By Carly Wheaton ’18
As the years have gone by, I have realized that the entire spectrum of teachers and classes that I have experienced all have something in common— in both a positive or negative form— that has affected my experience in the class immensely: a classroom community. No matter what class I have been in, there has always been some form of a community that either made the experience in the class enjoyable and interesting or made it nerve-wracking and boring.
Reflecting on my own experiences, it has become clear that the atmosphere of a classroom can have a tremendous impact on the way that students perceive the course, the content, and the teacher— which in turn impacts how the students learn. I have spoken with some of my peers and have done research about what students believe are the most beneficial methods for creating an enriching classroom environment. Below is a consolidated list of several strategies that I believe would prove to be beneficial at the college level.
It can be as simple as that. At any age, the thought that someone important in your life does not know your name, and thus does not care enough about you to know the single most basic fact about your existence, is enough to make a person feel small and insignificant. Students understand that educators, especially at the college level, work with an abundance of people, sometimes for short periods of time, so it can be difficult to get to know everyone. However, that small connection of simply knowing the name of a student and addressing them with that name, can make the teacher seem all the more caring, personable, and approachable. This connection, in turn, makes students feel comfortable with their teacher so that they will be more inclined to ask questions, to offer responses, or to go to office hours, all of which contribute to a pleasant classroom environment.
Elementary school teachers often send weekly newsletters to the families of their students in order to maintain a constant form of communication as a way to keep families involved. Understandably, as students get older, the burden of keeping track of information such as homework, due dates, and events is placed more and more on the students themselves. But, in removing that constant form of personal communication, higher education teachers are removing that reminder to students that they have someone there who is willing to help and who wants to see them succeed.
Professors have become more of “information givers” rather than educational advisors, and they could return to this idea of supporting student learning simply by sending weekly digest emails containing upcoming due dates, PowerPoint slides, and homework assignments. It can never hurt to give students a weekly reminder that the teacher knows how hard the students are working and is there for support whenever they need it.
Participation in the First Class
Part of building a classroom environment is creating a setting in which every student feels comfortable voicing their opinions, asking questions, and offering answers. Studies have shown that if the teacher gets every student to talk in the first class of the semester, the students will be more likely to speak again on their own accord. This does not mean that teachers should cold-call on every student from the moment they walk in the door. Putting too much pressure on participation increases the anxiety that students have towards the class. Rather, it means getting students talking to one another: have think-pair-shares in which ideas discussed with partners are then shared with the rest of the class; provide various modes of participation such as using sticky notes or polling apps so that everyone, even the most anxious students, feels comfortable participating; and utilize group work wherein students are always paired with someone new.
Quite often, college students are uncomfortable in their courses because they may not know anyone besides their immediate friends. As a result, they do not feel comfortable talking for fear that their classmates will judge them. By having students work in groups and engage in discussions from day one, the teacher is bonding the students to one another and making it evident to everyone that the classroom is no place for fear, only learning.
Dinnertime Highs & Lows
When I was younger, my parents would make my siblings and I share our “highs and lows” of the day during dinnertime. However annoying this was at the time, I see now that my parents only wanted us to know that they cared and that they wanted to create an open line of communication among the members of my family.
College students are constantly stressed out, and when they were younger, most had their families living in the same home to care for them when they needed advice and support. Coming to the higher educational setting, students lose out on those people who supported them the most, and as much as students in their late teens and twenties do not by any means need to be coddled, they still appreciate those who make the effort to show that they care, just like my parents did every night during dinner.
Class time is valuable, but unless teachers have a class full of students with no other commitments and responsibilities, taking 5 minutes at the beginning or the end of class to ask them how they are can make a considerable impact on how they view you as a teacher and how they feel as a member of your classroom. If, each day, the teacher were to give individuals or groups of students the opportunity to talk about their “highs and lows” (or other topics that might spark informal conversation), the benefits will be twofold. Not only would the teacher learn more about the students and be able to more effectively educate them, but the students would also begin to feel as though the teacher is an advocate for the students and their learning.
Building the Community
Oftentimes, teachers fail to recognize that even college students have emotional needs that must be met in order for the students to be present and willing to engage in the content every day. At its worst, a poorly supported community can cause students to have a lack of interest, a lack of effort, and a lack of respect for the subject, the peers, and the teacher. On the other hand, a well-structured classroom environment can create a learning community wherein students are passionate about learning, are engaged in the material, and are happy and comfortable participating in class.
At every level of education, before even considering the content that will be taught within a class, teachers should consider how they could build a community within their classroom in order to support the various needs and personalities of the students. Teachers would be amazed at how much students will respond to the small efforts that are made towards building a strong community of learners.
Thanks to Carly Wheaton, one of our 2017-2018 D’Amour Student Fellows, for this thoughtful contribution to our understanding of how we can best help our students learn.