A group of individuals of different ages, physical abilities and genders all holding hands in front of a sunrise

Compassionate Approaches to Inclusive Learning


For compassionate pedagogy to be most effective it needs to be holistic and all-inclusive. We are aiming to enhance student by including all of our students, valuing the experiences each student brings, and removing barriers to success for all who have been excluded. 

Barriers to learning can come in the form of access barriers that problematise student and staff access to buildings, file formats that can't be read by a text reader for a dyslexic student or videos without subtitles that are inaccessible to deaf students. But barriers also exist in assumptions and under representation of groups in the curriculum, in learning discussions and in the modes of assessment and feedback available to students. You can read more detail about accessibility and inclusive curriculum good practice on CCCU's Inclusive Learning & Teaching Resources

The 9 protected characteristics listed in the UK's Equality Act 2010 (age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation) form a useful starting point for reflection on how to ensure the inclusion of all individuals. But individual course teams may well reflect that those historically excluded vary in different disciplines e.g. where women may be in the minority on computing or engineering courses, men may be more likely to be in the minority in nursing or midwifery courses. Here, we are concerned with inclusion and discrimination in relation to student and staff wellbeing. For our students and staff to reach their full potential we want to optimise their mental wellbeing and minimise all barriers to effective learning.

In 2017 AdvanceHE (then HEA) commissioned a report on Embedding Mental Wellbeing in the Curriculum: maximising success in higher education. The authors, Ann-Marie Houghton and Jill Anderson, stressed the importance of addressing mental wellbeing through both curriculum content and curriculum process to embed mental wellbeing in HE courses. That distinction between process and content is mirrored here to help you choose approaches that will work well in your discipline. Houghton and Anderson conclude their 2017 report: "just as a mental health problem encompasses much more than a diagnosis, so too wellbeing is more than the absence of mental ill health. It is [...] intimately bound up with learning – which both promotes and can diminish wellbeing. It is also worth remembering that effective learning can sometimes be impeded in the absence of wellbeing. Mental wellbeing is core to the curriculum and thus to the work not only of counsellors and support staff but also of those involved with teaching and learning in our universities" (p. 29). This section of the Compassionate Pedagogy resource focuses on wellbeing and inclusion in the processes and content of curricula.

There are four key common areas of anxiety for students - in order to alleviate students' anxieties and help them to reach their potential we've identified them and provide brief detail on how you can address them here:

  1. Social anxiety and imposter syndrome - many students (especially if they're the first in their family to come to university) may fear that they won't really 'fit in' or somehow 'don't belong' at university - that fear may hinder them in engaging fully. This can be alleviated through fostering a sense of belonging for all students through your Blackboard Pages, in Welcome Week, in group emails that foster cohort identity for your students, in ice-breaker activities and in facilitating group-work with clear ground rules/roles for students so that they form good working relationships with you and with their peers. Beyond classroom and group dynamics, you can also foster a sense of inclusion by revisiting your curriculum so that students see themselves represented in the course readings and resources.
  2. Technological anxiety - some students may be totally unfamiliar with the technologies you'll be using for teaching and assessment and may feel embarrassed about this and unsure on how to proceed. You can combat this by providing clear signposting to IT support, the TEL training guides on all the CCCU-supported technologies, complete with user videos and FAQs and by encouraging open dialogue and questions on this from the start in the form of e.g. an anonymous Menti or Poll. 
  3. Social online anxiety - some students may have experienced or heard about trolling, online harrassment etc. and be anxious about social interactions online on the discussion boards, padlets and on any social media groups that cohorts may set up amongst themselves (e.g. WhatsApp group for a particular module). See CCCU's Online Safeguarding guidance to help you to pre-empt and set ground rules to help everyone feel safe and know what to do if they experience online bullying.
  4. Anxiety about assessment - even if students feel minimal anxiety about the previous three issues, most students feel some degree of anxiety about assessments, especially when the assessments will determine progression and graduation from a course. As educators, we can minimise this anxiety by supporting all students to develop assessment literacy within each module (e.g. providing access to grading criteria, exemplars, showing students where they need to submit work on Turnitin in real time e.g. a recorded video that you share with them on your Blackboard module area) and encouraging students to use office hours to ask specific questions that they may have.

Exclusion is detrimental to an individual's mental wellbeing and a poor state of mental wellbeing impairs capacity to learn. Thus the need for the content of curricula to be inclusive is part of the wellbeing agenda as well as an ethical imperative. 

In 2014, students in University College London’s BAME student network launched a campaign entitled ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ – you can watch that 20-minute video here. This campaign became a focal point for conversations about change and a key moment for decolonising the curriculum.

The theory that underpins the link between compassionate pedagogy and decolonising curricula is rooted in the work of Paulo Freire. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) explains how education can transform and free all who have been marginalised. Freire believed that for changes in power hierarchies to happen, the words of people who had been marginalised had to be heard. Thus, decolonising the curriculum is a key starting point for a compassionate pedagogy approach to inclusion. 

