The college classroom is an important place where students and teachers learn and grow together. It is a place where collaboration occurs as well as idea-sharing and relationship-building. Instructors are one of the most influential figures in the classroom, with the ability to enhance the learning environment and influence the behaviors of all present. This module is designed to share ideas about how instructors can create a learning environment that is "welcoming" for students. By "welcoming" we mean a learning environment that considers the diverse range of strengths and approaches to learning on the college campus today and then facilitates interactions and designs instruction in such a way to maximize learning and reduce barriers in the classroom. Three themes are addressed here in relation to creating a welcoming learning environment; the implementation of effective teaching strategies, the development of a positive relationship between students and teachers, and the effective dealing of conflict in the classroom.
Jennifer Sisk, an English instructor at East Carolina University (ECU) in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences instructs first year students in the area of English Composition. She has made it her mission through teaching to show students that she cares about them and their success. She is invested not only in the projects they create, but also in their success in college as a whole. Ms. Sisk understands that students, especially first year students, have a lot on their shoulders, and she wants to insure that students have access to a comfortable and safe learning environment where they gain confidence as students during the learning process.
Jennifer Sisk has developed many ways of making the classroom a welcoming place. One strategy involves taking the time to get to know the learners in her classroom each term. For example, during the first week of class she uses a strategy to learn her student's names, physical characteristics, and personality traits (see how she does this in the Instructional Practice section of this module).
As the class progresses during the semester, Ms. Sisk spends a great deal of time learning about her students' learning styles and what they are truly passionate about. Many students comment during post-course evaluations that they feel "Ms. Sisk truly cares about them and their education". She makes it her goal to create a level of comfort where her students feel safe and welcome, which she believes helps them learn.
Read more about creating a welcoming learning environment through the development of a positive relationship between students and teachers, the implementation of effective teaching strategies, and the effective resolution of conflict in the classroom in the Instructional Practice section of this module.
Each College STAR module will explain how a particular instructional practice described within the module aligns with one or more of the principles of UDL. For this module, the focus will be on and Provide Multiple Means of Engagement, Principle III.
Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Engagement
The content in this module centered on Creating a Welcoming Learning Environment aligns closely with UDL Principle III, Provide Multiple Means of Engagement. We will cover information about building positive student-teacher relationships, service learning, and participative learning, all opportunities to increase the range of student engagement in a course. By connecting and building relationships with the instructor and other students in the course, students have an opportunity feel comfortable. Students are more likely to participate in the course if they believe the environment is friendly and secure. (Howard, 2002)
Instructors can engage students in a welcoming way by practicing participative learning, and sharing power with students. (Howard, 2002) For example, giving student’s options to participate in decision making regarding class discussions, assignments, etc. Through collaborative activities with one another and their instructors, students can build skills in self-reflection, self-evaluation, self-empowerment, and self-actualization. "When students are allowed to participate in their own education, they become more engaged." (Humphreys, 2012)
This module covers information about Welcoming Learning Environments, which is clearly linked to principle III, Multiple Means of Engagement.
Strategies for Creating a Welcoming Learning Environment
College campuses are filled with students of many different backgrounds and with a wide variety of approaches to learning. With this diversity comes a unique opportunity for students to learn from each other as well as from instructors in an academic setting. Instructors on college campuses are charged with creating a comfortable atmosphere for these increasingly diverse populations of students, sometimes in increasingly larger class sizes (Boysen, 2009), and creating welcoming learning environments for our classrooms today requires forethought and intentional strategies. Three themes that can be considered when working to create a welcoming learning environment include: the development of a positive relationship between students and teachers, the implementation of effective teaching strategies, and the effective resolution of conflict in the classroom.
Instructors and students should work together to create comfortable learning environments. Jennifer Sisk, an English Composition Instructor at ECU, regularly asks her students (during their post course evaluations) to share feedback about her learning environment. Her student’s stated that "Ms. Sisk is enthusiastic about her material", "creates a comfortable class environment", and that "she genuinely cares about her students". These positive affective characteristics in instructors have the potential to help increase achievement, motivation, and learning in students (Straits, 2007) and are exactly the goal that Jennifer seeks. We will include tips from Jennifer and other instructors in this module.
