Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Shaping a Positive Learning Environment

Several years ago, American surgeon, author, and public health researcher Atul Gawande experimented with using a two-minute checklist in operating rooms in eight different hospitals. One unexpected result was that a round of team-member introductions before surgery lowered the average number of surgical complications by 35%. Learning names and building a positive environment at the outset of this short-term medical community experience made huge impacts on their ability to function effectively together.

How might we apply this and other community-building principles to establish positive learning environments that facilitate student learning?

Learning is an emotional process—we feel excitement when learning a new skill, embarrassment about mistakes, and fear of being misunderstood. Fostering positive emotions in your classroom will motivate students to learn, while negative emotions such as stress and alienation will inhibit their learning.

Research tells us students learn better when they are part of a supportive community of learners. When you create a positive learning environment where students feel accepted, seen, and valued, they are more likely to persist in your course, in their majors, and at the university.

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Instructor teaching to a full active learning classroom space

Background

In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose et al. address the many and complex factors that influence learning environments, including intellectual, social, emotional, and physical (2010).

They offer a few key takeaways for educators:

  • Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your classroom community is made up of individuals with diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences; the act of learning is intertwined with a variety of socioemotional influences.

  • Classroom climate is determined by both intentional and unintentional actions, and by both explicit and implicit messages. And their impact on students is not always obvious. Seemingly well-meaning or unimportant choices and remarks can have unintended effects on student learning.

  • The good news: You have more control over the learning environment in your courses than you might guess. If you know how learning environments influence student learning, you can employ a variety of strategies to consciously shape a welcoming and inclusive classroom.

Sense of Belonging in College

In a welcoming and inclusive classroom, students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. Sense of belonging is a basic human need. That is,  everyone  needs to belong. In the college context, sense of belonging refers to whether or not students feel respected, accepted, valued, included, cared for, and that they matter—in your classroom, at the university, or in their chosen career path (Strayhorn, 2012).

Although everyone needs to belong, students’ feelings of comfort in your class are largely dependent on their identities and experiences (Strayhorn, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007). Being the only student, or one of a few, of a particular identity group can lead students to feel detached, apathetic, or reluctant to participate. They may feel marginalized by the course content or by other students’ comments.

Indeed, research shows that minority students tend to report a lower sense of belonging than their peers (Johnson et al., 2007; Strayhorn, 2008a). Academic performance or preparation can also raise or lower students’ perceived sense of belonging (Hoops, Green, Baker, & Hensley, 2016; Strayhorn, 2008b; Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014). Particularly for minority students, academic struggle can be internalized as a sign that they do not belong (Walton & Cohen, 2007).

Research by DeSurra and Church in 1994 provides a spectrum for understanding learning environments that ranges from explicitly marginalizing, where the course climate is openly hostile and cold, to explicitly centralizing, where multiple perspectives are validated and integrated into the course. While this particular research was based on sexual orientation, the earliest research on learning environments—the “chilly climate studies”—focused on gender and had similar findings (Hall, 1982; Hall & Sandler, 1984; and Sandler & Hall, 1986). These early studies demonstrated that marginalization of students does not require an openly hostile environment. Rather, the accumulation of microaggressions alone can adversely impact learning. Later studies showed similar effects based on the race and ethnicity of students (Hurtado et al., 1999; Watson et al., 2002).

UX Tip

Diversity and Inclusion 

Students, like all of us, are complex human beings—they have a gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity. These overlapping identities mean that an individual may face multiple barriers at once to feeling welcome in your class. Rather than thinking your course should support “a” student of color or “a” student with a disability, craft a learning environment that is welcoming to as many types of students—and their complexities—as possible. 

Students struggling with sense of belonging are less engaged. They may sit in the back of class, be inattentive during lecture, or avoid participation in discussion or group activities. They may even skip class or show up late more often than others. However, sense of belonging is not static but dynamic, and it can fluctuate with transitions from class to class, year to year, or situation to situation. For example, a student who feels they belong in your course today may suddenly doubt they belong if they score poorly on an exam tomorrow. Therefore, it is important to continually observe students’ behavior and support their belonging throughout the term.