Curriculum content is one of three key focus areas for CCCU’s Closing Our Gap framework to reduce the retention, attainment and graduate opportunities gap between white and BAME students. The Closing Our Gap project’s Blackboard resources on Decolonising the Curriculum offers links to key readings about decolonising the curriculum and resources by faculty to support staff to update their curricula.

As well as being inclusive in contentmental wellbeing and resilience can be explicitly addressed in curriculum content across different disciplines in order to provide a formal space for students to learn about mental health and wellbeing, to challenge unhelpful attitudes they may have encountered previously, and to raise their awareness of how their own wellbeing fluctuates and what they can do to improve and support mental wellbeing during their studies and subsequent graduate employment.

Embedding Mental Wellbeing in the Curriculum offers case studies and discipline-specific resources on pages 17-19 for how other universities are already addressing mental health in their courses: these include an online video game offering an immersive experience of depression for computer design students, a mental health history timeline for history students and the Football Association's resources on mental health for sport science students as well as a range of suggested artists for visual arts students.

Resilience is one of CCCU's key graduate attributes listed under 'Adaptable' you'll see our commitment to help our graduates to become 'resilient' and ready to help 'to bring about positive transformation in the face of continuous and rapid change'. Many people find change stressful per se so it is worth taking time to consider how our curriculum content and processes present change, adaptability and flexibility to our students and what we can do to enhance this. What do you do in your support of learning to support students to develop resilience and could you make the importance of resilience more explicit to them?  

Further readings:

Maluleka, K.J. (2020). Humanising higher education through a culturally responsive curriculum. South African Journal of Higher Education, 34(6).

Accessibility is key to addressing wellbeing in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Providing a well-structured, clearly signposted VLE will help students to find all the relevant resources to succeed on their chosen modules and course of study; further, a clear, personable VLE which gives students a sense of being part of both CCCU and their vocational or disciplinary communities is beneficial as part of the curriculum process of supporting student wellbeing. The VLE needs to: 

  1. direct students to accessible resources which they can access flexibly outside of staff working hours in order to work in a way that fits with their studying, working and caring responsibilities without proving and additional barrier to learning and source of stress. For guidance on accessibility see the 'Accessibility' section of CCCU's Inclusive Learning & Teaching Resources
  2. communicate some human sense of the pleasures and challenges of their chosen vocation or discipline (e.g. you could allow space for emotion and to share some sense of grappling with scholarship yourself by providing brief summaries and prompt questions accompanying core readings - this gives students a sense that you were once a novice on a learning journey in their chosen discipline too
  3. build students’ sense of being part of a learning community with their peers - you could encourage them to share their responses to questions or themes on an open discussion board or Padlet in advance of synchronous discussions to get discussion going outside of the classroom and encourage them to get to know each other a little more. If you haven't used Padlet before, this guide will get you started

Theo Gilberts’ 2016 research into using “compassionate behavioural interventions during discussions”  found that students were more likely to
increase their efforts to improve their own learning and that of their peers when they were taught with Compassion-focused pedagogic methods. Inclusive eye contact was a key factor in increasing participation in group discussions. The study also found “tentatively” that explicitly educating students on compassionate, helpful and unhelpful behaviours in seminars could help to address the “attainment gap in terms of critical thinking in seminars”. 

CCCU’s Learning & Teaching Enhancement team have provided guidance to support staff to teach inclusively and effectively- see the Principles of Blended Learning  as well as a 2-page blended learning module planning checklist and a 3-page prompt sheet to help staff to plan their first synchronous sessions.

The guide on supporting students in self-isolation will help staff to continue to include students who are not able to come onto campus when their peers have returned.

We'd encourage you to develop authentic assessments which will mirror key interpersonal and technological skills that students would be likely to use in graduate work in their chosen field. This allows students to direct their energies into honing these skills through assessments, enhances their employability and reduces stress of encountering multiple novel assessment forms which feel alien to any placement practice etc. which they experience.

We'd encourage you to develop an inclusive diet of assessment modes - where it is possible and reasonable to offer diverse forms of assessment, try to do so - e.g. if it is not necessary for every assessment to be written but students could instead create a podcast or video, explore whether this is feasible and appropriate

If you're revising an existing or designing a new a module or course, use LTE's ABC workshops to support your team in effective assessment design which takes into account authenticity and inclusivity

Consider what you and your teaching team are doing to enhance assessment literacy for students and to support to provide clarity and reduce anxiety: are you providing access to the assessment details well in advance of the deadline including the grading criteria and (if possible) exemplars or mocked-up exemplar excerpts? Do students understand the submission process and any late work penalties? Consider including a prep activity and quiz on this content early in the term to clear up confusions and get rid of student myths about assessment early on.

Be aware of and advertise to students which CCCU interventions are available to help them with stress during assessment periods.




Connect with us

Last edited: 06/08/2021 11:57:00