Research shows students value an instructor’s willingness to give them attention, respect, and time. Students also express preferences for instructors who share opinions, relay personal experiences, make eye contact, have good posture, and show students recognition in regard to their thoughts and opinions (Schrader, 2004). Basically, when students have positive interactions with faculty and peers inside and outside of class and when they feel accepted their learning is enhanced. (Evans, 2000)
At the 2013 Teachers Matter conference held in Sydney, Australia, teachers were asked to share their wisdom on the topic of Creating an Effective Learning Environment. In the video shown in Figure 7 [transcript] each teacher presents a poster with a statement about what they think makes an effective learning environment. Please note: this video does not contain any spoken words, only music. The transcript shares the teacher comments listed on their posters.
Developing a Positive Student-Teacher Relationship
There is much to consider when attempting to create a comfortable learning environment. Learning environments are filled with students who bring different backgrounds and life experiences, making each classroom a unique place. It is important for instructors to be sensitive to and careful about stereotypes in their own personal thinking, treat all students with equal respect, and find/help students who are falling behind academically. (Barger, 2005)
One very basic strategy that can be an effective first step to develop positive student-teacher relationships is to be upfront with students about rules for class discussions. Discussing class expectations directly and clearly at the start of the semester can help make the classroom environment comfortable. (Barger, 2005) The first day and weeks of class can be an important time for instructors to discuss expectations, as well as, help create a positive learning environment where students can begin to develop positive peer and student-teacher relationships. This can be followed, in an ongoing way, by encouraging students to participate and ensuring that you listen to other’s perspectives – not just with words – but with intentional approaches to teaching that make this sort of interaction possible.
For example, often instructors have preferences in relation to the ways students interact with them and with one another. Moreover, there is a sense of classroom etiquette in each instructor’s mind related to interactions and class culture. We can’t assume that students are aware of these preferences, and many students are eager to align with the instructor’s preferences for classroom interactions – if they only know what they are. Being honest and clear with students about these preferences not only takes the guess-work out of classroom interactions for students, but also creates a clear and pleasant learning environment for the instructor. Instructors may want to ask students to do the same by working with the group to create a collective vision for the class etiquette and environment preferences early in the semester.
Studies show that the first day of class greatly influences student satisfaction with the class overall, the instructor, and their grades. (Case et al., 2008) Jennifer Sisk, an English Composition instructor at ECU, makes it her goal to learn her student’s names and personality traits during the first few classes at the start of the semester. Studies have shown that students believe it is important for faculty members to know their names, which shows the importance of a student-teacher relationship. (Provitera McGlynn, 1999)
Many different strategies can be used for getting to know your students. Ms. Sisk does this by playing icebreaker style name games. Her favorite, which works well for her in terms of memory, is a repetitive game similar to "telephone". Student A introduces him/herself and then student B continues the game with repeating Student A’s name. For example: Student B says "Hey, this is Student A and I’m Student B." Then every student participates by repeating the name before their name. Through this very quick process, Ms. Sisk is generally able to remember 90% of the student’s names after the first class period. Then when she takes roll on the 2nd or 3rd class, she only has to call out just a few students. She recognizes that placing a priority (demonstrated by time directly spent on the process) on learning the names of her students means a lot to her and them. This is feasible for a smaller class of students – say 30 students or less. However, some college classrooms have hundreds of students.
Ms. Sisk also tries to make sure she is aware of their physical characteristics as well as their personality traits so she can match those with her student’s names quickly. She feels this is important because the first couple of weeks are particularly scary for first-year students. She wants to try and ease the transition from high school to college and create a welcoming learning environment where her students feel safe to share their thoughts and concerns. Instructors can choose to keep track of the information they are learning about students in order to personalize student interactions in the way that is most efficient for them. The College STAR module entitled Charting Student Information provides one idea that Dr. Christine Shea uses in online learning environments. It could also be applied, however, in face-to-face settings.
