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Culturally Responsive Teaching

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Culturally responsive (or culturally relevant) teaching theory originated in K-12. It tasks instructors with developing and then using cross-cultural competence: learning about the lives, cultures, languages, and group histories of the students in your classes and then integrating those perspectives, histories, values, practices, and issues into the structure, materials, interactions, and relationships of your course. K-12 discussions of culturally responsive teaching often focus on teacher engagement with students' families and communities as a means of empowering students in school by facilitating their ability to draw on their own cultural identity in educational settings. Universities need broader and deeper methods for developing both our own, and our students', cross-cultural competencies, and keeping ourselves focused on building relationships with students.

Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) laid out the initial theoretical underpinnings of culturally responsive teaching, and they are still relevant. She argued that a precondition for instructors was caring about the whole student, not just students' intellectual development. Given that, then, culturally responsive teaching includes setting high expectations, helping students develop positive cultural identities, and helping students learn critical skills that empower them to critique and address social and historical injustices.

Culturally responsive teaching, like anti-bias education, universal design, feminist pedagogies, and social justice education, moves beyond the "diversity model" that sometimes overemphasizes the benefits of diversity for all students. The goal of culturally responsive teaching is to enpower students from sociocultural backgrounds that higher education often ignores or devalues. For many instructors, then, culturally responsive teaching is "just good teaching."

Summary of Research

Much of the research on culturally responsive teaching has examined the means by which instructors have implemented the theory. One primary method has been "curricular infusion," including, for example, reading assignments by a diverse array of authors. As disciplines have transformed, curricular infusion is an obvious form of culturally responsive teaching in higher education. As is true of all inclusive pedagogies, practices tend to fit a wide range of good teaching practices (see CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide and the Equity Strategies section of this Guide for more on this).

Academic disciplines challenged by critical race theory and feminist theory have transformed, and for many instructors, the transformation of their discipline through inclusivity is both intellectually stimulating and challenging, and engaging students in these disciplinary conversations is fun. Those that transformed earliest and most clearly have been in the arts and humanities: literary studies has expanded its "canon" of great literature and in that process challenged its own traditions defining "greatness;" historical analysis today is much more complex and nuanced because it not only includes the voices, experiences, and perspectives of those previously excluded but also tries to synthesize meaning from often-contradictory experiences. The social sciences have also transformed through inclusivity. Research methods in the sciences have also been impacted. Inclusivity is one force in creating new disciplines and both cross- and interdisciplinary research.

Ladson-Billings' charge to set high expectations responds to research indicating that instructors often praise students of color for work the student knows is sub-par. "Wise feedback" (see "The Mentor's Dilemma" linked under Resources below) is a well-studied response to this problem that advocates setting a high external bar (one attributable to someone or something other than you, such as a journal's publishing standards) along with a message from you prior to students reading your feedback. This video explains what is crucial to include if you plan to use this intervention. Here's a worksheet you can download to help you design your "wise" assignment.  Note that while studies have not applied the intervention to all students (most commonly, they have excluded those who had already achieved the high standard and those with no reasonable hope of reaching it), they did not test this element.  Particularly in first-year courses, assume that admission to UWL indicates that students can achieve your standard unless it is so late in the course that their performance on earlier learning tasks places them too far behind. 

Other research on culturally relevant teaching focuses on establishing an inclusive climate, constructing a motivational climate that engages a broad range of students, and on the benefits of cross-cultural collaboration.  That research does support the "diversity model" over the "deficit model," since it indicates very clearly that all students benefit from culturally responsive approaches. The theory also implies a feminist pedagogy, anti-bias education, and a social justice framework for higher education. 

Students from historically underserved groups benefit when classroom interactions centralize respectful engagement and clear ground rules that everyone learns how to enforce.


  • Develop your own plan for learning: Where are the most important gaps in your base of knowledge? Your goal is for your students to value their own cultural identity and their groups' histories.  To do that, you might need to know more about some of your students than you currently do.  No one will be expert on every group; but everyone can learn more than we know right now.  You might also need to know more about how stereotypes develop, how they are maintained, how they are learned, how they are unlearned, how they are institutionalized, how they function particularly in higher education. Fortunately, we have an excellent library at UWL with access to all UW System resources.
  • Show up for students: building rapport happens outside the classroom as much as inside it.  If you want students from historically underserved groups to come to view you as an ally, you will likely have to build trust.  One way to begin is by attending the events hosted by student organizations and by the offices in Diversity and Inclusion.  Here's how to add the D&I calendar to Outlook Online so that you can pop it on and off without needing to go to the university website.
  • Infuse your course.  Here are some strategies to explore.
  • Develop authentic and relevant assignments: Explore CATL's googlesite on authentic assignments for more.
  • Address climate issues.


Ladson-Billings, Gloria (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Research Journal. 32(3) 465-491.

The Education Alliance (n.d.).  Cultural responsive teaching, in Teaching diverse learners. Brown University.

Ginsberg, M., & Wlodkowski, Raymond J. (2009). Diversity and motivation : Culturally responsive teaching in college. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wise feedback:

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma:  Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology, Bulletin, 25, 1302–1318.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143:2.

Hoskins, D. (2017).  Culturally responsive teaching. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning, University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.