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Principle 1:

Establish and support a class climate that fosters belonging for all students.

This page provides a concise version of Principle 1 from the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia. Explore the highlighted strategies below to establish and support a class climate that fosters belonging for all students.

On this page:

COMMON TEACHING CHALLENGES:

“How can I create a positive course climate for students?”
“How do I know if my course climate is working for students?”
“One of my students said something offensive in class. What should I do?”
“I said something offensive in class. What do I do now?”

Introduction

The following text is abridged from the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia.

How do instructors create a classroom climate—the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environment of a class—that values students’ varied identities, experiences, and backgrounds? How can instructors encourage and build productive space for meaningful conversation, critical thought, and transformative learning?

  • Instructors provide leadership through the design and delivery of their course, and they encourage students to take ownership for learning.1
  • While a good deal of course climate has to do with the way instructors set up the course, instructors and students share the responsibility in co-creating the conditions that lead to learning.
  • Instructors have to be aware of the varied and intersectional identities inhabited by students in the room, and work to actively invite their experiences and insights into the class. 2
  • Instructors should commit to engaging their students in ways that neither privilege nor exclude groups, identities, or experiences.3

 

Teaching Strategies

To positively influence classroom climate from the start, instructors should:

Build instructor-student rapport.4 5 6

  • Reduce anonymity in the classroom by learning names given by students, and getting to know them through in-class surveys and activities, office hour visits, online chats, etc.
  • Share your interests, passions, and personal learning process with students, showing how you apply course materials and skills in your work and life.
  • Describe your own fears and struggles in learning new material to break down barriers and demystify the learning process. 

Build student-student rapport.7 8 9 10

  • Provide opportunities for students to get to know and interact with each other. Use icebreaker activities at the start of the semester, and encourage students to work in pairs or small groups.
  • Encourage dialogue about learning experiences. Facilitate a discussion of best and worst class experiences to establish a climate for learning, recording and sharing answers so all students see the diverse responses, experiences, and perspectives. Possible prompts include:
    • “In the best class I ever had, students/the instructor…”
    • “I learn best when…”
    • “I don’t learn well in classes where…”
    • “Peers encourage me to learn when they…”
  • Use narrative reflection to incorporate experiential knowledge. Design activities that allow students to draw on their diverse backgrounds and approaches to a course concept, object, or goal. Ask students to describe their interest in the course to each other, in order to better understand the various perspectives and backgrounds in the class.

To value individuals and minimize discrimination throughout class, instructors should:

Treat each student as an individual.11 12 13

  • When inviting student participation, do not make assumptions about students’ membership in any demographic groups. Allow students to self-identify when they feel comfortable doing so. Likewise, do not expect individuals to speak for the experience of an entire group; step in if students have this expectation of their peers. Treat each individual student with equal respect, pronouncing their names correctly, asking for and employing the pronouns they use, and supporting their unique abilities and experiences. 

Avoid making assumptions about students’ abilities based on stereotypes.14 15 16

  • When interacting with students, be mindful of existing stereotypes and take care not to perpetuate them (for example, “I’m offering a special tutorial because I know women struggle with math”). Instead, focus on behavioral and controllable actions (for example, “Please come to office hours, so we can practice a few additional problems”).

Convey the same level of confidence in the abilities of all your students.17 18

  • As you take care not to perpetuate stereotypes, be cautious about being over-protective of or unduly strict toward any group of or individual students. Be even-handed in acknowledging students’ accomplishments and areas for growth. Emphasize high standards with verbal assurances that you will help them succeed, and put supports in place to help them meet those standards. (See Principle 2.)

Address challenging classroom moments head-on.19 20 21

  • Take responsibility for addressing challenging classroom moments, such as microaggressions (defined in Sue et al. as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group”), offensive and alienating comments, behaviors, and attitudes. Work to turn difficult moments into teachable moments, asking students to stop and reflect critically on assumptions and positions. When such moments occur, be sure to give adequate time and space to name and discuss the anxiety in the room.
  • When difficult moments occur, prompt students to keep discussions focused on issues or comments, not individuals. Do not attribute motives or intentions behind the person voicing or committing the offensive or alienating act—rather, focus on the comment, behavior, or attitude itself, and acknowledge the effect it has on others. Ask students to use “I” statements when discussing difficult issues (for example, “I think that comment minimizes the issue,” or “I feel hurt by that line of thought, and here’s why…”), which can help to build and maintain a healthy student rapport.

