Consider Social Identities


A large and growing body of research shows that when students feel welcomed, supported, and included by instructors, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged, get higher grades, and persist in their education (Pedler et al., 2022; Walton & Cohen, 2011). This instructor focus on creating an environment where all students feel that they belong is central to inclusive teaching. While inclusive teaching can benefit all students, the positive impacts of inclusive teaching are especially strong for students from minoritized or marginalized backgrounds in higher education (Thoman et al., 2019).

Social Identities on Campus and in L&S

When we talk about identities, we mean characteristics that may be visible or invisible to others and are part of how we define ourselves relative to others. For an individual, these identities intersect, are valued differently, and may change over time. A few categories of social identities are presented below as examples, each encompassing distinct identity groups.  As you review these categories, consider your own identities and how they intersect.

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Race, Ethnicity, and Tribal Affiliation

L&S students and instructors identify across many racial and ethnic groups and American Indian tribal affiliations. However, the most-represented (or majority or dominant) racial group on campus and in L&S is white students and instructors.

Information about race and ethnicity has been defined and collected in varying ways over time. At UW- Madison, demographic reports are available that aggregate how our L&S community identifies racially and ethnically, and reports are available at the course level that show percentages of underrepresented students of color. Links to reports are available below.


UW-Madison includes students from 112 nations outside the United States. Demographic reports can be filtered to L&S and capture identities in aggregate – e.g., all international students. Links to reports are available below.


Students and instructors in L&S speak a wide variety of languages, both natively and non-natively. L&S is also our campus home for language learning, with instruction offered in over 50 world languages. Identity groups of language speakers are not specifically captured in campus demographic data, but sometimes correlate with nationality, ethnicity, and tribal affiliation.

Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation

Biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation intersect differently for everyone. These four aspects of identity inform socially constructed roles to which an individual responds. At UW-Madison, demographic reports are available that can compare populations of male and female L&S community members, but a full spectrum of sex and gender identities has not been documented. Reports at the course level display counts of male and female students. Links to reports are available below.

Socioeconomic Status

This characteristic is generally defined by education, income, and occupation. The socioeconomic status of many traditional-age undergraduates is determined by the education, income, and occupation of their parents. In higher education, students with parents who completed a bachelor’s degree (i.e., not first-generation) are generally considered to be advantaged. At UW-Madison, demographic reports at a class level count first-generation students. Links to reports are available below.


Students may work with the McBurney Disability Resource Center to receive accommodations within courses, but not all students with disabilities choose to do so. Anxiety and depression, ADD and ADHD, and specific health conditions are the most common reasons students work with McBurney, according to the Overview of Students Affiliated with the McBurney Center.

Demographic reports are not available that display people with disabilities on our campus, but up to 1 in 4 American adults has a disability according to the CDC. Consider self-enrolling in our campus Disability and Ableism Awareness training in Canvas to learn more.


We often use the term “traditional-age undergraduates” to refer to students completing undergraduate coursework between their late teens and early twenties. While over 70% of L&S students are between the ages of 18 and 21, people of all ages are present within L&S courses. At UW-Madison, demographic reports are available that aggregate students by age groups. Links to reports are available below.

Demographic Reports & Visualizations

UW-Madison makes demographic data available to instructors at a variety of levels. Relying on aggregated data presents risks. If used uncritically, it can lead us to oversimplify and can reinforce our biases. However, data can also help us be aware of the range of identities and experiences present within our classrooms, and consider how choices we make in the classroom impact students.

In November 2022, UW-Madison’s APIR (now DAPIR) provided a Diversity Update, which presents trends in enrollments for students and trends in hiring for faculty and staff.

November 2022 UW-Madison Diversity Update

L&S Student Demographics

The Trends in Student Enrollment report is publicly available, and can be filtered to undergraduate students in the College of Letters & Science and dis-aggregated by race/ethnicity, sex, tuition residency, and more. The Registrar’s Office also publishes current semester Preliminary Enrollment Reports.

View Trends in Student Enrollment

Course-Specific Student Demographics

This data is available to instructors via NetID login. Before using the link below, please review your responsibilities for protecting internal data. Please note that not all staff will have access to this report. 

Access Your Course Demographics

L&S Employee Demographics

The Employee Demographics report is available via NetID login, and can be filtered to L&S and dis-aggregated by employee category, race/ethnicity, and gender. Before using the link below, please review your responsibilities for protecting internal data. Please note that not all staff will have access to this report.

View Employee Demographics


Reflection helps us grasp new concepts, appreciate our personal values, and understand our professional context. Our reflection questions aim to guide individuals through active inquiry and response to help you integrate new ideas and formulate your own perspectives that will guide future action.

Individual Questions

Review the questions below, or make a personal copy of the questions for your own reflective writing.

