supportive learning environment
“In our class: 1) everyone is allowed to feel they can work and learn in a safe and caring environment; 2) everyone learns about, understands, appreciates, and respects varied races, classes, genders, physical and mental abilities, and sexualities; 3) everyone matters; 4) all individuals are to be respected and treated with dignity and civility; and 5) everyone shares the responsibility for making our class, and the Academy, a positive and better place to live, work, and learn.”
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.
The March 12, 2014 post raised issues about those students who really don’t want to work with others in groups … “lone wolves” as they’re called in the literature. Your responses raised a number of issues. I thought it might be worth exploring some of them a bit further.
Many of the comments defended the lone wolves, pointing out that their good academic performance could be compromised by having to work in a group. Did anyone comment about those social learners (whose existence is also well documented in the research) who do well working in groups? We require those students to spend time listening and learning alone, experiences that potentially compromise their academic performance.
Numerous studies on humor in the classroom acknowledge the important role it plays in the learning process. Humor has been reported to increase motivation, enhance the retention of new information, advance problem-solving skills, encourage creativity and critical thinking, facilitate a positive learning environment, and decrease exam anxiety (Martin, 2007). Given its importance, I’d like to suggest several ways to energize your college classroom with humor.
A line of research (done mostly in Australia and Great Britain) has been exploring what prompts students to opt for deep or surface approaches to learning. So far this research has established strong links between the approaches taken to teaching and those taken to learning. If teachers are focused on covering large amounts of content and do so with few attempts to involve and engage students, students tend to learn the material by memorizing it, often without much understanding of it. This new work involved a 388-student cohort enrolled in a first-year biology course and explored the relationship between the ways students emotionally experience a course and the approach that they take to learning in the course.
A bevy of research establishes that student-faculty relationships are important on a number of fronts. For example, they predict persistence and completion in college. They impact the amount of effort students make in courses. They affect the development of students’ academic self-concepts. The authors of this analysis write: “There is evidence in the literature to suggest that the way students feel about their relationship to the professor may play an even larger role than many faculty know, or—perhaps—care to admit.” (p. 41)
I have long pondered a phrase I learned from a mentor: “Witness the struggle.” Frances, my mentor, used the phrase when she talked about working with students in emotional pain. She was referring to those students who sometimes lash out in frustration over missed assignments, family dynamics, or other stressful life issues. As a career educator, I have a deep desire to help students and a strong tendency to offer solutions and suggestions. I want to fix their problems and tell them what to do. The wise words of this phrase offer a more powerful and profound answer to the part of me that thinks I need to rescue students. Its simple urging suggests that I be fully engaged and present, that I use silence to clear a space, and that I guard against telling students what to do. More often than not, students simply need to know that their voices count, that they have been heard, and that who they are matters.
For quite some time now I’ve been interested in a widely held set of assumptions faculty make about the need to assert control at the beginning of a course. The argument goes something like this: When a course starts, the teacher needs to set the rules and clearly establish who’s in charge. If the course goes well, meaning students abide by the rules and do not challenge the teacher’s authority, then the teacher can gradually ease up and be a bit looser about the rules. The rationale behind this approach rests on the assumption that if a teacher loses control of a class, it is very hard to regain the upper hand. In these cases, student behaviors have compromised the climate for learning so seriously that the teacher has an ethical responsibility to intervene and reassert control.
It’s the first day of class. They shuffle in, spot similar life-forms, and slip in with that group. Hipsters sporting wild hair and tats, buttoned-up and serious young scholars, middle-aged moms and dads, maybe a couple of aging hippies. One or two sad souls choose spots isolated from the others; they don’t want to identify with them for reasons of insecurity, arrogance, or something else.
Most teachers know that caring for students is important, but do they realize just how important? A recent article by Steven A. Meyers offers a succinct, well-referenced, and persuasive review of research that addresses the topic. It begins with what most teachers already know: Caring is regularly identified as one of the ingredients or components of effective instruction. What many teachers do not know is that students value the dimensions of caring more highly than teachers do.