June 18, 2014
An Effective Learning Environment is a Shared Responsibility
Whether it’s a student who is texting during class, an online student who makes minimal comments to the discussion board, or a teacher who marches nonstop through mountains of material, the learning environment is defined by a combination of individual behaviors, and everybody contributes to what that environment becomes.
It’s a responsibility shared by teachers and students. But it’s not an obligation most students seem willing to accept.
Teachers can tell students they’d like to have a positive climate for learning in the classroom, but teachers can’t create that climate single-handedly, and trying to legislate those behaviors that do and don’t contribute to learning is, on that scale of one to ten, about a two on the least effective side. Much better are activities that develop awareness and call for a commitment from everyone.
Here’s an example. I got the idea from a straightforward descriptive inquiry that involved a student cohort and a faculty cohort. Students were asked to identify a set of faculty behaviors that they found irritating. Faculty were asked to name student behaviors that irritated them. I’ve recommended updating the query by asking students to identify faculty behaviors that make it difficult for them to learn and asking faculty to identify student behaviors that make their best teaching difficult to deliver. Now I’m thinking that I’d update the questions further by asking students for a second list—a list of those things other students do that make learning in the classroom or online difficult.
I think there’s merit in having students make their lists in small groups, but if you don’t want to take class time with this activity, you could collect the responses online. What you want are two lists of the most common behaviors, say the top five or six things that teachers do and students do that make it difficult to learn. Along with these two lists, you want to construct your list–the one that names the five or six things that students do that makes it tough to teach effectively. You could post the lists, but I think their impact is enhanced if you discuss the results with your students. An open, free-flowing discussion reinforces the importance of the issues raised and will likely be an eye-opening exercise for some.
The beauty of the strategy is how it makes clear that what the class ends up being is the result of actions taken by the teacher and the students. What individuals do matters to the class as a whole, and the behaviors on the list are things students and the teacher can avoid doing. The teacher can take the lead, promising that she’ll try to avoid those behaviors that make it hard for students to learn. Would students work to avoid those behaviors that make the teaching and the learning of others more difficult? Can we be in this together?
Of course, it’s not a surefire, works every time, creates instructional bliss, kind of solution. But it does develop awareness and establish a set of benchmarks that can be used to confront the behaviors, should they emerge, and to solicit and provide feedback at various intervals in the course.
But I think we need to do more. Students don’t understand that those places in which learning occurs have special features. Just like cultures in the lab need distinct conditions to grow, minds require unique environments to acquire information, arrive at ideas and insights, and ultimately thrive. These environments are places where learners feel safe, where they know each other, where they don’t just occupy the space, but share in it with energizing ideas, information, and perspectives. They are places filled with the sounds of minds at work.
I often think of Larry Lesser’s piece that appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. He came across a poem in a Jewish prayer book that expressed noble intentions for a worship space. It caused him to write a set of noble intentions for his classroom spaces—starting with what he intended to do and be, followed with his aspirations for students. His intentions transform classrooms, lifting them from ordinary places to spaces of power, filled with potential. Sharing those intentions changed how his students thought about the classroom.
References: Appleby, D. C. “Faculty and Student Perceptions of Irritating Behaviors in the College Classroom.” Journal of Staff, Program, & Organizational Development, 1990, 8 (1), 41-46.
Lesser, L.M. (2010). Opening Intentions. The Teaching Professor, 24 (9), 4.