Classroom climate has a major effect on student learning. When students feel connected to the community created in the classroom—both to their peers and their professors—they are better able to engage with the course materials through regular class attendance, greater receptiveness to new and potentially transformative information, and improved motivation, study skills, and attention quality (Buskist and Saville, 2001; Hess and Smythe, 2001; Christophel and Gorham, 1995; Frymier, 1994; Rodriguez, Plax and Kearney, 1996).
Of course, all sorts of things affect climate: “faculty-student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student-student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials” (Ambrose, et al., 2010).
Even when things seem to be going well for the most part, classroom dynamics might still problematically limit some students from succeeding. Creating an inclusive classroom from the start, with attention to racial, ethnic, class, ability, religion, gender, sexuality, and preparedness differences will go a tremendous way to improve the climate for all students. Designing your course around inclusive teaching principles, using team-based learning, ensuring all students know one another by name, thinking of your syllabus as an invitation to learning rather than a contract (to be violated), and establishing ground rules are effective ways to build a collaborative environment where all students feel invested in the learning that will take place.
By connecting with your students early and often, you can attune your own teaching to the climate in the room. It is also important to actually hear from students since many things may slip your own notice, even with the best intentions. One particularly useful method for this is Stephen Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire.” You could do this quite simply with notecards and without the splashy terminology. The crucial point is that regularly allowing students to give anonymous feedback on how the course is going for them will surface many otherwise unnoticed issues. Mid-semester Evaluations are also helpful for this.
When “hot” or difficult moments arise, it’s critical to address them quickly and skillfully. Do not let incivilities and microaggressions pass without comment. In some cases, this may mean waiting until after class to address privately with the involved parties; in other cases, you will need to address the entire class. These resources can help: