Why Classroom Community Matters: The Research

Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence

When it comes to learning, 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 goodInstructor teaching 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 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). 
ResearchIn 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, and 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 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.  Thecollege teaching 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 efforts to foster students’ development, and never completely satisfied with what they had already achieved.” (p. 20). 


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