Additional suggestions for activities during introductory class periods include communicating expectations, including students in rule making, and sharing personal information. (Foster, 2011) During the first few class periods, instructors can use this opportunity to share classroom expectations and policies and include those in the class syllabi. (see Jennifer Sisk syllabi example below)
Jennifer Sisk Student Conduct Statement on Syllabus
Discipline issues: …It is important that we have a classroom atmosphere that optimizes teaching and learning and we all share the responsibility for creating a civil and non-disruptive forum. Students are expected to conduct themselves at all times in a manner that does not disrupt teaching or learning. Behavior which disrupts the learning process may lead to disciplinary action and/or removal from class as specified in university policies, including the Student Code of Conduct, which is available here:
Another routine to attempt on day one in the process of developing a positive student-teacher relationship, is for the instructor to share their background, experiences, and understanding of the application of what students will learn in the class to a variety of life settings. This can be accomplished by sharing a personal story or by revealing something important to you such as a cause with which you are involved or that you care about. Also, it is necessary to build a student-teacher relationship by getting to know the students’ backgrounds and asking them questions about themselves. Students are encouraged to share personal stories or information about themselves as appropriate and as they feel comfortable. This kind of dialogue does not take a tremendous amount of class time, could also be done online, and can help break down the barrier students may have with each other, thus helping them develop relationships with other students in the class. (San Antonio, 2009)
Teachers might find it enlightening and helpful to ask students about their preferred method of learning; not to mention useful for building a positive student-teacher relationship. For example, students may share that they prefer the use of visual aids, a certain lecture style, or opportunities for group work. They may even share strategies that their previous instructors have used that they found particularly helpful. If those are appropriate for your class setting, you will have increased your tool-kit of ideas as well as received valuable information to help personalize the way you teach each term based on what you know about your learners. This has the potential to benefit both the instructor and students and aligns well with the Universal Design for Learning.
When possible, assess student prior knowledge related to the course objectives or prerequisites and, if appropriate, any beliefs and or opinions they may have regarding certain topics which will be discussed. (Barger, 2005) This will reduce the assumptions the instructor makes about prior-knowledge and theoretical backgrounds for each class, which can inform the way information is presented. Moreover it starts the class on an even playing field, where knowledge is shared from the beginning between students and teachers, again helping to develop a positive student-teacher relationship.
Developing a positive relationship between instructors and students leads to greater student motivation, participation, and learning. Instructors can practice building rapport with students by making eye contact, inserting humor (where appropriate), providing personal examples, and making themselves available outside of the classroom. (Legg, 2009)
Jennifer Sisk does this by not only deliberately incorporating ice breakers into some classes, but also by getting to know her students as individuals. She helps develop a rapport by asking them about their backgrounds, paying attention to their nonverbal behaviors, teaching at a pace that students are able to follow, and by listening to different perspectives allowing students to have a voice in the classroom. (San Antonio, 2009, Barger, 2005, Evans, 2000)
Figure 2 [transcript] is a video from the Great Expectations Conference from 2011 featuring Dave Burgess. In this clip Mr. Burgess discusses how to engage every student in the learning process and the importance of building rapport with students.
The Student Interview
Another method of creating a welcoming learning environment, as well as positive interactions between teachers and students, is the use of the reciprocal interview. This type of interview can be conducted at the start of the semester and consists of two phases. During the first phase, the instructor interviews the students, and during the second phase, the students interview the instructor. At the completion of each phase, the students complete handouts and discuss their responses in a group setting. Then, to keep the students free from scrutiny, a spokesperson, not related to the class, should be asked to administer the instructor questions the students create.
Case (2008) found that when a reciprocal interview was used in education, psychology, women’s studies, and computer science classes, students became more comfortable interacting with the instructor about academic problems. One class that participated in this activity reported on the first day that the encouragement to interact at the earliest point of the course helped foster a sense of empowerment.
The students stated that it helped them get to know each other, develop relationships, and begin to break the ice. Also, the students shared that they felt more connected to the instructor and the course. The exercise also helped the instructor learn about the students’ backgrounds and clarify the grading style and expectations of the class.
Effective Teaching Strategies for Building a Welcoming Learning Environment
Encouraging a Collaborative and Inclusive Learning Environment
Collaborative and inclusive learning environments are places where learning strategies, personal experiences, and skills can be shared. These types of educational settings are created when instructors and students work to create comfortable, safe, and encouraging environments. (Moore, 2010) Universal Design for Learning helps create inclusive educational experiences which support students of all learning profiles. Applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning can also help foster learning environments that are sensitive multicultural elements such as culture, race, etc., in addition to learning styles (Banfield-Hardaway, 2010).
One strategy Jennifer Sisk implements is to ask her students questions about how they learn best (read more in the Question/Answer section of this module). Instructors can help create inclusive settings by adding statements about diversity and by showing their openness to all people as well as confronting insensitive comments if and when they occur. (Evans, 2000) Students are more likely to join environments in which certain behaviors, values, attitudes, and expectations are present. (Ramirez, 2013) Encouraging inclusive and collaborative behaviors has the potential to attract more students to the environment thus fostering student participation, engagement, and motivation.
