Thoughts towards maintaining a classroom culture

As I’m gearing up for the responsibility of teaching (or, more accurately, facilitating the learning of) 250 bright-eyed undergraduate university students, I’ve been consciously collecting wisdom that is applicable in the classroom. Some of these tips have already been useful in my preparation, and some will be useful in how I organize my work during the semester. Now, with the start of the course in the very near future, I’ve been thinking more about the ideas that will be important as I’m trying to set up the right classroom culture.

The “right” classroom culture, or the one I will strive for, is a classroom in which students do not hesitate to participate, are not afraid to be wrong, and see challenges as an opportunity for learning and not a statement about their deficiencies.

I’ve lost the sources for most of the ideas listed below, as they are notes I scratched down at some point in the past few months. Some might relate to my previous blog post on collaborative classrooms (and the references therein), but most of the credit should go to my fantastic colleagues at UBC. As such, I make no claim of originality for the list below.

My curated list of thoughts is:

  1. I need to focus on understanding in all interactions; not on being right or wrong.
  2. I should try to (emotionally) react to correct answers the same way I do to incorrect ones. It sends the wrong message to be overjoyed at a perfect answer, but visibly distressed when the student is not quite correct.
  3. In public and private interactions, I want to position students as competent.
  4. I don’t want to trivialize student’s difficulties. For example, I want to avoid making statements like, “Easy, right? That was a straight-forward application of this problem.” (Perhaps something more like, “If you can’t go through this quickly, you probably need to practice it.”)
  5. I’d like to emphasize that it’s great to get it wrong, and especially during the low-stakes class time. (“Fail early and fail often.”) That’s how a student knows they’ve got work to do. They should revel in not understanding, and work towards understanding.
  6. It is important to discuss buy-in (for the teaching strategies) in context. For example, if students hesitate to discuss a tricky clicker question, that might be a good time to talk about point 5 above. I should plan for these moments and use them to explicitly describe the expected roles (of the students and of me) during these times.
  7. Finally, a message I should share with the students, from a 2008 Carl Wieman talk: “The subject is hard for everyone, but all can master with effort, and my goal for course is for all of you to succeed.” (There are lots of other great resources at the UBC CWSEI site.)

Do you have thoughts or tips that you find useful in keeping your classroom a positive and effective learning environment? If so, please add them in the comments below.

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