Social & Emotional

A student's current level of development interacts with the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

Can you remember what it felt like to be a student? Exciting? Daunting? Intense?

Although as faculty we aren’t responsible for every aspect of a student’s personal development, we do need to be aware that:
  1. Learning does not take place in a vacuum and a student's current level of development impacts on their learning.
  2. A student's intellectual or emotional maturity can be at different stages.
  3. Development isn’t always a straightforward linear process; students can ‘get stuck’ or move backwards as well as forwards.
Course Climate

In addition to the student’s trajectory in their personal development, the course climate also has a significant impact on their motivation and engagement with the course.

What do we mean by course climate? It’s a combination of all the factors that make up the student's learning environment.

It includes factors like:
  • What tone does the tutor set and how do they interact with students?
  • Course demographics – the makeup of different groups within the class
  • Student-to-student interaction
  • The range of perspectives included in the course material
  • Stereotyping or tokenism

Studies suggest that course climate does not have to be blatantly exclusive or hostile in order to have a marginalising effect on students and that, although each instance of subtle marginalisation may be manageable on its own, the sum total of accumulated "micro-inequities” can have a profound negative impact on learning (Hall, 1982).

Beyond a simple scale of hostile or productive environments, DeSurra & Church’s (1994) research into the experiences of LGBT students found that course climate is more of a continuum.

Here’s a summary of their findings, adapted from Ambrose’s description:

Assuming we all want to create productive, centralised and supportive course climates for all our students, let’s consider four basic areas that can have an impact.

Strategies to Consider

Support the student’s developmental journey

Make uncertainty safe
  • Validate different points of view, even if they are difficult.
  • Let students know that to engage in critical thinking they need to embrace complexity.
  • Classroom discussions help us all broaden our world view – the aim isn’t to reach a consensus.
Resist a single right answer
  • Support students in examining a situation from several points of view.
  • Try asking them to give their views before you give yours, to avoid biasing them with the voice of authority.
Incorporate evidence into performance and grading criteria
  • If you want students to support their opinions with evidence, use rubrics and other tools to scaffold this practice.
Avoid stereotyping and tokenism
  • Examine your assumptions about students
    • Remember students are likely to have a different background and frame of reference than you.
    • Avoid making assumptions about a student’s ability based on stereotypes.
  • Be mindful of low-ability cues. For example: “l will be happy to help you with this because I know girls have trouble with math”.
  • Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group.

Minority students often report either feeling invisible in class or sticking out like a sore thumb as the token minority. This experience is heightened when they are addressed as spokespeople for their whole group.

Create an explicitly centralising climate and curriculum
  • Make sure course content does not marginalise students
    • Remember what is excluded is important too as it implies a value judgement.
    • Use Multiple and Diverse Examples to help students from all groups feel connected to the content.
  • Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction.
Set the tone and manage interactions effectively
  • Model inclusive language, behaviour, and attitudes.
  • Use the syllabus and first day of class to establish the course climate.
  • Reduce anonymity.
    • Make students feel recognised as individuals, both by the instructor and by peers.
  • Facilitate active listening.
    • Sometimes tensions arise because students are not hearing what others are saying. To build this important skill and enhance classroom interactions, you might ask students to paraphrase what someone has said, followed up by a series of questions as to whether their perception was inaccurate or incomplete. You can also model this skill yourself by paraphrasing a student’s response and then asking whether you captured their perspective accurately.
  • Turn discord and tension into a learning opportunity.
    • Students need to learn that debate, tension, discord and cognitive dissonance are all opportunities to expand one’s perspective, delve deeper into a topic, better understand opposing views, and so on; hence, we need not avoid them.
  • Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues.
  • Address tensions early.
    • Take a student aside after class to explain the impact of a comment, explicitly discussing the tension.
    • Remember that college students are learning to manage their emotions and sometimes don’t know how to express them appropriately. In these cases, you might want to discuss intent versus impact. This strategy protects students who make unsophisticated comments so that they do not shut down and foreclose further development, while acknowledging the frustration of the rest of the class.
Set up processes to get feedback on the climate.

Because some alienating attitudes, behaviours and language function under the surface, it's not always easy to get a sense of whether everyone in the class feels equally valued, accepted, heard and so on.

You could:
  • Ask student reps to help
  • Use evaluations
  • Video yourself
  • Ask your TA for feedback