Inclusive Teaching

Person-Centered Perspectives on Inclusive Teaching

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

“Learning of all kinds goes on best, lasts best, and tends to lead itself on more when it grows out of a real focus of interest in the learner.”  – Carl Rogers

Establishing an inclusive learning environment can depend on how well instructors encourage and maintain working relationships with students.   Psychologist Carl Rogers addressed the relational dynamics of teaching by incorporating many of the same concepts found within his humanistic approach to counseling.  His “person-centered teaching” perspective is one in which the facilitative interpersonal relationships associated with learning are considered alongside cognitive and academic development.  Socio-emotional competencies are considered an essential aspect of the overall learning experience for students.

In his book, Freedom to Learn (1994), Rogers provided three key characteristics to “person-centered teaching.” Each characteristic considers how an instructor’s affect and attitude towards students impacts the socio-emotional abilities related to student motivation, personal agency, and responsibility for learning.  Rogers explains how congruence, empathetic understanding, and “unconditional positive regard” are critical components to providing a learning environment to help improve interpersonal functioning, develop confidence and emotional regulation, and to help maintain an environment of trust that benefits all students

Below is a brief explanation of each of the three core conditions of Rogers’ person-centered teaching; congruence, empathetic understandi­­ng, and unconditional positive regard.  Each one includes a few practical techniques you can use in a variety of teaching situations.  Whether teaching in a face-to-face course, online, or in a hybrid learning environment, a person-centered perspective can have a profound impact on a student’s educational experience.

Congruence – Also known as genuineness or authenticity, congruence is when instructors can present their “true authentic self” in the classroom.  Instructors who show congruence appear more “real” or human to students by expressing emotions at appropriate times.  For example, showing vulnerability when stumped by a student’s question is an opportunity to demonstrate congruence.  Rather than pretending to know the answer, promise to investigate their question out-of-class and to get back with them.  This response demonstrates that students’ concerns are important to you and that is acceptable to not know everything.  When you follow up to their questions, it demonstrates their learning is important to you and that they are valued. (Rogers, 1962; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994)

Empathic understanding –  The ability for an instructor to accurately understand the student’s experience, and to help create opportunities for students to recognize the experience of others has a profound impact on student learning.  In a 2014 study by Reinhard Tausch and Renate Hüls (Rogers, Lyon & Tausch, 2014), described the profound emotional consequences of insufficient empathy towards students.  Their empirical study shows how a lack of instructor empathy had a significant psychological impact on learning, motivation, and student confidence.  In contrast, students who expressed they felt compassion and empathy from their instructors felt motivated, understood, and encouraged to learn.  Creating opportunities where students can express their learning experience can help create an atmosphere of empathetic understanding.  Offering journaling exercises, holding regular office hours or regularly providing opportunities where every student can participate in class discussions can help encourage student academic performance but also bolster self-confidence and emotional well-being.

Unconditional Positive Regard – Rogers’ concept of unconditional positive regard is a practice in which instructors express an appreciation of all students.  When students feel valued and respected, they contribute more to the overall learning experience.  Class assignments that provide a space for self-expression or that allow students to share their perspective on learning contribute to an environment of unconditional positive regard.  Although unconditional positive regard can be difficult to manage in an evaluative classroom setting, showing that all student contributions are valued demonstrates a genuine care and concern for students.  However, when a student needs to be confronted, conducting an individual, out-of-class meeting where the instructor offers care and concern for the student can help retain a climate of unconditional positive regard. (Carruth & Field, 2016)

If you would like to talk further about person-centered teaching or want to schedule a consultation to learn more about humanist education, please feel free to contact me directly at


Carruth, E., & Field, T. (2016). Person-Centered Approaches: Providing Social and Emotional

Support for Adult Learners. In Supporting the Success of Adult and Online Students. CreateSpace.

Rogers, C. R. (1962). The interpersonal relationship. Harvard Educational Review, 32(4),


Rogers, C. R., & Freiberg, H. J. (1994). Freedom to learn, 3rd ed., Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rogers, C. R., Lyon, H. C., & Tausch, R. (2014). On becoming an effective teacher:

Person-centered teaching, psychology, philosophy, and dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon. New York, NY: Routledge.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at