Learning Environments

Cultivating a positive classroom environment to improve your students’ learning experience.

On this page:

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.

Evidence

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).

Students’ perspective

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.

Strategies for building relationships with students

The following are general strategies for creating a positive community-centered learning environment.

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