June 17th, 2010

Classroom Climates


I did a workshop this week on climates for learning. It’s a session I love doing. Nobody argues with the need to have one in the classroom and everywhere else around campus. But most of us haven’t gotten past the metaphor (we aren’t talking about the “weather” in our classroom even though we do regularly refer to the “atmosphere” in class and the “environment” on campus). When we refer to the climate for learning what are we talking about?


In most sessions faculty struggle with a definition and anything beyond one-word descriptors that identify characteristics of learning climates. “Safe” someone volunteers, “students feel safe in the classroom.” “Respect” somebody else says. “A warm place,” which I gently point out is more of the weather metaphor.

The definition I use for the climate for learning comes out of the research of Barry Fraser who did all kinds of work on classroom climate during the 1980s. Fraser defines classroom climate as a series of psycho-social relationships that exist between faculty and students collectively and individually. Below you’ll find a reference to the instrument Fraser (and colleagues) developed to measure climate in the classroom. The instrument gives form and substance to the elusive and abstract idea of classroom climate. It contains seven subscales that identify those actions teachers and students take that promote the climate for learning in the classroom. Here are three examples: “personalization,” what Fraser calls the interactions between the teacher and students and how it is the teacher expresses concern and care for students; “involvement,” which assesses the extent to which students participate in the activities of the classroom; and “student cohesiveness,” meaning how well students know and are connected with each other.

After the session someone asked if there wasn’t any recent research on classroom climate. I know of another instrument published in 1994 but not much else. I gently challenged this faculty member to take a look at Fraser’s instrument. I’m not seeing anything in it that is no longer relevant or not part of what makes a climate for learning in classrooms today. Good research stands the test of time, and I think this work is a great example.

One of the things I really like about the Fraser instrument is that it asks students to identify the classroom climate in this class and then rate the same characteristics in terms of their perceptions of the preferred climate. I’ve used this instrument for years, and I think teachers benefit most from the feedback it offers if they complete the instrument along with students. It’s good to discover how your read of the climate in a particular classroom compares with what students report they’re experiencing.

Reference: Fraser, B. J., Treagust, D. F., and Dennis, N. C. “Development of an Instrument for Assessing Classroom Psychosocial Environment at Universities and Colleges.” Studies in Higher Education, 1986, 11 (1), 43-53.