Cultivating a positive classroom environment to improve your students’ learning experience.
The importance of the learning environment
When students take a course, they experience more than just an interaction with course content. The learning environment includes the intellectual, social, emotional and physical environments of a course; all of which will affect learning. Instructor-student interactions and the tone of the course may affect how students approach learning and work through difficulties. The demographics of students within the course, and how peers interact, also play a key role in this environment. Finally, equity, inclusivity and accessibility are important parts of creating a learning environment that supports all students.
The learning environment can be just as important to student learning as choosing course content and your teaching methods. A synthesis of 1,500 meta-analyses of 300,000,000 students (Hattie, 2012) found that the following environmental factors significantly impacted student learning:
- Classroom management: Situational awareness or mindfulness of teachers, teacher intervention, clarity of purpose and strong guidance.
- Classroom cohesion: The sense that all (teachers and students) are working together.
- Peer influences: Helping, tutoring, providing friendship, giving feedback, making school a place where students want to come each day.
These factors determine whether students perceive their environment positively or negatively, which affects their behavior and therefore learning outcomes. A positive climate can improve students’ learning while a negative climate can hinder learning and performance (see Literature below).
In positive learning environments students experience a high level of trust amongst themselves and their instructor. They view decisions as fair, they have a sense of belonging, and they feel listened to. Only in these environments are students able to tackle challenges, take risks, express themselves and ask for help.
In negative learning environments students may feel uncomfortable, confused, unsupported and afraid to make mistakes. This environment does not force students to “toughen up” or “put in more effort.” Instead, they are likely to judge the course or themselves negatively and become unmotivated or even quit.
As an instructor, you will want to keep students’ perspectives in mind when building and teaching your courses. Class activities should create positive climates, support student learning and allow for risk taking.
Improving the learning environment
There are many factors that determine the learning environment in which you teach. Some of these factors will be outside your control such as the physical classroom space or the learning management system. However, how you work with the elements of the environment that you can control will impact your students’ ability to learn. Here are a few popular approaches.
Community of Inquiry
The Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) states that there are three important and interacting factors that must be present for a positive learning community to prosper:
- Social Presence: The ability to interact with others in a meaningful way.
- Cognitive Presence: The extent to which the participants can construct and confirm meaning through sustained communication.
- Teaching Presence: The design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for meaningful learning.
To learn more about these factors and how to improve them in your course see:
Community-centered learning environments
In community-centered environments, students build on each other’s knowledge and work together toward a shared goal. While collaborating students are continuously striving for self-improvement as opposed to courses where students are in competition (e.g., when exams are graded on a curve), these environments are built upon a climate of trust in which students feel comfortable making mistakes, viewing them as a part of the learning process. Students learn how to learn, rather than just striving to get the right answer. The pursuit of understanding is prioritized over having all the answers.
The norms and expectations established in your classroom enhance or hinder your students’ learning experience. Community-centered learning environments explicitly promote norms and expectations that encourage critical inquiry and collaboration. For example, in a community-centered class it is more important to take a risk than to answer every question correctly. On the other hand, in classrooms where it is not okay to make mistakes and only correct answers are praised, students are discouraged from asking for clarification, taking risks and exploring new hypotheses. In contrast, community-centered classrooms focus on the learners, their current understanding and the process of learning, not on the correct answer itself.
A climate of trust between the instructor, students and their peers is one of the essential ingredients of a community-centered learning environment. When students know that you are interested in their needs and those of the entire class, they are more likely to participate in the community building process themselves. The absence of fear related to failure or ridicule encourages students to challenge themselves and focus on mastery rather than performing to achieve good grades.
In community-centered learning environments, instructors and students take on the following roles:
- Allow for risk taking
- Recognize growth
- Value process as well as product
- Include all students
- Are culturally sensitive
- Create a climate of trust
- Give opportunities for collaboration and cooperation
- Establish norms and expectations
- Take risks
- Respect others
- Accept diversity
- Make connections with others
- Develop skills in collaboration and cooperation
- Be open to feedback
- Be motivated to learn
- Adhere to norms and expectations
- Set clear expectations for feedback and interactions
- Establish your instructor presence while building rapport with students
- Incorporate resources and design activities that build community
- Give opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration
- Encourage students to share knowledge and take risks
Community-centered trust-building measures
- Discover something about each of your students’ prior knowledge or interests and, if possible, help them make the connection between these and the course
- Make your goals and expectations explicit and then elicit your student’s assumptions and expectations
- Establish a climate in which it is okay to take risks and make mistakes
- Design assignments that encourage collaboration over competition
- Be explicit that everyone is learning – even the instructor – and that the process is as important as the final product
- Use moments when you do not have the answer to model how you would find the information
- Structure your course with activities that encourage a high level of student engagement and questioning
Other community-centered strategies
- Encourage academic risk-taking by allowing room for your students to make mistakes, learn from feedback from you and their peers, and give them opportunities to build on their understanding and revise their work
- Promote intellectual camaraderie with activities that involve students helping each other solve problems, build on each other’s knowledge, suggest solutions and ask for clarification
- Create a community of practice amongst your peers in your department or institution
- Set clear expectations regarding participation, classroom norms, group work, etc.