The video clip [transcript] describes the concept of Collaborative learning in a given class setup. Collaborative learning is based on Vygotsky model of learning which shows that knowledge can be created within a population where members actively interact by sharing experiences and take on asymmetry roles. This video is available with captions.
Participative learning gives students freedom to make decisions about their education. Humphreys (2012) shares that this type of learning allows students to share the power with their instructors giving students options to participate in decision making regarding class discussions, assignments, etc. This type of shared control helps students develop skills in areas such as self-reflection, self-evaluation, and self-empowerment.
Jennifer Sisk tries to help her students gain confidence by engaging them in class discussions. Ms. Sisk wants the students to take an active role in their education through participative learning because she believes students have a lot to learn from each other, and she wants to give them an opportunity to share that learning. Ms. Sisk doesn’t want to feed her students a bunch of information regarding topics they may have no interest in. Instead she wants her students to learn about what interests them and pursue those interests.
"When students are allowed to participate in their own education, they become more engaged." (Humphreys, 2012). Ms. Sisk adds that her experience using a participative learning style within her curriculum includes the implementation of a service learning research assignment. (See video below: Bring Learning to Life) During research, Ms. Sisk often gives her students a range of topic ideas to choose from instead of assigning them strict guidelines on a topic in which they might not be interested.
Ms. Sisk encourages her students to pick social issues and topics that they care about. She finds that their research skills improve when they are interested in the topic of their choice. Ms. Sisk shares "when you combine service learning research assignments with experiential learning it helps with civic responsibility as a whole".
Ms. Sisk adds that service learning research "helps her students feel more engaged during the tedious areas of writing like MLA format". Although critical elements of the course (in this instance correctly using MLA format) can be challenging to students because they are not interesting to them, they are important skills students need to master. Applying these rules, however, to topics they care about, may help them feel less tedious and help those skills be applied more effectively/easily.
Ms. Sisk believes in students taking advantage of the wide range of opportunities on a college campus and incorporates that into her classroom. Whether it is volunteering or participating in service learning, she feels students take a more active role in their education when they find something they care about. Students have the opportunity to pick activities related to their intended career field or causes they care about. Whatever it is, she encourages students to do something that will make a difference, no matter how small they may think it is.
Through service learning elements of her course, students in Ms. Sisk’s English classes have r received job offers, found internships, earned scholarships, and found other opportunities through experiential learning and volunteerism. Read more about Jennifer Sisk’s service learning and the creation of a welcoming learning environment in the PowerPoint featured below.
Jennifer Sisk presented this PowerPoint in May 2014 at the 3rd Annual Shared Learning Conference, supported by College STAR at East Carolina University.
This video [transcript] discusses how service-learning is helping students across America perform better in school while improving their communities. It explains how to connect classroom lessons with community service projects. Service-learning engages students and brings learning to life! This video is available with captions.
Another instructional practice Jennifer Sisk uses is to strategically place questions at key transition points in her class discussions and/or activities. She begins each lecture with a question. For example, she may ask "What was the main theme in your reading assignment this week?" When responding to her questions, the students have an opportunity to test themselves. Ms. Sisk believes this helps build confidence for the students who can generate answers, and helps students who are unsure of how to respond realize where they need to focus their energy in the future.
Students can also be given the opportunities to ask the questions between activities to clarify understanding before starting a new concept. Ms. Sisk may ask "What kind of questions do you have?" This includes both written and verbal questions where students can write questions on their assignments (that they turn in) or ask questions aloud. Ms. Sisk feels this approach gives the students ample opportunities to address concerns they may have which helps build on their comfort level and their understanding of important core concepts.
Only about 20-25 percent of Ms. Sisk’s class uses a lecture format. Instead, she uses class time to provide examples, practice writing, and engage students in class discussion. Ms. Sisk feels that the more student writing examples they see, the more confident they will become in their own writing. She understands that everyone is not a perfect writer. Some students begin her class with limited confidence and a mindset that they are terrible writers. She shares that she too has been told "you are a terrible writer". She never wants her students to feel the hurt that comes with statements like that. She strives to make it possible for her students to understand that they may have some things to work on pertaining to their writing, like content, structure, etc., but that doesn’t mean "you are a terrible writer".
