creating a climate for learning November 11

Reflections on Teacher Power in the Contemporary Classroom

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Teacher power has to do with the ability to influence student behaviors and, ultimately, what they learn and how much. My colleagues and I often lament that it is more difficult to influence student behaviors than it used to be. Much of what we know about power in the classroom is grounded in some rather outdated, but at the time useful, assumptions. In traditional classrooms, students used to submit to teacher authority with little resistance. Back then teachers influenced students to do things they would not have otherwise done by:

  • Promising rewards or punishments
  • Suggesting “I’m an expert, and this is what works for me, so you should try it too”
  • Asserting the authority inherent in their title, “teacher”
  • Developing good relationships with students as a way of encouraging them to comply
  • Managing their classrooms with policies and structures that force students to be on-task (like banning the use of laptops or tablets, side talking, absenteeism, or tardiness)

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professor giving a lecture November 8

What about Teacher Entitlement?

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Last post on entitlement (I promise, at least for a while), but Dave Porter’s comment to the recent post on responding to entitlement identified something I’ve been thinking about but hadn’t clearly recognized—teacher entitlement. He writes that in his nearly 40 years in the classroom he’s “seen more instances of teacher ‘entitlement’ than student entitlement.” He continues, “I think clarity, mutual respect, and reciprocity have a great deal to do with the expectations teachers and students have of one another. As teachers, we create the game; it’s seems a little disingenuous to blame our students for playing it.”


student raising hand on class August 2

The Importance of Learning Students’ Names

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Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. “I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?”

Who is this?, I’m thinking to myself. Course rosters roll through my mind. Nothing. No associations. No connections. Finally, in embarrassment I admit. “I’m terribly sorry but I can’t remember your name. When did you take my course?” “Maryellen! I’m Simone Beck. We went to college together.”


students working in whiteboard on first day of class July 19

First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning

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There’s no discounting the importance of the first day of class. What happens that day sets the tone for the rest of the course. Outlined below are a few novel activities for using that first day of class to emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.


professor chatting with students April 7

Fostering Student Connectedness: Building Relationships in the Classroom

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A large body of research has documented how students who report strong connectedness with college instructors reap many benefits, including: better persistence (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1978), engagement (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005), and effort (Kuh & Hu, 2001) in college, as well as greater academic self-concept (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010), confidence in their ability to succeed (Vogt, Hocevar, & Hagedorn, 2007), and grade point average (Anaya & Cole, 2001; Kim & Sax, 2009). In general, the research literature supports a strong positive correlation between positive student-instructor interactions—both inside the classroom and out—and student learning and development. What is unknown, however, is whether students are aware of these benefits.


creating climate for learning. Male professor April 3

Creating a Climate for Learning: A Survey for Students and Teachers

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How well a class functions is the result of both what the teacher does and what the students do. The way we solicit course evaluation feedback reinforces students’ tendency to see the teacher as the one who’s responsible for whether it was a good class. Teachers do play a significant role, but they don’t make or break a class without a lot of student input. We need to be using evaluation activities that make clear that what happens in class is a shared responsibility.

Here’s a feedback activity that highlights the roles played by teachers and students. It can be configured in a variety of different ways—three options are recommended here.

  • Students can provide input on the conditions for learning created by the instructor.
  • The instructor can provide input on how well students are functioning as a community of learners.
  • The students can evaluate the course in terms of how it functions as a learning community.

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Professor in front of class March 29

What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility

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One thing about student evaluations that troubles me is how they give students the impression that it’s the teacher who makes or breaks the course. A few instruments query students about their own efforts, but I’m not sure those kinds of questions make it clear that what happens in any course is the combined result of teacher and student actions. Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, “It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.”


student-led discussion March 21

Activities for Developing a Positive Classroom Climate

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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.

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male professor calling on student December 1, 2016

Embracing Tension in the Classroom

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As instructors, we strive to generate thoughtful and engaging classroom discussion while maintaining a collegial and inclusive environment. In doing so, we may be tempted to avoid topics that can ultimately add to students’ learning. Hot moments in the classroom refer to discussions that become contentious, acrimonious, or even disrespectful. None of us wants to promote a toxic classroom environment, and when such moments happen, we work diligently to diffuse them. However, when done strategically, creating what I call positive tension can help students better understand ideas central to a course while learning to engage in productive debate in the classroom and beyond.

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Students in lecture hall. August 3, 2016

Classroom Spaces Where Great and Magical Things Can Happen

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Classroom spaces (virtual or physical) are special. We tend to take them for granted, partly because spaces in general have become less differentiated. We don’t do certain things in specified places like we used to. We work at home, on planes, and in various public spaces. We eat in our cars and in front of the TV. We use our devices everywhere—bathrooms, bedrooms, churches, cars, elevators, street corners, and, yes, classrooms.