Inclusive Teaching Tip | Winter 2021 WK 1

How do you plan a new program or course? Imagine, you’ve cleared your schedule of distractions and are meeting with your teaching partners ready to start planning. What is the first thing that comes to mind? What do you do first? What do you need? Where do you turn for support?

Centering students in program and course planning

We frequently hear the phrase “student-centered” as an important framing in learning and teaching. But what does it mean to center students as we execute the day-to-day tasks of teaching? How do we center students as we develop reading lists, create new assignments, evaluate student work, and engage in the many other important tasks our jobs require? A strategy for keeping students’ goals and needs center to your planning comes from the field of design. In design thinking, human-centered problem definition is one of the first stages in the design process.

Building an empathy map is a tactic for centering students in the design process by building narratives that describe their diverse experiences and perspectives.

Activity: Build an Empathy Map

Start by imagining the students who will be taking your course/program. Who are they? What backgrounds do they come from? What talents do they bring? What are their goals? Why have they enrolled in your course? What futures are they seeking? What does success mean for them?

Now, divide a piece of paper into four quadrants. Use each quadrant to probe student perspectives with respect to school, learning, and your course.

Empathy Map
Quadrant 1: Think and Feel
What might students think and feel? What worries them? What gets in their way? What do they need? What do they plan to do with their lives?
Quadrant 2: Do and Say
What are students’ actions and behaviors? What motivates them? What might they say when asked about the future? What are some quotes and defining words students might say?
Quadrant 3: Hear
What might students hear? From other students? From other teachers? From advisors and career counselors? From the media? From their families?
Quadrant 4: See
What do students encounter in their environment? What kinds of things are they surrounded by? What implicit or explicit expectations do they experience?
<download Mural.co template>

Practical empathy exercises, such as this one, can help us understand what motivates students, the information landscape that they experience, and the unique perspectives they bring to the learning community. Centering students in course design means keeping student perspectives front of mind as we make choices as we curate learning experiences

Since we typically can’t interview students before they join our classrooms, we have to rely on less direct sources of information about prospective, current, and past students. One technique to represent student diversity in your empathy map is to use composite personas. Be careful here! A composite never substitutes for actual humans, but personas can be useful to help instigate student-centered thinking. When using this approach, strive to ensure that your composite personas are inclusive of the full range of perspectives and experiences that students likely to enroll in your course will bring. The following four composites, developed from institutional and national data for this summer’s New Academic Directions provide an illustrative sample. As you read through these profiles, ask yourself if these profiles descriptive of the students you encounter. What might you add or modify?

Juawn is an African American male in his late 20s. He currently works as a manager at a call center and serves in the National Guard. He is interested in a degree program that will lead to a job he enjoys. Juawn commutes to campus and needs a schedule that allows him to work three days a week.

Ameena is a queer, native person with a passion for activism. They led efforts in their high school to add BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) authors to the reading list and reduce the school’s carbon footprint. Ameena is the first in their family to attend college. They are excited about tapping into a community of students with similar passions. They want to finish college as quickly as possible. 

Isabella is a Latina female in her early 20s. She is from a rural community where she earned an Associates Degree at the local community college. She is excited about getting her bachelor’s degree, however, she has frequently felt that teachers dismiss her ability. She has a needs-based grant that requires her to live on campus. She works part-time to pay off outstanding credit card debt and is hoping to find a paid internship as soon as possible. 

Jocelyn is a white female in her mid 30s. She is recently divorced and has two children. Her oldest has just started first grade, which gives her time to go back to school and finish her degree. She plans to put her younger child in daycare while in class. She completed one year of college when she graduated from high school where she earned 30 credits of general education. She initially struggled in college until she sought help from the student support services where she was diagnosed with dyslexia. With special software and additional time for long or complex reading she was able to successfully complete her courses.

Composite profiles can be used to flesh out empathy maps that will help you design for a diverse set of students. You might find that these particular composite profiles don’t reflect the students you teach. If that is the case, consider where you might look for information and data about students to build personas more reflective of your student population. The goal is to represent the diversity of students you are likely to encounter, so you can avoid, as much as possible, relying on biases you might hold about students in your planning process that will result in less relevant and effective courses.


The Inclusive Teaching Tips are a series of simple, equitable teaching practices published in the Learning and Teaching Commons Newsletter. The tips are archived here.

For many, many more inclusive teaching resources and to add your own, visit ALL LEARNERS WELCOME: Resources for Designing Inclusive Learning Experiences.

This inclusive teaching tip was adapted from Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning That Matters: A Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

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