This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on March 21, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Positive classroom climate can encourage students to participate, think deeply about content, and engage peers in intellectual debate. Creating a classroom climate conducive to that type of expression can be difficult. Classrooms are filled with a diverse cross-section of our society representing multiple learning preferences and expectations. Professors aspire to reach all students and engage them in meaningful, content-rich examinations of the subject matter, but peer-to-peer relationships, personal struggles, students’ perception of course content, and even the novelty of the college classroom itself can all impact the class climate. The key to overcoming these variables is the professor. The professor is the one piece that most students attribute their success or failure and their positive or negative experiences in a college classroom (Boesch, 2014).
The following describes a pilot project completed in the fall of 2016 in a small liberal arts college:
After several courses in which I was dissatisfied with the frequency and depth of student participation, I designed two sets of opening activities for students to do at the beginning of class. These class starters would act as a conduit for developing a climate of respect, cooperation, and emotional safety (Matsumura, Slater, and Crosson, 2008; Shuck, Albornz, Winberg, 2007). I believed by establishing a positive classroom climate, students would be more willing to participate in content-based discussions and activities.
Class starters, or bell ringers, are common in the elementary, middle, and high school settings, but are rare in college courses. Class starters are short activities aimed at getting students engaged in a topic independent of instructor interaction. In this case, the class starters were comprised of two activities, a Check-in and Warm-up. Each activity was created and displayed, one at a time, on a PowerPoint slide that was presented at the beginning of every class. The goal was for these quick class starters to break down students’ walls and insecurities and encourage them to focus and engage in class discussions and activities.
The Check-in questions remained the same all semester, and the Warm-up activity changed with each class. The Check-in questions were designed to be broad whereas the Warm-ups were content-specific. The class first shared the Check-in questions and then moved into discussing the Warm-up.
The five Check-in questions were projected on a screen before class began. The Check-in happened right away—before any housekeeping or lecture. The five questions were:
- What’s new?
- What’s exciting?
- What’s bothering you?
- What have you thought about from last class?
- Describe your mood in one sentence (optional follow-up).
I introduced the concept of the Check-in during the first meeting of the semester. I explained that it was not graded and did not focus on course readings or content; rather, the activity was created to allow everyone in the class to share something. Participation in the Check-in was not optional. All were required to participate. I shared the rationale behind the ‘forced’ sharing by explaining, “Often, the first time speaking in a class is the most difficult, particularly if the subject matter is not your favorite or you reserved. These Check-ins are designed to present a way to encourage yourself to speak up in a non-threatening, non-academic manner.”
The rules for the Check-in were simple:
- The instructor chose one student to begin and then all other students participate in a clockwise rotation.
- Everyone must participate.
- Select any one of the five choices and announce your selection and response to the group.
- The response can/should be brief. A single word or brief phrase is sufficient.
I modeled the expectation on day one and continued modeling throughout the semester by always selecting one of the Check-in questions and speaking first.
After each Check-in, I revealed the Warm-up portion of the class starter. Warm-up activities were designed around the content of the course, but presented in a manner that was more conversational than text or lecture-based. For example, for a lesson on social and emotional development in our educational psychology course, the Warm-up was designed to focus students’ attention on factors that influenced their personal development. Students were asked to, “Identify a person who has contributed to your growth and development as a student, writer, accountant, teacher, (or whatever your major is), or just as a person. Share what you found significant.”
I listened and affirmed student responses with a nod or simple, “Thank you for sharing.” I kept my comments brief so as to not lose the momentum of students’ sharing. However, as we transitioned to the lecture portion of class, I would integrate some of the comments students made earlier. The personal connection to the text and course topic was valuable to students. “I liked the way the professor used our words when she talked about the chapter, it made the topics seem real and easy to understand,” a student reported.