Make Your Own Copy

  1. What social identities do you bring with you into the classroom, and how might these impact your teaching?
  2. Using the data above, which identities are commonly represented (or dominant) among undergraduate students and how do these compare to your own and to other teaching assistants, faculty, and instructors?
  3. How do student demographics recorded for your course compare to dominant identities of undergraduates, to your expectations, and to your past experience?
  4. What other lived experiences, like jobs or parenting, might your students bring to class? How might students with these experiences view your policies and expectations?
  5. Which identities are centered in your readings and activities? In other words, what do you know about the backgrounds, identities, and perspectives within your course materials? What additional perspectives might add meaning to your course?

Shared Question

Asking questions at the start of the semester provides you with more information about students as individuals, in addition to demographic information. This might help you tailor your teaching to their experiences, better understand their prior knowledge, or communicate about values. You might ask these questions in a survey, discussion, freewriting or other activity.

What’s one question you might ask your students to get to know them at the start of the semester?

Use the button below to post your ideas and review others’ ideas. Posts are anonymous and will be approved by a moderator before they become visible. Unpolished ideas and thinking via writing are welcome!

Post & Explore on Padlet


If your group hasn’t yet, please sign up so we can help facilitate your process. If you are participating in the Teaching Network with a group, your facilitator will choose and adapt one or more of the discussion guides below and provide you with any preparatory instructions.

Our discussion guides aim to help existing groups of instructors have productive conversations about inclusive teaching. Instead of trying to gather a group of disparate individuals together in a new space, we want to provide a catalyst for groups that already exist to have transformative exchanges about teaching and learning in their own familiar settings. We know that your group will have a unique combination of motivations, prior experience, and purpose for engaging in a discussion. Our discussion guides are intentionally flexible so that the discussions can meet the needs of each group.

Discussion Guide D: Exploration – Social Identities of Your Group

  • Audience: Facilitators, Participants
  • Time Required: 35 minutes, plus preparation
  • Materials Needed: Instructions for participants and handout (paper); writing utensils
  • Structure: Structured

The Social Identity Wheel is a tool that helps individuals explore their own various identities. It offers an avenue for participants to reflect on how they and others perceive and experience these identities and to consider how these identities influence their social interactions. Discussing the Social Identity Wheel in a group can help individuals better understand their own positionality, appreciate how privilege and the normalization of identities affects themselves and others, and build community and empathy. The classroom is a social setting influenced by the identities of the instructor. This discussion asks participants to consider their identities as instructors and/or within the teaching context to support an inclusive social environment within the classroom.

Make Your Own Copy of Discussion Guide D

Discussion Guide E: Data-Driven Dialogue – Identities of Your Students

  • Audience: Facilitators, Participants
  • Time Required: 90 minutes, plus preparation
  • Materials Needed: Instructions for participants and handout (paper); computer or tablet for each participant; writing utensils
  • Structure: Highly structured

Data provides important information for departments and instructors as they design instructional experiences for students. However, interpreting data can come with challenges. Sometimes data is complex, difficult to decipher, or hard to draw meaning from. Other times individuals may interpret data based on hunches or feelings, giving a false sense of factuality. When viewing, analyzing, and responding to data, it is important for individuals to consider thoughtfully what information is presented and to be aware of their own viewpoints, beliefs, and assumptions. This structured dialogue guides participants through interpreting student demographic data. It breaks down the process to help participants first understand their own perspectives, then examine facts and patterns, and finally make inferences about causes and implications.

Make Your Own Copy of Discussion Guide E

Take Action

How can you start to take action to be more inclusive in your teaching? Evolving your teaching practice takes time, patience, and intention. Each new semester provides an opportunity to make small changes toward your goals. Teaching more inclusively is no different, whether you are just getting started or building on what you are already doing well. Making a small change can have a big impact.

Review the strategies for getting to know your students below and pick one idea that you will try in a current or future course. Or explore your own identities through a free UW course.

First Week Survey Template

Consider using a survey at the start of the semester to solicit information from your students and communicate your curiosity in their experiences and interests.

Adapt a Survey Template

First Week Activity Ideas

Consider how the activities that you or your teaching team use in the first week of class can communicate inclusive intentions while helping you and your students connect.

Plan Activities for the First Week

Attend a Course on Understanding Your Experiences and Identities

Part of the Thrive@UW program, this free course will help you examine how your worldview is impacted by your identities.

Learn More and Register

References & Further Reading

  • Pedler, M. L., Willis, R., & Nieuwoudt, J. E. (2022). A sense of belonging at university: Student retention, motivation and enjoyment. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 46(3), 397–408.
  • Thoman, D. B., Lee, G. A., Zambrano, J., Geerling, D. M., Smith, J. L., & Sansone, C. (2019). Social influences of interest: Conceptualizing group differences in education through a self-regulation of motivation model. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 22(3), 330–355.
  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451.