Ms. Sisk uses pre-writing exercises to help students find the approaches to generating and organizing their thoughts that work best for them. These opportunities for brainstorming early in the work of a new assignment gives students a tangible way to connect with her and receive help and feedback through the beginning stages of writing.
Effective Resolution of Plagiarism and Conflict in the College Classroom
Instructors find themselves in situations at times where they have to make difficult decisions, such as in relation to plagiarism and conflict. Boysen (2009) writes that students report the perception that more bias exist in classrooms than on any other part of campus. Colleges have the benefit and challenge of working with the rich dynamic of students who are receiving a postsecondary education, and classrooms can be a melting pot of differing opinions, cultures, and world views. To break down the barrier that some students face with others in the classroom, instructors may find it important to address issues of bias as soon as they occur. The most common instructor responses to such situations, depending on the bias, is to be a source and provider of information, have direct confrontation with students, and in some cases conduct a group discussion. Boysen (2009) reports that undergraduates believe that an instructors’ attempt to respond to bias in the classroom is more successful than ignoring it.
Reducing Plagiarism in a Writing Curriculum
As an English Composition instructor, Jennifer Sisk has seen her accounts of plagiarism decrease tremendously since she began to use some of the strategies described here to create a welcoming learning environment. Ms. Sisk implemented a service learning and field based research model to her curriculum and shares that before this, she would see multiple cases of plagiarism during a semester, even multiple cases per class. She attributes a reduction in plagiarism due to the first-hand student experiences that develop through volunteering and involvement on the college campus and surrounding communities. Ms. Sisk also believes the decrease in plagiarism has come from the overall care and concern the students have for their topics. She feels that when students care about their field of research, they are less likely to grab a chunk of information from the internet and pass it off as their own work. She believes her students are more invested in their topic and they want to do a good job.
To insure success with this strategy, Ms. Sisk conducts check points with her students to discuss how they are doing in the "field". She also implements a lot of free writes during class, so her students can share personal encounters of their experiences. Finally, she sets aside class time for discussions on these topics so she knows what to look for in their writing. This approach has genuinely helped students become more engaged and motivated while working on their research assignments thus producing better quality writing and an overall increase in grades.
As mentioned before, classrooms are filled with students who have differing opinions, bringing the potential for conflict which can greatly affect a welcoming learning environment. Conflict can occur at any time, but may be heightened during class discussions involving a sensitive topic or when students are engaged in group work. These situations almost always pair close encounters and the potential for differing opinions.
If a conflict does arise it is important for collaboration to occur between the instructor and student, as each will likely bring a different perspective to the cause, nature, and impact of the conflict. Instructors need to be mindful of their emotional reactions so that the problem can be defined accurately. Ideas should be presented by both instructor and students on how to amicably resolve the conflict and move forward. (Meyers, 2003). Early on, the way to manage conflict is trying to prevent it from happening. This can be accomplished by setting ground rules for classroom discussions to discourage any type of inappropriate comments during student dialogue. Also instructors can show sensitivity during interpersonal interactions, and use collaborative teaching strategies. (Meyers, 2003)
Another issue which can create tension and or conflict can be stress which accompanies assignment deadlines. Jennifer Sisk shares that she tries to design assignments in such a way that there is no way her students can complete an assignment the night before it is due. The ongoing checkpoints she builds into long-term assignments for first-year students have resulted in less frequent and/or less severe procrastination. As students are working on assignments continuously throughout the semester they are less likely to throw their work together at the last minute, and Ms. Sisk shares that she now rarely receives last minute essays. In fact, she feels grades are improving due to the fact that the students are receiving feedback from peers and are submitting many drafts during the writing process. Ms. Sisk feels that the stress levels for both students and instructor are greatly reduced due to this learning approach.
