Course climate refers to the intellectual, social, emotional and physical environments in which students engage in the learning process. Some of the factors that can affect course climate for a student include course demographics, physical setting, interactions with the faculty member, interactions with peers, and accessibility and diversity of course content. The negative interactions that students might encounter include microaggressions, stereotyping and tokenizing, which all cause emotional stress and therefore reduce cognitive load available for learning.

In How Learning Works, Ambrose et al recommend viewing the course climate as a continuum, from marginalizing to centralizing, as explained below: 

  • An explicitly marginalizing course climate is hostile and unwelcoming to students. One might hear or experience openly sexist, racist or xenophonic comments and attitudes from the faculty member or other students.
  • An implicitly marginalizing course climate excludes certain students, but in subtle or indirect ways. In this climate, the faculty member might dismiss or avoid a difficult situation regarding race, sending a message to students that “this is not the place or time for that discussion.”
  • An implicitly centralizing course climate will have unplanned moments of validation of the marginalized perspective, typically when a student brings attention to the matter.
  • An explicitly centralizing course climate has an intentional and overt integration of the marginalized perspective. For example, the faculty member would indicate rules of engagement in the course syllabus to promote brave spaces for the marginalized perspective to be brought routinely into the discussion. 

Several strategies for creating a productive and explicitly centralizing course climate are detailed in Chapter 6 of How Learning Works, such as developing structured rubrics for transparency, creating an inclusive syllabus, examining your assumptions about students, and modelling inclusive language behavior and attitudes. Some of these strategies easily adapt to the online teaching experience and some don’t. 

Many faculty are experimenting with breakout rooms and report struggles with student engagement. It is also challenging to monitor student behavior, given that popping in and out of the breakout rooms can create discord for the learning process. You may have created engaging and thought-provoking prompts for group work, but students are often left to manage the structure with their peers. They may be unaware of their implicit biases, and fall into patterns, such as gender stereotypes regarding female students as secretaries or male students as leaders. Assigning specific roles and giving students a structured document for their work reduces the stress for all students. Watch this one-minute video demonstrating one way to organize group work for Zoom breakout rooms. 

Further Reading & Resources:

  Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.