. For example, instead of referring to someone as an 'epileptic', refer to them as a person with epilepsy.
  • Don't make assumptions about someone's lived experience. For example, instead of saying someone 'suffers from a learning disability', you could say they are a 'person with a learning disability'.
  • Identify practices or resources that are contradictory to inclusive language principles. Point these out (particularly if they are being used in teaching) and make adjustments as soon as possible. If a complaint is made about the use of non-inclusive language, it should be addressed promptly.

Useful inclusive language guides

Accommodate learner variability

The diversity of Deakin's student community has significant implications for pedagogy and curriculum design, because it means that as teachers, you will encounter a range of learner variability in your classes. Learner variability is a broad term that encapsulates the rich differences in learning skill sets and capacities1. Therefore, you should aim to:

  1. Check content is accessible
    Ensure that your content is accessible for all students e.g. students who use assistive technologies or have some form of impairment. This is particularly important for online teaching. For more information, tips and guidelines go to the webpage on this site Create accessible content.
  2. Use a range of formats
    Catering for learner variety in your curriculum design and seminar/class planning offers students with differing abilities multiple ways to approach their study content. Universal Design for Learning principles emphasise the efficacy of using a range of formats in learning activities, materials and assessments. Learning activities or tasks that comprise a mix or choice of textual, visual, aural, and tactile components, have the potential to generate greater student engagement and understanding. For example, comprehension of complex or dense academic readings (which many students find challenging initially) can be complemented by or substituted with oral or visual presentation of content (e.g. videos, podcasts, mind-maps, diagrams). This will have direct benefit to not only particular students (such low socioeconomic status (LSES), international/culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), or those with a disability or learning difficulty) but for all students who find reading disengaging or problematic.

Therefore, consider offering a variety of ways to impart information. For a particular task, experiment, or activity you might:

  • provide written instructions with diagrams
  • read and explain the instructions to your students
  • model part of the task, such as the set-up or implementation.

Classroom example: design intentional curriculum

The following video from RMIT provides practical insights, from both the lecturer and students, on diverse learning approaches in an anatomy class.

A video transcript may be downloaded here: Design intentional curriculum (DOCX 18KB)

1 The concept of learner variability or diverse learning methods (which are the terms we prefer to use) invokes a contested field of teacher education scholarship concerning theories of 'learning styles'. These theories derive from neuro-psychological and education research that diagnoses and categorises learners via a suite of 'intelligences' (such as linguistic, visual, aural, kinaesthetic, mathematical, musical etc.). Here, it is maintained that a learning style is 'hard-wired' and predisposes students to learn more effectively in one mode rather than another. However, this is a contentious field of knowledge, where 'debunkers' maintain that the evidence is patchy. For a deeper insight into the various arguments see: Pashler et al. (2008), Scott (2010) and Zhang and Bonk (2008).

Use multiple modes of content delivery

Any learning activities or materials you choose have the potential to disadvantage or exclude some learners. As recommended by a Universal Design for Learning approach, by using a range of ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge you are more likely to meet the needs of your student cohort as a whole. As shown below, every type of learning activity has its relative merits and barriers, and these need to be considered holistically.



  • Efficient way to teach large numbers of students
  • Increased teacher control over content
  • Logistically straightforward


  • Encourage passive learning
  • Lack of individuation
  • Often limited time for questions



  • Interactivity and chance to learn by discussion
  • Consolidating text or lecture materials
  • Mimics activities in many workplaces


  • Dependent on facilitator
  • May not be scheduled at convenient time for students
  • Thorough risk assessment needed



  • Interactivity and chance to learn by discussion
  • Consolidating text or lecture materials
  • Mimics activities in many workplaces


  • Resource intensive
  • May not provide enough chance to practice
  • Thorough risk assessment needed



  • Hearing a voice can be engaging
  • Reduces screen time
  • Can be heard whilst driving, doing housework etc.


  • Scripting is labour intensive
  • Audio files take up a lot of space
  • Accents/speed of speech can be distracting



  • Decreases reading load
  • Great for visual learners
  • Skills can be demonstrated


  • Less interactivity
  • Dependent on streaming and adequate audio
  • Can be expensive to produce



  • When and where students want it
  • Self-paced
  • Builds skills valued in the modern workplace


  • Can be delayed e.g. asynchronous chats
  • Technological barriers
  • Hard to simulate some activities



  • Compatible with screen readers
  • Easily formatted to handouts
  • With narration, can be converted to a video


  • Too much animation; colour can be distracting
  • Slides may move past too quickly
  • Can be confusing if not linked to audio of the presentation

(Danielle Hitch & Cindy Lim, Deakin University 2014)

Quick teaching tips for culturally and linguistically diverse students


Download the following quick guide to Modelling culturally inclusive pedagogies (DOCX 109KB) for helpful tips relating to:

  • curriculum design
  • learning activities
  • teaching practices
  • assessment tasks
  • student feedback.


In this short video, Dr Jill Loughlin offers some simple yet powerful advice for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) students.

The Power of Conversation, Dr Jill Loughlin, Faculty of Arts and Education


A transcript may be downloaded here: Teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students (DOC 17KB)

Refer to the teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students page on this site for more comprehensive inclusive teaching and learning information.

Break down language barriers

Watch the following three short videos from the University of Queensland about Diversity of Language and Background. These present Australian academics talking about English colloquial language and how it may disadvantage the learning of international or ESL students. Please note that these are externally hosted videos that use automatically generated closed captions, which therefore may not be reliable. However, an accurate downloadable transcript is provided below each video.