Faculty members may want to make an ongoing practice of observing their own personal behaviors to see if there are any negative features that may influence student behavior. For example, faculty may come to class late, which sets a bad example for students. (Provitera McGlynn, 1999) This issue is important since faculty members are role models for students. Instructors should assess whether their actions, tone, and words show professionalism and respect their students, thus inviting the same in return. Also, if and when conflict occurs, instructors can act as a facilitator and moderator in the classroom. (Saunders, 2008) One of the most common topics discussed with students when analyzing intellectual safety in the classroom is the professor’s attitudes and behaviors. (Schrader, 2004)
More to Consider when creating a Welcoming Learning Environment
Even if an instructor uses the same teaching method and classroom materials in his or her classes, he or she may have a completely different experience with each class. The environment of the class will also be influenced by the dynamics of the student group such as class size and the demographics in that course. (Gascoigne, 2012)
It can be difficult for instructors to create a welcoming learning environment if their students don’t feel the classroom is a safe and inviting place to learn. However, instructors are often charged with teaching large classes where students have the tendency to feel anonymous. It has been found that when students feel anonymous, possibly reducing feelings of personal accountability and consideration for others. (Provitera McGlynn, 1999)
Jennifer Sisk agrees that class size can affect the success of creating a welcoming learning environment. She shares her experience about how she felt when she was college. "I felt like a number" Ms. Sisk says. At the time, Ms. Sisk didn’t know her professors very well nor was she able to connect with them. When she was a student she had one routine; come to campus, attend class, and go home. Ms. Sisk understands that first year students are often experiencing the same thing she did, and can get lost in the shuffle often feeling unimportant. She feels that a small class size is one way students can begin to feel like they have a voice and make connections with the instructor and other students in the course. Ms. Sisk shares that in a small class setting students are able to make friends and feel more comfortable asking questions, thus making connections with students and the instructor. In addition, Ms. Sisk encourages students to visit her office hours every week where she is available to talk, answer questions, or just be a friendly face welcoming a visit from a student.
If class size prohibits frequent interactions with the instructor, instructors can also design a course in such a way to ensure students have the chance to connect with other students, still creating a positive sense of community in the class. Ms. Sisk understands that not all professors have the luxury of having a small class, however, she suggests a way to combat this issue is to encourage students to visit office hours, ask questions, stay after class, and talk to other students in the course. By connecting with the instructor and other students in the course, students create an opportunity to engage and feel comfortable. In order for students to feel supported, instructors should create activities that engage learners, such as small groups which increase students comfort level and allow greater reflection on topics before approaching the class as a whole. (Sanchez, 2000) These efforts can then help students branch out into bigger areas such as getting involved on campus, in other classes, and in the surrounding community. Ms. Sisk feels that when students get involved they have the potential to be successful and have a better chance of elevating that success later in life.
Keep it Simple
Another approach Jennifer Sisk implements is to keep her lectures simple. "Don’t try and talk over their heads" she says. Ms. Sisk supports her statement by explaining that sometimes students get in a class and the material is just so difficult they don’t know how to put the pieces together. When a class seems difficult and students can’t make sense of the material, they will disengage and shut down. This often happens when things seem too hard. Instruction needs to be understandable to all students, which removes unnecessary complexities. (Scott, 2003) Ms. Sisk attempts to make things as clear as possible with hopes to engage more students. She knows she can keep her standards high for students without being perceived as a "hard teacher". Instead she wants to be a "successful teacher". She further works to infuse the principles of Universal Design for Learning through her work with students by including a variety of visuals, readings, and other lecture material with hopes of reaching as many learners as possible.
Universal Design can be used to make instruction functional for a wide variety of people, including not only people with disabilities, but also a broad range of diverse students. (Scott, 2003) Instructors can build in different types of strategies for the same objectives to allow students to choose which activities go along with their learning style. This can foster the idea of providing students with some control over their learning. (Sanchez, 2000) Ms. Sisk understands that students learn in different ways and she tries to balance her teaching style so she can provide all types of students with a positive learning experience.
Additional strategies instructors can implement during the creation of a welcoming learning environment is to incorporate different types of instructional strategies to accommodate different learners, such as small groups, illustrations, multicultural examples, analogies, open-ended problems, problem solving, and a variety of assessment tools. Instructors should also be open to getting feedback from students about their teaching and use campus resources to help improve their methods. (Barger, 2005)
Creating a welcoming learning environment involves both teachers and students working together during each class to collaborate, participate, and in some cases resolve conflicts. Jennifer Sisk an English Composition instructor for first year students at ECU participates in strategies crucial to the creation of this type of learning environment focused on the development of a positive relationship between students and teachers, the implementation of effective teaching strategies, and the effective resolution of conflict in the classroom.
Beginning on day one and extending throughout the semester, instructors are charged with developing positive student-teacher relationships. One way to accomplish this is through open communication of expectations such as rules for class discussions, student participation, and overall assignment guidelines. Discussing class expectation issues at the start of the semester can help make the classroom environment comfortable. (Barger, 2005) Another way Ms. Sisk makes her students feel important is by connecting them with other students in the class, on campus, and in the surrounding community through a small class size and a unique curriculum.
