University professors often consider three factors when planning their instruction, and they prioritize them accordingly: 1) content, 2) delivery, 3) classroom climate. Research in neuroscience and learning reveals that all three are equally important, and that, in fact, content will not be mastered without establishing a positive, productive classroom climate, and using effective strategies to deliver content. In other words, content and skill acquisition don’t effectively happen for students without intentional planning for the other two factors. Of the three, classroom community often gets the least attention.
According to Tchudi & Mitchell (1999), “Too often the affective domain . . . is pooh-poohed and dismissed as nonessential." Palmer and Zajonc (2010), in their book, The Heart of Higher Education, explain that, “Academic culture has long made a false distinction between the ‘hard’ virtues of scholarship and the ‘soft’ virtues of community, putting the first in the hands of the faculty and the second in the hands of the office of student life. In truth, the soft virtues and the hard virtues go hand in hand when it comes to good pedagogy” (p. 30). In his book, What the Best College Instructors Do, Bain (2004) reported that of the instructors he examined, the most successful ones intentionally attended to classroom climate and building a community of learners. These instructors “generally had a strong sense of commitment to the academic community and not just to personal success in the classroom. They saw their own efforts as a small part of a larger educational enterprise, rather than as an opportunity to display personal prowess. In their minds, they were mere contributors to a learning environment that demanded attention from a fellowship of scholars.” (p. 20). Teaching and learning success resides in the “commitment on the part of the faculty to building and sustaining a community of learners. At its core, such a community is defined by engagement, by commitment of faculty and students to sustaining the community and its conversations.” (p. 176).
In his comprehensive meta-analysis of over 900 studies exploring factors that influence learning, John Hattie (2012) reported that classroom climate was a critical factor in learning, and that the teacher-student relationship is a high impact variable, ranking 12th among over 150 variables identified. “A positive, caring, respectful climate in the classroom is a prior condition to learning.” (pp. 77-78) At the heart of this community is the teacher-student relationship built upon “care, trust, cooperation, respect, and team skills.” These are the necessary elements to providing a safe place where errors are welcomed. Since “mistakes are the essence of learning . . . . expert teachers create classroom climates that welcome admission of errors; they achieve this by developing a climate of trust between teacher and student, and between student and students” (pp. 29, 77).
In their research on students’ perceptions of “community” in the college classroom, McKinney et. al reported that students’ “sense of community” substantially influenced student satisfaction with the course, their perception of learning, and their actual academic performance. In addition, they purport that instructors can contribute to positive, productive classroom communities by addressing six variables: “connection, participation, safety, support, belonging, and empowerment.” (p. 282). Tebben (1995) also found that classroom community was a key variable to both student satisfaction and academic success, and that these could be significantly influenced by a caring professor and supportive peers.
First Day of Class