The importance of connecting with our students
There is considerable research in K-12 education about the importance of classroom culture and climate that can easily translate into higher education. Rod Lucero from Colorado State suggests that a positive classroom culture and climate “increases student engagement, creates a safe discursive environment, and encourages student collaboration and participation.” Culture and climate are constructed through the expectations we set, inclusive practices, the ways we encourage interaction among and between students, the learning objectives and activities we employ, and the efforts we make to develop a rapport with our students.
I’ve certainly experienced the differences in my effectiveness when I’ve been successful in establishing a positive culture and climate and when I haven’t. Several years ago, I was teaching a small undergraduate class that was just a grind, week after week. It was a small group, and just enough of the students were disengaged to sour the climate in the class. I was either ineffective or remiss in making efforts to turn the climate around. Consequently, it felt like the longest semester of my teaching career – in both K-12 and higher ed. Fortunately, this has been an outlier in my 15 years teaching at the university level. I enjoy building a positive environment and will share some of the simple tips that I’ve found effective over the years.
Tips for creating a positive classroom climate
- Let your personality shine. When you are yourself and authentic with your students, they will feel more comfortable to be themselves and relate to you. Even if you may not know of any specific connections you might have with students, if you open yourself up to share some of your passions and interests, you may find that several students share your interests – whether it’s a love for movies, gardening, or Calvin and Hobbes.
- Get to know your students. I begin each class with a humorous sign-in sheet. I ask a simple, but fun question that also gives me a little insight into their personality and interests. One week, I may ask them for their all-time favorite movie. Another week, I’ll ask them about an unusual talent or interest they have. One of my favorite questions is what theme song they’d like played every time they walk in the room (mine would be Super Bad by James Brown). At the end of class, I always announce a few of my favorite responses along with the day’s winner. If I forget to announce the winner, at least two or three students will remind me before we leave.
- Begin the class on a positive note. I start every one of my classes with one important question – “What do we have to celebrate today?” The celebration can be anything from an upcoming break, to completing a half marathon, to an engagement announcement. While all students don’t participate, the simple process of celebrating big and small things together serves to build a positive classroom community.
- Empathize and communicate understanding. Many of my courses are discussion based and/or feature student sharing and presentations. Even when I disagree with a student’s perspective or have to correct a misconception related to course content, I try to let the student know that I hear them and that I value their perspective and willingness to share their ideas. Even when I may need to counter their point of view, I try to communicate respect and acknowledge their contribution.
- Provide feedback that promotes learning. Many times we need to provide corrective feedback on exams, papers, presentations or projects. I try to use two criteria to judge how I provide that feedback. First, I try to make the critique as constructive as possible. There’s no need for me to make judgmental comments. I try to be objective and helpful. The second thing I try to focus on in my feedback is to promote learning. Whenever I make a correction, I try to provide a tip or point for them to consider so that they’ll learn from the experience.
Honestly, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to build a positive classroom climate and connect with your students. These small efforts can make a big difference both in terms of your students’ learning and your own enjoyment in teaching the class.
What strategies do you use to connect with your students?
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