Low socioeconomic status​ students

It is important to emphasise that an inclusive teaching approach does not entail singling out low socioeconomic status (LSES) students, but rather understanding that students from LSES backgrounds form a significant proportion of enrolments (around 13%) and that your teaching practice is paramount to how they encounter and experience their tertiary studies.
In other words, it not about who in your class is LSES but asking yourself: ‘What can I do differently to meet the needs of all of my students?

Ways of knowing your students

What are the challenges these students face? How might you as a teacher provide a learning environment that offers them the best chance at not only retention but success?

Students are identified as having ‘LSES background’ if the home location they provided on their enrolment form is in the lowest socioeconomic quartile of the population, as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It is an imprecise description for individual students, but is used to keep track of overall trends in outcomes for this group.

Build awareness of LSES students’ contexts and challenges, as well as acknowledging the skills and knowledge they bring to university. This helps foster a greater sense of student belonging and engagement through making them feel valued and respected.

More ways of knowing your students

Build awareness of LSES students' contexts and challenges, as well as acknowledging the skills and knowledge they bring to university. This helps foster a greater sense of student belonging and engagement through making them feel valued and respected.

  • Time poverty: Understand that LSES students face competing pressures and as such are under greater time constraints than ‘traditional’ students in their efforts to manage and balance financial pressures, significant hours of employment, family and carer responsibilities with study.
  • Getting to know your students: Knowing names, backgrounds, needs, learning styles and/or previous experience and/or knowledge, as well as something about their circumstances is recognised by staff as one of the most important factors in the success of LSES students in higher education.
  • Communicating with students: The importance of communication—taking the time and effort to listen, talk to and communicate with students—pays dividends, particularly early on, in terms of both student engagement and the quality of the learning experience.
  • Embracing and integrating student diversity: This fosters inclusivity, builds rapport and engagement, and enhances the curriculum. For more information and teaching tips see Teaching diverse learners.
  • Recognising and enabling student contributions: Draw on the knowledge and skills LSES students bring to university. (Devlin, Kift, Smith et al. 2012CC 3.0)

We are not always aware when people are struggling financially or whether they have overcome financial hardship in their lives. However, it is important to recognise our own financial privilege where relevant. Language matters: instead of referring to ‘disadvantaged’ areas or students, the term ‘financially disadvantaged’ is clearer; also, the term ‘financially advantaged’ may be appropriate to recognise the advantages that some people have.

Challenges often faced by students with financial hardship

Students who are experiencing financial hardship may struggle to complete work on time as they may also be working to support their study and having difficulties balancing work and study. They may also have to wait to borrow books for their assignments if they can’t afford to buy these. They may not have extra time to put into some activities and may not have the flexibility of more financially advantaged students to engage with relevant extra-curricular activities.

In addition, if students come from a background in which financial disadvantage has been entrenched, they may:

  • come with a diversity of student preparedness and social capital
  • be unfamiliar with the successful higher education student role as many are the first in their families (referred to as ‘first in family’ students) to go to university
  • have expectations of university life that do not reflect the reality. Such disjunct can create a sense of alienation and lack of belonging and impede their academic journey.
  • find the tacit expectations and language of the university challenging and present difficulties.

(Devlin, Kift, Nelson et al. 2012 CC 3.0)

Ways of offering your students flexibility, variety and choice

Having learned about you students and being aware about challenges faced by students with financial hardship there are a range of approaches you can take to be more inclusive for all students. While upholding academic standards, offer LSES students flexibility, choice in assessment and variety in teaching and learning strategies. The aim is not to ‘dumb down’ but to enhance learning and success in ways that assist students to negotiate their individual challenges and constraints. You can achieve this by offering your students flexibility, variety and choice by teaching with technology, employing a wide range of teaching strategies, making teaching and learning interactive while also offering choice and flexibility in assessment design. To dive deeper into these approaches, check out the information below.
More ways of offering your students flexibility, variety and choice

Teach with technology

  • Careful and thoughtful use of accessible and user-friendly technology offers students the option to study at times and in places that best suit them as they balance a multitude of competing pressures, including paid employment, family commitments and study. For advice and resources on how to ensure your content and technology is accessible see Creating accessible content. Refer to the section below: Make the online learning experience inclusive for more information.

Employ a wide range of teaching strategies

Make teaching and learning interactive

  • Discussion-based learning—which is a key strategy to LSES student success—encourages student involvement and greater understanding through focused attention, engagement and concentration. For inclusive teaching tips see Plan to teach inclusively and Teaching large groups.