- Assign small group activities and guide students on the fundamentals of successful groupwork
Community-centered strategies unique to online environments
The above-mentioned strategies can be utilized in any setting, but the following suggestions are specific to online learning environments.
- Place course guidelines and expectations in a readily available and logical location
- Increase participation of students with different learning preferences with additional options for assignments or with different modalities of participation
- Encourage small group work and suggest that all or part of the collaboration take place either in person or via video conference
- Make a space in the course for students to have non-academic related discussions
- Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.
- Bransford, J., Vye, N., & Bateman, H. (2002, May). Creating high-quality learning environments: Guidelines from research on how people learn. In the Knowledge Economy and Postsecondary Education: Report of Workshop (pp. 159-198).
- Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. Perspectives on socially shared cognition, 2, 63-82.
- Shea, P. (2006). A study of students’ sense of learning community in online environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 35-44.
- Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Seven principles for cultivating communities of practice. Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge, 4.
Strategies for building relationships with students
The following are general strategies for creating a positive community-centered learning environment.
Tips for day one
- Instructor introduction
- Student introductions
- Establish tone
- Facilitate positive peer interactions (such as an ice breaker)
- Incorporate an engaging activity
- Set clear expectations
- Show the value of your course
- Proactively share policies and procedures
General tips and techniques
- Use your students' names whenever possible
- Give students the opportunity to explore different paths of learning
- Create a space where students feel comfortable voicing their beliefs and opinions on the subject matter
- Be aware of social or cultural norms
- Provide feedback and guidance consistently
- Reinforce expectations with your students regarding participation, classroom norms, group work, etc.
Face-to-face: Tips and techniques
- Greet students
- Incorporate activities that encourage students to work together to make connections to the outside world
- Facilitate smaller groups to increase engagement between students
- If possible, arrive to class early to set up your technology and chat informally with students as they come in
- Be approachable and open to answering questions
- Provide help, guidance or additional resources when needed
Online: Tips and techniques
- Start your semester with a brief welcome video
- Try to personalize various elements of your course
- Have clear guidelines and expectations readily available
- Encourage students to meet in person or use video conferencing for group work
- Have non-academic related discussion boards available for students
- Ensure your availability to students during the semester
- Use alternative grading techniques to build more face to face time (video grading, video conferencing, office hours, etc.)
- Anderson, T., L. Rourke, D.R. Garrison and W. Archer (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5 (2).
- Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating Social Presence in Online Environments. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, (100), 57-68.
- Gao, F., Zhang, T., & Franklin, T. (2012). Designing asynchronous online discussion environments: Recent progress and possible future directions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(3), 469-483.
- Garrison, D. R. (2009) Communities of Inquiry in Online Learning: Social, Teaching and Cognitive Presence. In C. Howard et al. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance and online learning. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, in press.
- Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
- McGuire, B. (2016). Integrating the Intangibles into Asynchronous Online Instruction: Strategies for Improving Interaction and Social Presence. Journal of Effective Teaching, 16(3), 62-75.
- Rovai, Alfred P. (2007) Facilitating Online Discussions Effectively. Internet and Higher Education, v10 n1 p77-88.
- Ryman, S., Burrell, L., Hardham, G., Richardson, B., & Ross, J. (2009). Creating and Sustaining Online Learning Communities: Designing for Transformative Learning. International Journal of Pedagogies & Learning, 5(3), 32-45.
- Sadafa, A. & Olesovab, L. Enhancing cognitive presence in online case discussions with questions based on the Practical Inquiry model. American Journal of Distance Education, Published online: 31 Jan 2017.
Improve your learning environment
Design a community building activity. Please consider the steps below.
- Step 1: Think about how your teaching and learning philosophy and teaching methods influence your interactions with your students, as well as the interactions amongst your students.
- Step 2: Identify an area of your course where you could strengthen your community building strategies. Example strategies could be a/an:
- welcome to the course video
- introductory unit video
- icebreaker activity at the beginning of the course
- informal discussion board where students and instructor talk about course related topics
While these are examples, you can use any of the strategies from this page or review the SUNY OSCQR – Standard 41, class community page to help you.
- Step 3: Begin to build your community building activity using the best practices on this page
- Blumberg, P. (2009). Developing learner-centered teaching: a practical guide for faculty. Jossey-Bass.
- Brewer, S., & Klein, J. D. (2006). Type of positive interdependence and affiliation motive in an asynchronous, collaborative learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(4), 331-354.
- Granitz, N. A., Koernig, S. K., & Harich, K. R. (2009). Now it's personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31(1), 52-65.
- Hall, R. M., & Sandler, B. R. (1982). The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Project on the Status of Women. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. Volume 2. Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.