Candace Roberts, Ph.D.
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.
So what exactly does this “community” look like, and how do we contribute to it? Community is a shared space where students feel safe – intellectually, emotionally, socially - safe. A place where they feel respected and valued. A place where they believe they have something to contribute and something to learn. Tompkins (1997) identified the key variable in classroom community as ownership – it’s the difference between renting or owning. Students who rent, are keenly aware that this space is not theirs; it is the instructor’s and they are just visiting, sometimes without caring about how they contribute to the space (positively or negatively). Students who are co-owners of shared space, take responsibility for their own learning and contributions to the community of learners.
Parker Palmer (2017) described the effect of establishing an environment of hospitality in a classroom this way:
“Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see: in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend – thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes the gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher…. Hospitality in the classroom requires not only that we treat our students with civility and compassion but also that we invite our students and their insights into the conversation. The good host is not merely polite to the guest – the good host assumes that the guest has stories to tell" (p. 50).
According to this perspective, if for no other reason than self-preservation, creating a hospitable community for learning makes sense, but more importantly, it makes teaching richer. We can learn about and from our students, and we can learn about our teaching. If we are honest, transparent, open, and expect the same from our students, learning can be endless. As Bain (2004) described the most successful college teachers, “Fundamentally, they were learners, constantly trying to improve their own efforts to foster students’ development, and never completely satisfied with what they had already achieved.” (p. 20)
Strategies to Foster Positive, Productive Classroom Communities
Learn your students’ names. Call them by name. If remembering names is difficult for you, use tent cards the first few weeks of class. Take pictures with your cell phone (your entire class, small groups or individuals) and connect their names to their faces.
Arrive to class early enough to listen to student conversations and to engage in conversations with your students. The former allows you to hear their concerns, preferences or fears about their classes which can inform your own practice. The latter allows you to connect with them on a personal level.
Tell stories – Cognitive science tells us that the brain is constantly searching for meaning, and stories allow you to put content into context and make it more memorable. It also makes class, and you, more human.
Participate as a member of the community of learners. Show your own inquisitiveness, share your questions and conundrums. Demonstrate enthusiasm for the subject and for their connection to it.
Empower students to take ownership over their own learning and community. Design class activities to require their participation and contributions through small group discussions, collaborative decision making, projects, or presentations.
Avoid asking questions that have only one correct answer. That is not a discussion. Ask questions that allow for multiple possible perspectives. Ask questions as though you really want to know what they think, not because you want to see if they have the right answers (Quizzes or student response systems are good for that). Even better, have them come to class with two of their own questions, genuine wonderings or places for clarification regarding the reading or outside of class assignments. Then have them gather in small groups and answer each other’s questions. It’s exciting and even inspiring to see them negotiate their own understandings and teach each other. Then have the groups share out their most challenging questions and what conclusion(s) the group came to. Discussing these as a whole class can often introduce or even replace the lecture. The instructor gets to fill in the gaps and elaborate on the content using the students' questions/answers as a springboard.
Establish an environment of safety based on mutual trust and protection. Let your students know you will expect honest and respectful dialog and diverse opinions, and that you will guard each community member’s dignity, and you expect them to do the same.
Show compassion. Everyone has life happen. Some of your students may be insecure academically, financially, emotionally. They may have recently experienced loss, tragedy, homelessness. Your interactions with them speak volumes about your valuing them as individuals. Yes, deadlines are deadlines, but before you enforce that in a given situation, listen; then decide. Yes, that takes a few moments, and yes, that is not as easy as a blanket policy, but if your mother were diagnosed with cancer, or you were in a car wreck, or your dad lost his job and your tuition money just disappeared, or you were raped, you might have a hard time getting that project done too. Be human. Communities are made of humans.
Communities in Distance Learning
While describing the importance of building community in online classes, Hulett (2019) states that, “Humans do not learn in a void; learning is a social event.” Going beyond the weekly discussion posts, she schedules periodic 15 minute individual conferences to engage students in discussion about their work, to provide feedback, and to make connections with students. This provides her insight into what students are thinking and opportunities for students to clarify their understandings of the content and expectations of the assignments. Video conferencing brings more personal, human interaction than simple text, chat, or audio conferences. Another form of using video conferencing for student to student interaction is the asynchronous video platform, FlipGrid, in which students can post their discussion responses via video and respond to each other. This can be used for discussion boards, peer feedback, collaborative planning, or book discussion groups. Brown described the importance of the instructor modeling community building behaviors in the online environment: “Modeling, encouragement, and participation by the instructor helped community form more readily for more students in computer-mediated classes.” (p. 31). This modeling included providing supportive interactions, posting substantive validation and specific feedback to student posts, and modeling respect for each class member’s contributions and opinions. Young and Bruce (2001) reported that programs and instructors who focused “specifically on how to produce increased engagement and sense of community” resulted in “enhanced student satisfaction and persistence in online programs.” (p. 226) They suggested helping students connect via social networks such as twitter, blogs, or Facebook. LinkedIn or Flipgrid would be other potential tools to accomplish such personal and social connections. Young and Bruce conclude from their research that “Student engagement and sense of classroom community are closely related to one another; students who feel a sense of connectedness rather than isolation are very likely better prepared to become more actively involved with course learning, successfully persist, and experience real world success.” (p. 227)
Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Brown, R. E. (2002). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(2) 18-34.
Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Hattie J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge: New York.
Hulett, K. (2019, March 27). Community from a distance: Building a sense of belonging in an online classroom [Blog Post]. Retrieved from The Scholarly Teacher, https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/community-from-a-distance-building-a-sense-of-belonging-in-an-online-classroom
McKinney, J. P., McKinney, K. G., Franiuk, R., Schweitzer, J. (2006). The College classroom as a community: Impact on student attitudes and learning. College Teaching, 54(3), 281-284.
Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, 20th Anniversary ed. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Palmer, P. J., Zajonc, A., Scribner, M. (2010). The Heart of higher education: A Call to renewal. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Tchudi, S., & Mitchell, D. (1999). Exploring and teaching the English language arts, 4th ed New York: Longman.
Tebben, S. L. (1995). Community and caring in a college classroom. Journal for a just and caring education. 1(3), 335-344.
Tompkins, G. E. (1997). Literacy for the 21st century: A balanced approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Young, S., Bruce Mary A. (2011). Classroom community and student engagement in online courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2), 219-230.