Sense of belonging affects students’ academic engagement and motivation, as well as their emotional wellbeing. The bottom line is this: Students who feel they belong are more likely to succeed.

For more insight into college students’ sense of belonging, watch this engaging TEDx talk by Ohio State professor Dr. Terrell Strayhorn.

In Practice

You want all students to feel they belong in your course. What concrete strategies can you use to shape a positive learning environment?

Set a positive tone from the start

Simple efforts to establish a welcoming atmosphere in the early days and weeks of class can help students feel more comfortable, included, and confident.

  • Use positive language in your syllabus. Your syllabus is the first impression students have of your course. Framing policies and expectations in friendly and constructive language, rather than with strong directives or punitive warnings, can increase students’ comfort.

  • Get to know students and help them get to know each other. On the first day, ask students their preferred names and pronouns and facilitate icebreaker activities to build community. Use Namecoach in CarmenCanvas to have students record the pronunciation of their names and their preferred pronouns. Surveys and polling, such as through Top Hat, are great ways to informally assess students’ motivations, learning goals, and prior knowledge early in the course.

  • Be warm, friendly, and present. Greet students when they enter the class, make yourself available before and after class, and set up office hours. Share your enthusiasm about the course and relevant personal experience—this can humanize you and increase students’ connection to the material.

  • Share positive messages about student success. Show students you believe in their capacity to succeed. Avoid negative statements such as, “Only 1 in 4 of you will pass this class.” Instead, normalize academic struggle and assure students they can master difficult content with effort.

UX Tip

Online Instructor Presence

Strong instructor presence in online courses has been shown to increase participation, facilitate knowledge acquisition, and foster a healthy learning community. When teaching online, you can make meaningful connections to students through video introductions, online office hours, and regular and planned communication. Read more about online instructor presence.

Foster open discourse and communication

Meaningful class discourse requires more than a friendly demeanor. Be prepared to address complex issues, difficult questions, and conflict in collaborative ways.

  • Develop a classroom agreement. Involve students explicitly in shaping the learning environment. Help them craft a (potentially living) document that outlines community norms and ground rules for respect, civil discourse, and communication.

  • Resist “right” answers. Encourage discussion that promotes critical thinking rather than simple consensus. Invite students to offer their perspectives before sharing your own, and guide them to consider multiple viewpoints and avenues to solving problems.

  • Respond to classroom conflict. Consider how you will frame controversial content or “hot topics” in your course. Rather than avoiding these conversations, plan in advance how to facilitate a productive and civil discussion. Refer students back to the ground rules they laid out in the classroom agreement.

  • Get feedback from students. Provide opportunities for students to give frequent anonymous feedback on your course—and show you value their input by acting on it. Surveys or exit slips, in addition to conventional midterm feedback, can bring to light issues that affect students’ sense of belonging or inhibit their learning.

Create an inclusive environment

Embrace multiple perspectives, ways of learning, and modes of expression so that all students feel included and supported.

  • Choose inclusive course content. Do the authors of your course materials represent the spectrum of identities of people in your field? Of students in your class? Who is depicted in the readings and videos you assign? Include course material that represents diverse identities, perspectives, and experiences to help all students connect to your content.

  • Use a variety of teaching methods. Incorporate multiple strategies that appeal to a range of abilities and preferences: lecture, whole-group and small-group discussion, think-pair-share, in-class writing exercises, case studies, role playing, games, technology tools, and more. And don’t limit yourself to conventional “texts”—film and video, podcasts, and guest lectures are all engaging ways to present content.

  • Provide assignment options. Support student success by offering multiple modes to complete assignments. Options range from traditional, such as papers, presentations, and posters, to creative, such as websites, blogs, infographics, games, videos, and podcasts. Allow both individual and group work options, when feasible.

  • Make space for differing participation. Fear of being called on can hinder students’ comfort and motivation. Encourage, but don’t force, participation during in-class discussion, and acknowledge introverted students when they contribute. Consider alternate ways students can share their ideas, such as via written reflections, online discussion posts, and lower pressure think-pair-shares. Giving students time to reflect on “big questions” before discussion can also increase their confidence to speak up.