The challenges of distance education, Dr Madan Gupta


A transcript may be downloaded here: Challenges of distance education (DOCX 14KB)


Repetition to help with the understanding of culturally specific languages. Dr David Rowland


A transcript may be downloaded here: Repetition to help understanding culturally specific languages (DOCX 14KB)


The use of colloquial expressions with international students, Dr David Rowland and Dr Madan Gupta


A transcript may be downloaded here: Using colloquial expressions (DOCX 14KB)

Resources to support teaching diverse learners

While these resources may 'target' specific equity groups, remember that what is essential for some is beneficial for all.

English for Uni: Deakin study support resource to help students improve their English language skills at university. It offers a variety of language learning strategies and explains to students how to use the feedback they receive in classes and assignments.

Teaching Indigenous Australian students: Deakin's inclusive teaching resource on this site provides a range of practical strategies, tips and examples on best practice for teaching indigenous students. It also includes excellent resources on building cultural competency.

Teaching international/CALD students: Deakin's inclusive teaching resource on this site provides a range of practical strategies, tips and examples on best practice for teaching international/CALD students. It also includes excellent resources on building cultural competency and inclusive teaching pedagogies such as:

Effective teaching and support of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds (PDF 1.45MB): In particular, we highly recommend this first resource by lead author Professor Marcia Devlin (ex-Deakin academic and researcher, now at Federation University). The findings and recommendations in this report, although aimed at teachers of LSES students, offer practical strategies, suggestions and examples that will help you to teach inclusively for all your students, irrespective of their backgrounds. See 'Practical Advice for Teachers' (in Devlin et al. 2012, pp. 15–37).

First in family: The University of Wollongong website (funded by the Australian Government) offers a practical toolkit for teachers of first in family to attend university students.

Teaching LGBTIQ+ students: Deakin's inclusive teaching resource on this site offers practical information around language use, curriculum design, teaching practices, and student engagement to build staff awareness and capacity that fosters safe and inclusive learning environments.

LGBTQ—inclusivity in the higher education curriculum: a best practice guide: This University of Birmingham guide presents best practice for an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. It aims to support teachers to be inclusive about LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* and Queer) identities in their teaching practice and to feel confident in making gender and sexual diversity visible within the curriculum. The guide offers examples, tailored to different academic disciplines, on how to do this in practice.

Gender transition at Deakin: Information and resources supporting gender transition for Deakin staff and students. This includes the Deakin Gender Transition guide (PDF 608KB) and Gender Transition Procedure.

Let's talk gender (PDF 1.96MB): 'This publication has been developed for LGBTI inclusive workplaces seeking to better understand the complexities of gender. It has been designed to challenge us on our definition of gender diversity and pose questions that will make us question the way we design our forms, our processes and our diversity practice' (Pride in Diversity 2015).

LGBTI Inclusion poster (PDF 665KB): This poster gives a quick guide to inclusive practice for the LGBTIQ community in the workplace.

Accessible curricula: good practice for all (PDF 595KB): This book will assist you in designing and delivering coursework to allow for the divergent needs of student populations. It will help you to create and deliver 'barrier-free' course materials. This facilitates access for a wide range of students with or without disabilities.

Inclusive teaching with mature-age students: Plymouth University's teaching and learning resource explores inclusive ways to teach, support and engage mature age students in the university classroom with suggestions for good practice.

Disability support services at Deakin: Teachers should become familiar with Deakin's Disability Resource Centre (DRC), which promotes inclusion and access, and provides information and services for students with a disability, health or mental health condition that affects their study or participation in university life. For further information go to our ICCB page Disability Resource Centre.

See also the following topics: Plan your teaching and Create accessible content.


Barker, M 2011, The GIHE good practice guide to internationalising the curriculum (PDF 986KB), Griffith Institute for Higher Education, now Griffith University Learning Futures, Southport. Reproduced for Deakin staff with permission by Griffith University, 26 April 2018.

Carroll, J & Ryan, J 2005 (eds), Teaching international students: improving learning for all, Routledge, London.

Devlin, M, Kift, S, Nelson, K, Smith, L & McKay, J 2012, Effective teaching and support of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds: resources for Australian higher education (PDF 1.45KB), Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Sydney, retrieved 21 August 2016.

LIVE the Future Agenda 2020: Triennium 2015 – 2017 (PDF 2.45MB), 2015, Deakin University, retrieved 17 December 2016.

Pashler, H, McDaniel, M, Rohrer, D & Bjork, R 2008, 'Learning Styles', Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 105 – 19.

Scott, C 2010, 'The enduring appeal of 'learning styles'', Australian Council for Educational Research, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 5 – 17.

State Government of Victoria 2017, Inclusive language guide, Minister for Equality, retrieved 20 March 2017.

University of Newcastle 2006, Inclusive language guideline, Equity and Diversity, retrieved 15 December 2015.

University of South Australia 2014, Inclusive Language, Learning and Teaching Unit, retrieved 10 February 2017, (http://w3.unisa.edu.au/academicdevelopment/diversity/inclusive.asp#education).

Zhang, K & Bonk, CJ 2008, 'Addressing diverse learner preferences and intelligences with emerging technologies: matching models to online opportunities', Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 109 – 31.

Deakin's policies and procedures

Deakin University policies, procedures, and strategic documents that relate to supporting inclusive practice include:

1Compliant with external legislation, including the Higher Education Standards Framework.

Deakin Curriculum Framework

‘Learning is inclusive: learning experiences and environments are designed to accommodate student diversity, and create equivalent opportunities for academic success for all learners in rich online (cloud-first) and located learning activities and spaces.’


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