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Do you remember where you were when the masks finally came off in your classroom? We do! Something was different. For the past two years, we had floundered in a swirling cauldron of new teaching technology as we were asked to sink or swim in the online world. Finally, we could once again see smiling faces. At that moment, we realized it was time to focus on recapturing a classroom climate best suited for learning. Our world of the “pivot” now needs to include a pleasing pirouette back to a cohesive learning community.
Several factors that influence classroom climate are students’ perceptions of rigor, their opinions on their own success, and their interactions with their peers and with the professor (Barr, 2016). Since favorable emotions (which the professor fosters) also lead to students adopting a more committed approach to learning (Trigwell et al., 2012), a constructive classroom environment is a more productive one. Students will develop “deeper connectedness” in a positive classroom environment. In this article, we address the factors that the instructor can control that really do matterbut may also have deteriorated during pandemic-induced survival mode.
Remember that you need to be deliberate about each of the following practices to reestablish a favorable, positive learning environment. You don’t need to accomplish every one of these immediately. Instead, select two or three to work on this semester and see what works for you.
During virtual learning, building relationships with interaction and classroom organization was extremely challenging. Before the pandemic, we were orderly and on top of things as well as caring, feeling, interesting humans, just like our students, and that led to personal connections.
Strategy: On the first day, show your students your three favorite photos and tell a story about them. Next, have students pull out their phones, identify their favorite image, and discuss it with a classmate. Finally, have the students put their three favorites in a Word document and submit their story. Save these and refer to them throughout the semester in your one-on-one conversations.
Now that you’ve begun the connection, keep in mind that organization also fosters connectedness. The brain will always attempt to discern and understand patterns and expression to unique and creative patterns of its own. It resists meaningless patterns and rejects and forgets information that doesn’t fit with previous learning (Caine & Caine, 1990). Therefore, if you understand the patterns and organization of your content, you can provide the scaffolding to aid in the learning process, which will make learning easier and more enjoyable.
Strategy: From day one, on the syllabus and in the classroom, let students know exactly what to expect. On our student evaluations each semester, both of us get compliments about how clear our expectations are as well as how organized our material is. Students value our coherent framework for the semester as it makes it easier for learning (Hathaway, 2015). You might have a colleague review your syllabus for subject cohesion or use graphic organizers for each unit. Organization actually makes teaching easier for you as an instructor since you know precisely what is happening every day of the course.
We already know successful communication is vital to any and every successful classroom environment, but pandemic demands may have led us astray from making this a focus.
Strategies: Tom uses Blackboard announcements to keep students on track. He finds that this is a great tool for his students who have come to expect these a couple of times a week. Sarah works with mostly first-year students and prefers having a slide at the beginning of lecture about what has happened in the course and what will occur next. It explains the content of the syllabus and is relevant to the next few days. This extra communication has helped with students’ success.
Additionally, don’t put off replying to student emails. Your inbox can be tough to manage, but when a student reaches out via email, the issue is generally of great importance to them. Reply by addressing them by their chosen name, answering all their questions, and adding a personal touch (e.g., asking about their three photos assignment or their collegiate sports team). Taking the time and effort to communicate properly with your students (which wasn’t always possible during the remote teaching) shows that you care about them as individuals.
People are meaning makers—constantly searching for meaning in their world (Caine & Caine). We are naturally curious and enjoy hearing about novel ideas. But we likely forgot this characteristic while in pandemic survival mode. It’s time again to take advantage of this natural curiosity to increase motivation and interest in the course content.
Strategy: We both like to use emotional stories that bring out key points of lecture. These can be anecdotes students relate to or, in anatomy class, even their own experiences with concussions or broken bones. Stories can involve humor, our children and grandchildren, or even our pets. These interpersonal examples help students not only remember the material but also realize that you are relatable and personable.
Even though you know enthusiasm is contagious, during the pandemic it was really challenging to demonstrate that through a screen or mask. It’s time again to have fun, and when you are having fun, your students will stay engaged. Humor is an extremely valuable tool you can use to establish a encouraging classroom climate (Kher et al., 1999).
Strategies: Incorporate jokes (even if they’re corny) into your PowerPoint presentations. Find comic strips or funny anecdotes that pertain to your content. At the start of class every Friday, Tom tells a joke. Go ahead and tell that silly thing your toddler said last night at dinner. Smile! Praise your students for participating. And enthusiasm isn’t just about jokes. Sarah asks her students to send her any personal X-rays to share in class (they love this.) Showing excitement for activities occurring on campus can demonstrate that you care about students’ interests.
During the pandemic, we found that students were complacent, silent, and noninteractive. This isn’t the case in our face-to-face environment. Additionally, those students who, sometimes, shall we say, just get on our nerves have returned. They may be class interrupters, awkward emailers, or students who want to answer every question you ask! Without a doubt, these students can damage your classroom climate.
Strategies: Write it, but don’t hit send on that negative email. This may absolutely satiate that need to reply, and you’ll feel better. You might also try to talk to the student one on one after class and be specific about how the interruptions affect others and the overall classroom climate.
Sarah once told a student that her brain was moving quickly but that other students needed more time to think. Sarah then asked the student to limit her answering to once per class . . . and it worked! This “verbal contract” helped limit the problematic student and allowed a favorable climate to persist. You may also need to provide a seat in the back corner for the perpetually late student whose entry disrupts class every day. Work on your plan to build, adjust, and maintain the classroom climate outside of lecture time as well as within it.
Developing your classroom climate is a process and never a finished product, and reimplementing these strategies for revitalizing it won’t always be easy. Improvement always comes at a cost. It will take time, patience, and thoughtful intentionality to make the necessary adjustments and to break old habits. So what will success look like? How will you know when your labor has paid off? You’ll see it in the effort, dedication, and achievement of your students. You’ll know it from (unsolicited) student comments, such as from Brian, an older nontraditional student who told Tom last spring on the final day of class, “I loved the class and learned so much.” And you’ll realize it when the score on that final student evaluation question—“How much did you learn in this course?”—begins to close in to the magical score of 5 out of 5!
Barr, J. J. (2016, October). Developing a positive classroom climate. IDEA. https://ideacontent.blob.core.windows.net/content/sites/2/2020/01/PaperIDEA_61.pdf
Caine, R. N., & Caine G. (1990, October). Understanding a brain-based approach to learning and teaching. Educational Leadership, 48(2), 66–70. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/understanding-a-brain-based-approach-to-learning-and-teaching
Frisby, B. N., Berger, E., Burchett, M., Herovic, E., & Strawser, M. G. (2014). Participation apprehensive students: The influence of face support and instructor-student rapport on classroom participation. Communication Education, 63(2), 105–123. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2014.881516
Hathaway, E. (2015). How to set classroom expectations to improve student behavior. Kickboard. https://www.kickboardforschools.com/classroom-behavior-management/the-value-of-consistent-expectations
Kher, N., Molstand, S., & Donahue, R. (1999). Using humor in the college classroom to enhance teaching effectiveness in “dread courses.” College Student Journal, 33(3), 400–406.
Trigwell, K., Ellis, R. A., & Han, F. (2012). Relations between students’ approaches to learning, experienced emotions and outcomes of learning. Studies in Higher Education, 37(7), 811–824. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2010.549220
Sarah B. Lovern, PhD, is a professor of biology at Concordia University Wisconsin. Sarah teaches anatomy and physiology as well as leads undergraduate students in research on aquatic ecosystems.
Tom Saleska, PhD, is a professor of biology at Concordia University Wisconsin. Tom has taught for 29 years at CUW with a main research interest in cognitive learning theory and is a big proponent of active learning in the classroom.