Offer choice and flexibility in assessment design

  • Where possible within the parameters of course/unit requirements, providing a variety of assessment formats beyond traditional essays and reports (audio-visual productions, blogs, posters, e-portfolios etc.) promotes inclusivity.
  • While being mindful of fairness to all, be open to negotiating some degree of flexibility in due date deadlines where there is sufficient and valid reason.
  • For inclusive teaching tips and strategies see Make assessment inclusive.

(Devlin, Kift, Smith et al. 2012 CC 3.0)

Ways of making expectations clear using accessible language

Having considered flexibility variety and choice it is also important to make expectations clear and to scaffold your students’ learning. Look at this as constructing a framework through which different learners can navigate your content. When setting expectations for your students be sure to use clear and accessible language, use examples, avoid jargon, review your teaching practice and asking for feedback to see how well things are working. When scaffolding 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. The term ‘scaffolded learning’ takes its name from the idea of a support structure that is gradually removed as the central entity becomes strong enough to stand on its own. Scaffolded learning refers to learning that is tailored to meet student needs, helps students reach their learning goals and provides the necessary degree of support to assist students in their learning. When scaffolding your learning consider what extra or different resources you could use to supplement your teaching, create a developmental staged approach to assessment promote formal and informal peer learning, promote student mentoring and be sure to provide formative feedback.
More ways to make expectations clear using accessible language

The importance of making expectations clear for LSES students in language they understand emerged as a major finding from Devlin, Kift, Smith et al.'s (2012) national research study.

  • Use clear and accessible language with students who may be unfamiliar with academic discourse. 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.
  • Use examples for explanations of assessment requirements and criteria to ensure student understanding.
  • Avoid jargon of 'high academic language' that is dense and obscure. Explain complex terms, nomenclature and concepts but speak to these in plain everyday language.
  • Review your teaching practice by listening to a recording of a seminar or lecture that you have given and note where you have used jargon, acronyms, complex terms, long sentences, absence of clear explanations.
  • Ask for feedback from your students about your use of language and your clarity.

(Devlin, Kift, Smith et al. 2012 CC 3.0)

Ways of making the online learning environment inclusive

In addition to being available, be approachable so that students feel comfortable seeking your expertise and guidance to improve their learning and performance. Make time for your students, be friendly, check in, offer help in online learning spaces, direct students to support services and provide formative feedback and feed forward. Direct to student support services where appropriate. Familiarise yourself with the wide range of student support services that are available, including the Disability Resource Centre, and those provided by the Division of Student Life, such as: Academic and Peer Support, Career Education, and Health and Wellbeing.

Online learning presents different challenges to the provision of inclusive education. Based on extensive Australian and UK research, Cathy Stone (2016) notes that teacher presence is vital to building an inclusive online learner community that encourages students to feel a sense of acknowledgementbelonging, and connectedness.

More ways to make the online learning environment inclusive

Consider these practical suggestions:

  • Welcome students and tell them something about yourself.
  • Elucidate the 'big picture' with regard to how weekly content relates to the learning outcomes of the unit, their course overall and graduate opportunities and aspirations.
  • Establish clear code of conduct protocols, expectations and netiquette to foster a safe, supportive and welcoming online environment.
  • Explain e-learning technologies using multiple formats (text, audio-visual, diagrams). In particular, point out where online discussions are located, and how to access recorded lectures. Direct students to guides for CloudDeakinSkype, and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as well as IT Help Desk resources and contact details.
  • Demonstrate e-learning technologies by spending time in the first teaching sessions by showing students how to use them.
  • Design clear content structure so that your online learning environment is easy and intuitive to navigate and find instructions, important information, unit content and resources without difficulty.
  • Provide digital literacy support through offering options to gain or improve digital literacy skills, such as directing students to the library's digital literacy resources.
  • Give clear instructions, expectations, and deadlines for online participation, activities, assignments and assigned reading.
  • Communicate regularly and offer various avenues for students to contact you for support.
  • Encourage online engagement in discussion boards and activities that foster communication and collaboration; acknowledge students' contributions.
  • Present content in accessible and usable multiple formats e.g. in a combination of text, audio, video, images, diagrams to further encourage online engagement. Refer to Create Accessible Content for guidelines. BUT don't overdo technology with all the 'bells and whistles'; keep it simple so that the key principle in your teaching practice and delivery is accessibility and usability.
  • Summarise discussion threads to highlight key themes, arguments and issues.
  • Establish clear code of conduct protocols, expectations and netiquette to foster a safe, supportive and welcoming online environment.
  • Give realistic deadlines; some activities take longer to complete online due to asynchronous participation. Allow students to move at their own pace within the parameters of important deadlines.
  • Scaffold weekly topics and activities through providing overviews; see also Design-step-by-step learning.
  • Make examples and assignments relevant to a wide variety of interests and backgrounds.
  • Address a wide range of language skills (e.g. spell acronyms, avoid or define jargon, and avoid colloquialisms). Refer to Teaching diverse learners.
  • Provide feedback on progress that is regular, timely and constructive.
  • Provide a range of accessible communication platforms, synchronous and asynchronous, for virtual meetings, online seminars and interactions that are accessible to individuals with a variety of abilities; for example phone, SkypeBlackboard Collaborate Ultra, chat, email.
  • Direct to student support services: provide information and direct students to appropriate support services
  • Ask for student feedback: what works and what doesn't.