Sample Warm-up exercises
Composing Warm-ups directly linked to course content can be challenging. The easiest way I found to do it was to look for icebreaker activities and use them as a frame. By keeping the structure of the activities in place and adding course content, the creation of the Warm-ups was manageable. Examples of ways to create Warm-up activities for any class include:
- The M&M icebreaker. Provide bowls of M&Ms and tell students to take a few (but don’t eat any…yet). After everyone has their M&Ms, instruct them to explain one part of the course reading or topic for each color M&M they selected; green = explain the theory of ______, red = tell something that was challenging about the reading/topic, yellow = restate one of the key ideas of _________, brown = tell something you’d like to know more about.
- The three truths and a lie icebreaker. Challenge students to partner up and describe three statements from the reading (two true and one factually inaccurate). Each must take turns identifying which is the false statement.
- The reception line. Divide the students into two groups and have them stand facing each other. Each person talks to the person across from them until signaled to move. The person at the end of one line moves to the other end so that everyone has a new person with whom to talk. Topics (main points of the class/reading) can be provided or students can be assigned to talk about one surprise and one question they had about the reading.
Feedback on the strategy
As part of an unrelated project, two faculty members from outside my department observed this course. Independent of each other, each observer commented on the Check-in and Warm-up activities.
- “I have never seen a college course start like this. It created a warm feeling I have not seen in other courses.”
- “You share a lot of yourself with the students. I have never considered doing this. After seeing the way the students respond, I may try some of these ideas next semester.”
- “Departments don’t teach you to teach. I know my subject matter, but ways to present it and ways to engage students in learning are unsaid. This gave me ideas to try with my students.”
At the end of the semester, I asked students to anonymously write their thoughts about the Check-in and Warm-up class starters. All responses were positive, and students reported feeling more comfortable in class and enjoyed the sense of camaraderie that developed throughout the semester. Here are some of their comments:
- “I admit, the first couple of classes were uncomfortable for me because the atmosphere was unparalleled to any other course I had taken. However, my initial moments of discomfort when I was asked to share turned positive and impacted my view of the class. I believe this has helped me learn more content than I have in any other course.”
- “The Warm-up and Check-in have created a comfortable and safe environment for our class. As a senior, I have never been one to speak that much in class. Although I doubted this exercise at first, it has truly given me the confidence to actively participate in class discussions.”
- “I love this part of class. Even though I don’t know everyone’s names, I still feel comfortable enough to approach them for their help on something and to work with them in groups. It’s a great way to get comfortable in class, speak-up when questions arise, and it makes presenting in front of the class easier.”
- “The Warm-up and Check-in is something I look forward to doing every class. I feel like it brought me closer to me peers and instructor. It helped me feel more engaged and committed to class which in turn made it easier to work in groups, respond to questions, and present materials to the class. I feel if more classes did this, more students would feel more connected and comfortable in class and get more out of going to class.”
- “I really enjoyed the Warm-up/Check-in. I’m an introvert. I don’t like to talk usually, but these Warm-ups have really made it easier for me to make connections and to answer questions in class. In my other classes, I don’t speak at all. These activities helped me learn about those around me and that we aren’t as different as we seem.”
While students are ultimately responsible for their actions and how they participate in class, it is my hope that by striving to break down some barriers, I will create a place that supports and nurtures students and in turn, guides them to become more involved in class.
Melissa Parks is an assistant professor of education in the Stetson University Department of Education.
Boesch, B. (2014). The Importance of the Professor in College Classroom Climate for Immigrant Students. College Quarterly, 17(4), 2-21.
Matsumura, L., Slater, S., & Crosson, A. (2008). Classroom Climate, Rigorous Instruction and Curriculum, and Students’ Interactions in Urban Middle Schools, The Elementary School Journal, 108(4), 293-312.
Shuck, B., Albornoz, C., & Winberg, M. (2007). Emotions and their effect on adult learning: A Constructivist perspective. In S. M. Nielsen & M. S. Plakhotnik (Eds.), Proceedings of the Sixth Annual College of Education Research Conference: Urban and International Education Section (pp. 108-113). Miami: Florida International University.