Organize your course to support students

The structure and content of your course, in addition to how you deliver it, are key to creating a supportive course climate.

  • Communicate learning outcomes. Being explicit about what you want students to do—and why it matters—can increase their motivation. Discuss the purpose of your course and its relevance to their lives, tell them what you will cover at the beginning of each class, and share a rationale for all assignments.

  • Be transparent and efficient with grading. Create student-friendly rubrics that lay out clear expectations for all assignments. Grade and return student work in a timely manner, with actionable feedback that helps them understand their progress and areas for improvement.

  • Ensure course materials are accessible. When content is accessible, students with vision, auditory, motor, and cognitive disabilities can successfully navigate, use, and benefit from it. Using heading structures in documents, providing alternate text for images, and captioning videos are a few practices that make your course material accessible, as well as more clear and user-friendly for everyone.

  • Share resources. In addition to extended material on your course subject, link students to helpful resources for mental health, stress, and learning assistance.

UX Tip

Carmen Common Sense

Consult Carmen Common Sense, a student-authored list of ten solutions to a student-friendly course, to learn how to build a supportive learning environment in Carmen.

Examples

Summary

Students are more likely to succeed in positive learning environments where they feel a sense of belonging.

There is no singular or perfect learning environment. Every class you teach is a unique community made up of individuals with diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences. A number of strategies can help you foster a classroom climate that is welcoming, inclusive, and responsive to their needs.

  • Set a positive tone from the start through your syllabus, community-building activities, a warm demeanor, and constructive messages about student success.

  • Foster open discourse and communication through classroom agreements, addressing complex issues and conflict productively, and collecting regular feedback from students.

  • Create an inclusive environment by choosing diverse and representative course material, using a variety of teaching methods, and providing options for assignments and participation.

  • Organize your course to support students by making your goals, rationale, and expectations for the course and assignments clear, ensuring materials are accessible, and providing resources to support students’ wellbeing.

References

  • Ambrose, S. A., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.
  • DeSurra, C. J., & Church, K. A. (1994). Unlocking the Classroom Closet Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students. Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, LA. Distributed by ERIC. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED379697
  • Hall, R. (1982). A classroom climate: A chilly one for women?. Association of American Colleges. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED215628
  • Hall, R., & Sandler, B. (1984). Out of the classroom: A chilly campus climate for women?. Association of American Colleges. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED254125
  • Hoops, L. D., Green, M., Baker, A., & Hensley, L. C. (2016, February). Success in terms of belonging: An exploration of college student success stories. The Ohio State University Hayes Research Forum, Columbus, OH.
  • Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: Improving the climate for racial/ethnic diversity in higher education. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education in cooperation with Association for the Study of Higher Education. The George Washington University. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED430514
  • Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2007). Examining Sense of Belonging Among First-Year Undergraduates From Different Racial/Ethnic Groups. Journal of College Student Development48(5), 525–542. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2007.0054
  • Sandler, B., & Hall, R. (1986). The campus climate revisited: Chilly for women faculty, administrators, and graduate students. Association of American Colleges. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED282462
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2008). Sentido de Pertenencia: A hierarchical analysis predicting sense of belonging among Latino college students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education7(4), 301–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/1538192708320474
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2009). Fittin' In: Do Diverse Interactions with Peers Affect Sense of Belonging for Black Men at Predominantly White Institutions? NASPA Journal45(4). https://doi.org/10.2202/0027-6014.2009
  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology92(1), 82–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82
  • Watson, L. W., Person, D. R., Rudy, D. E., Gold, J. A., Cuyjet, M. J., Bonner, F. A. I., … Terrell, M. C. (2002). How Minority Students Experience College: Implications for Planning and Policy. Stylus Publishing.
  • Whitt, E. J., Edison, M. I., Pascarella, E. T., Nora, A., & Terenzini, P. T. (1999). Women's perceptions of a "chilly climate" and cognitive outcomes in college: Additional evidence. Journal of College Student Development, 40(2), 163–177. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ590847
  • Zumbrunn, S., Mckim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study. Instructional Science42(5), 661–684. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-014-9310-0