(Adapted from: DO-IT 2017 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0); Duncan 2016; Everson 2009; Stone 2016)

Reflect on your practice

Reflect and seek to act on your own reflections, those from peers and feedback from students, to continuously improve your teaching practice and your students’ learning. You can do this by reflecting on each class, seeking informal feedback, reviewing your online interaction as well as formal feedback.

Read about a student’s success story: The Next Chapter—Ruby Walsh (NCSEHE 2019).

More about reflective practice

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

  • Reflect on each class to determine what worked well and what might be missing and what might be improved in terms of teaching.
  • Consider how you know to what extent students understand what you are teaching. Determine how you might better understand this.
  • Ask your students for informal feedback on your teaching and their learning.
  • Review your online interaction in terms of the learning objectives you have for your students and determine your strengths and weaknesses and identify opportunities for enhancing future interactions.
  • Reflect and act on formal feedback on your teaching.
  • Ask a peer to review your teaching and provide constructive comment.
  • For more tips and strategies see Reflect on and evaluate your teaching.

(Devlin, Kift, Smith et al. 2012 CC 3.0)


Be sure to see below to find out more about teaching and supporting lower socioeconomic status students.



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 1.45MB), Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Sydney, CC 3.0, retrieved 16 August 2016.

Devlin, M, Kift, S, Smith, L & McKay, J 2012, Effective teaching and support of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds: practical advice for teaching staff (PDF 1.14MB), Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Sydney, CC 3.0, retrieved 15 July 2019.

DO-IT 2017, 20 tips for teaching an accessible online course, University of Washington, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0, retrieved 1 June 2017.

Duncan, H 2016, ‘What adjustments did you make to content/pedagogy when you design and deliver an online course?’ Research Gate Questions, weblog post 17 March, retrieved 17 November 2016.

Everson, M 2009, 10 Things I've learnt about teaching online, eLearn Magazineretrieved 13 April 2017.

NCSEHE 2019, 'Student Voice—The Next Chapter: Ruby Walsh', News and Events, 6 June 2019, retrieved 15 July 2019.

Stone, C 2016, Opportunity through online learning: improving student access, participation and success in higher education, National Guidelines (PDF 1.1MB), National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Perth, retrieved 3 April 2017.

Further reading

Centre for the Study of Higher Education University of Melbourne 2008, Participation and equity: a review of the participation in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people (PDF 1.85MB), University of Melbourne, retrieved 15 July 2019.

Devlin, M 2010, 'Non-traditional university student achievement: theory, policy and practice in Australia (PDF 103KB)', in Keynote Address, 13th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference 2010, 2730 June 2010, Adelaide, retrieved 15 July 2019. Devlin, M & McKay, J 2016, 'Teaching students using technology: facilitating success for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in Australian universities', Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 92–106.

Devlin, M & O'Shea, H 2011, Teaching students from low socioeconomic backgrounds: a brief guide for University teaching staff (PDF 1.5KB), Higher Education Research Group (HERG), Deakin University, Melbourne, retrieved 17 August 2016.

National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) 2017, NCSEHE focus: successful outcomes for low SES students in Australian higher education (PDF 1.2MB), NCSEHE, Curtin University, Perth, retrieved 15 July 2019.

Stone, M, Walton, T, Clark, C & Ligertwood, L 2018, A picture of success of low SES Background students at UNSW Australia, UNSW Australia (PDF 3.07MB), Sydney, retrieved 15 July 2019.


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