To monitor course climate as the course progresses, instructors should:

Ask for feedback.22

  • Set up informal and formal anonymous processes to receive feedback on climate. Ask teaching assistants, colleagues, or Center for Teaching and Learning staff to conduct classroom observations, or have students complete a classroom climate inventory mid-semester (for example, the College and University Classroom Environment Inventory). Possible prompts include:
    • “What questions or concerns do you have about classroom climate?”
    • “Have you found any actions or words of the instructor or your peers offensive? How?”
    • “How comfortable do you feel participating in this class?”
    • “What makes class participation easy or difficult for you?”
    • “Do you have suggestions for encouraging open and candid discussion in class?”
  • Consider collecting feedback electronically and anonymously through CourseWorks, Google Forms, or Survey Monkey. This technique can promote student honesty, and allay their fears about potential negative consequences for their feedback.
  • When asking for feedback, make sure to review comments and report back to students at the next class session to validate their input and perspectives. When sharing feedback, refrain from attributing feedback to specific students even if you know who wrote the comment; they may not want to have their thoughts shared with the class in such a way. 

Bibliography

  • Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  • Barr, Jason. “Developing a Positive Classroom Climate.” The IDEA Center (October 2016): 1-9.
  • Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  • “College and University Classroom Environment Inventory,” accessed July 19, 2017, https://case.edu/ucite/media/caseedu/ucite/documents/College-and-University-Classroom-Environment-Inventory.pdf.
  • Ginsberg, Margery B., and Raymond J. Wlodkowski. Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching in College. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  • Hockings, Christine. Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: A Synthesis of Research. York: Higher Education Academy, 2010.
  • Lee, Amy, Robert Poch, Marta Shaw, and Rhiannon Williams. Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence. ASHE Higher Education Report 38, no. 2. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  • “Reducing Stereotype Threat,” accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org.
  • Steele, Claude M. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
  • Steele, Dorothy M., and Becki Cohn-Vargas. Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2013.
  • Stroessner, Steve and Catherine Good. “Stereotype Threat: An Overview.” 2011. From “Reducing Stereotype Threat,” accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/.
  • Sue, Derald Wing, Annie I. Lin, Gina C. Torino, Christina M. Capodilupo, and David P. Rivera. “Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15, no. 2 (2009): 183.
  • Tsukada, H., and Perreault, A. “Complicating How Classroom Climate Works: Advancing the Framework.” Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal 9, no. 2 (2016).
  • Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.
  2. Hockings, Christine. Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: A Synthesis of Research. York: Higher Education Academy, 2010.
  3. Sue, Derald Wing, Annie I. Lin, Gina C. Torino, Christina M. Capodilupo, and David P. Rivera. “Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15, no. 2 (2009): 183.
  4. Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco:John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  5. Barr, Jason. “Developing a Positive Classroom Climate.” The IDEA Center (October 2016): 1-9.
  6. Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.
  7. Barr, Jason. “Developing a Positive Classroom Climate.” The IDEA Center (October 2016): 1-9.
  8. Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  9. Lee, Amy, Robert Poch, Marta Shaw, and Rhiannon Williams. Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence. ASHE Higher Education Report 38, no. 2. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  10. Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.
  11. Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  12. Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  13. Lee, Amy, Robert Poch, Marta Shaw, and Rhiannon Williams. Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence. ASHE Higher Education Report 38, no. 2. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  14. Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco:John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  15. “Reducing Stereotype Threat,” accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/.
  16. Steele, Dorothy M., and Becki Cohn-Vargas. Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2013.
  17. Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  18. Stroessner, Steve and Catherine Good. “Stereotype Threat: An Overview.” 2011. From “Reducing Stereotype Threat,” accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/.
  19. Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  20. Sue, Derald Wing, Annie I. Lin, Gina C. Torino, Christina M. Capodilupo, and David P. Rivera. “Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15, no. 2 (2009): 183.
  21. Tsukada, H., and Perreault, A. “Complicating How Classroom Climate Works: Advancing the Framework.” Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal 9, no. 2 (2016).
  22. Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.