In addition to building relationships, instructors must also attempt to implement effective teaching strategies which help create welcoming learning environments for all students. Based on the Universal Design for Learning, Jennifer Sisk does this through providing multiple platforms for instruction including visual aids, lecture materials, practice writing, peer reviews, and question/answer sessions. She tries to maintain open lines of communication with her students, allowing her to personally reach as many learners as possible.
Additional strategy for creating welcoming learning environments include creating a collaborative and inclusive learning setting by working together with students to establish important aspects of the course including; rules, expectations, and overall rapport during group work, class discussions, etc.
Finally, at times conflict and plagiarism issues can and will occur in the college classroom due to the rich dynamics of students present in each class. Instructors and students should work together to resolve any issues of conflict and plagiarism where ideas are presented by both parties on how to amicably resolve the conflict and move forward. (Meyers, 2003)
Other issues to consider when creating a welcoming learning environment involve encouraging students to visit office hours, stay after class, and talk to other students in the course. By connecting with the instructor and other students in the course, students create an opportunity to engage and feel comfortable.
Editor’s Note: The Literature Base section of each College STAR module provides a brief summary of support for the instructional practice highlighted within the module. This is not an exhaustive literature review. It is designed to give the viewer an introduction to the literature about the module’s instructional practice. Please consider using the Learn More section of the module to supplement the information you obtain through this Literature Base summary.
Instructors on college campuses are charged with creating a comfortable atmosphere for diverse populations of students. (Boysen, 2009) When students have positive interactions with faculty and peers inside and outside of class and when they feel accepted, their learning is enhanced. (Evans, 2000)
A positive relationship can be developed between the instructor and students when instructors share their backgrounds, learn about students’ backgrounds, pay attention to the their nonverbal behaviors, use appropriate language/terminology, teach at a pace that students are able to follow, list accommodations for the disabled in the syllabus, be available outside of class, hold high expectations for all students, eliminate stereotypes and assumptions, set rules for discussions, listen to different perspectives, seek student feedback, and encourage participation (San Antonio, 2009, Barger, 2005, Evans, 2000, Perlmutter, 2003, and Scott et al., 2003)
Discussing class expectation issues at the start of the semester can help make the classroom environment comfortable. (Barger, 2005) Studies show that the activities on the first day of class greatly influence student satisfaction with the class and instructor, as well as their grades. (Case et al., 2008) Studies have shown that students believe it is important for faculty members to know their names, which shows the importance of an instructor-student relationship. (Provitera McGlynn, 1999) Suggestions for activities during initial class periods include icebreakers, communicating expectations, including students in rule making, and sharing personal information. (Foster, 2011) "When students are allowed to participate in their own education, they become more engaged." (Humphreys, 2012)
Students should be given choices in their learning environment so that they feel as though they have control in their learning (Case et al., 2008, Humphreys, 2012, Larkin et al., 2010, and Sanchez, 2000). This gives students the feeling of responsibility towards their education, allows them to enjoy activities more, and causes them to be more actively engaged in the classroom (Case et al., 2008, Larkin et al., 2010, and Sanchez, 2000). When instructors facilitate a comfortable, inclusive, and welcoming classroom environment, students feel safe and are more likely to participate (Saunders & Kardia, 2008, Schrader, 2004, and Seidman & Brown, 2013).
Faculty and peers are important factors that influence a student’s learning. Very often conflict can occur in a diverse classroom due to differing opinions. Early on, the way to manage conflict is trying to prevent it from happening. (Meyers, 2003) This can be accomplished by setting ground rules for classroom discussions and student dialogue. Also instructors can show sensitivity during interpersonal interactions, and use collaborative teaching strategies. (Meyers, 2003)
Instructors should try to send a message of acceptance to students, as well as directly address sensitive topics and stereotypes in their classes as applicable. (Evans, 2000) Adhering to the principles of Universal Design for Learning can help create inclusive educational experiences which support students who approach learning in many different ways and bring the rich array of other characteristics to the growingly diverse college classroom today.(Banfield-Hardaway, 2010).
References & Resources
Banfield-Hardawy, S. (2010). Universal instructional design: Tools for creating an inclusive educational experience. The Vermont Connection, 31, 21-28. http://www.uvm.edu/~vtconn/v31/Banfield-Hardaway.pdf
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