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.
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:
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
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
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
Encourage students to share knowledge and take risks
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
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
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).
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.
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.