Improving the Climate in Your Classroom

Drawing of a green chalkboard with Welcome to Class written on it and a storm cloud with lightning bolts lower left and sun burst lower right.What do we mean when we talk about classroom climate?  Classroom climate can be defined as “…the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. [Ambrose et. al. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey Bass. 2010.] How you, as an instructor, choose to interact with students in your classroom will affect the classroom climate.

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTE) at Cornell University provides an overview of the factors that teachers should consider in thinking about classroom climate. Not only must we be aware of blantant biases in dealing with students, but also the micro-inequities, small but significant interactions that have a negative effect on students. The Cornell CTE discusses the factors that play into creating a negative or positive climate (sterotyping, tone, interactions, and choice of content) and offers examples of ways to access and improve your classroom climate.

In a recent (September 2015) video produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know, “transgender and gender-nonbinary students share what keeps them from feeling safe and thriving on campus.” These students give us personal and powerful statements on how we can improve their classroom and campus experiences. The video is about 12 minutes long, and covers the recognition of the range of gender identities, use of preferred names over birth names, the use of pronouns, the need for resources and staff deticated to LGBTQ student life, and restroom and housing issues. The message is that by asking about preferences we can make a difference for all students.

Last, but certainly not least, I recommend watching a video produced for the 2014 MOOC  An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching. This course is being offered again this fall by the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) Network. The video is also available throught the Vanderbilt University YouTube site. In The Affective Doman: Classroom Climate (25 minutes), Dr. Michele DiPietro, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennessaw State University, discusses the many aspects of classroom climate and the importance for student motivation and learning.

Dr. DiPietro covers a lot of ground in his presentation. Especially valuable, he makes us aware of the fact that even the best-intentioned instructors may be unaware of the ways in which classroom climate has consequences for their students. He cites a 1994 study by DeSurra and Church, [Unlocking the Classroom Closet: Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students], that demonstrates that faculty frequently rate themselves higher on a continuum representing creating an inclusive versus marginalizing classroom climate than their students do.

How can faculty do a better job? DiPietro suggests that we start by examining our assumptions, which can be a difficult task as we are often blind to our own preconceptions.  He advocates learning and using students’ preferred names, modeling inclusive language, using multiple and diverse examples, establishing ground rules for interaction, striving to be fair, not asking people to speak for an entire group that they may or may not actually represent, and being aware of micro-inequities. By the end of DiPietro’s presentation, we will understand not only why it important it is to access classroom climate, but what we can do to create the best possible learning environment for all students.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

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