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Exploring Classroom Climate


By Judith Ross-Bernstein with Nancy Menning

DR_3How can we create environments that invite students to be actively engaged?

“I break performance into smaller steps and offer students playful low-risk opportunities to incrementally build confidence, skill and voice.” Debbie Rifkin (Music/Women & Gender Studies)

Adam“I assign clear roles (e.g. speaker, listeners) at the beginning of the semester and consistently use these terms to call students back to order-it works and it’s respectful. Adam Lee (Computer Science)

Skott“Students can take responsibility for their own learning; we need to back off so they can step up.” Skott Freedman Jones (Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology)

Though Debbie addresses the classroom’s emotional climate for developing performers, Adam chooses positive language to communicate behavioral expectations, and Skott proposes a student-centered approach where he expects students to share responsibility for teaching and learning through regular participation, all three describe how they create a positive classroom climate.

To intentionally address classroom climate it is helpful to have an understanding of the breadth of its dimensions. Classroom climate addresses:

“the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. Climate is determined by a constellation of interacting factors that include faculty – student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student – student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials. All of these factors can operate outside as well as inside.” (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro & Lovett, 2010 pg. 170)

Given faculty interest in classroom climate, I visited two 200-level seminars, Religion and Nature and Death and Immortality taught by Nancy Menning (Philosophy and Religion) to learn more. In broad strokes, Nancy tells me her intentions for the classroom climate she creates.

“Above all else, I desire that we all see each other as unique and valuable participants in a learning community.”IMG_0136

Nancy’s explicit vocabulary, (unique individuals, valuable participants, learning community), identifies an implicit and tacit challenge in teaching. We don’t just teach content, we teach students. And in Nancy’s case, she views her engagement with student diversity as the norm. Her sentiments reflect the approach of Ambrose et. al. who note: “We must recognize that students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and that these dimensions interact within the classroom climate to influence learning and performance.” (Pg. 156)

Importantly, classroom climate has implications for learning and performance. We know that a negative climate may impede learning and performance; a positive climate can energize students’ learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, & Lovett, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Yet, rather than a common and simplistic binary, we can instead envision climate on a continuum within multiple and integrated aspects of classroom climate. Yes, it’s complicated. Sometimes there’s nothing like a good chart to help visualize an interactional dynamic.

Aspects of classroom climate

Aspects of classroom climate

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Sitting in on Nancy’s classes, I observed several small stroke exemplars; techniques she uses to transfer intention into practice.  Music plays in the background as students enter with lyrics posted related to the day’s topic, providing an auditory focus for the transition. Physically, Nancy has a large enough classroom for one of her seminars that she can ask the students to “move into that circle thing,” suggesting that it is important that we look at each other when we speak. The expectation is that everyone participate. She knows all the names of the students and uses small flash cards to take attendance and draws random cards to call on participants, with the option to “pass” (redefining cold calling). “I don’t use shame with students,” as she believes it doesn’t support their learning. Nancy used another low stake/participatory measure, a quick, three-question anonymous survey at the beginning of one seminar. It served multiple purposes, a) to get a read on student’s topical background knowledge b) to check homework completion and c) to give a reflective opportunity at arrival,  transitioning students into the learning space.

Surely the devil is in the detail. Nancy’s intentions are telling; decision-making and action powerfully establish and sustain a positive learning climate. Her actions indeed address multiple aspects of classroom climate, integrating physical, emotional, intellectual and social domains.

It is not unusual that I find classroom climate on the mind of faculty. Those first remarks from Adam, Skott, and Debbie reflect a small window into their larger teaching lives with students.When Nancy and I meet, we review the many small details, putting a finger on “the feel” of her classroom, classroom climate.

I am curious to know what other people do to create a positive classroom climate. Please share your thoughts by adding to the conversation about what in classroom climate matters, what do you do, and why do you do it?


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Pascarella, E. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2): A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

More Resources from the Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence


  1. Ted Galanthay

    It’s important to me that students feel free to ask questions anytime during class. For me, this begins at the beginning of class, asking students what questions they have from the low-stakes homework due that day. This lets students know that the teacher is here to help (depending on the question, I might deflect the question to the other students to encourage participation and ownership). Opening this way also serves to make the transition from “out there” to “in the classroom.”


    • Thanks for your response Ted. Beyond the blog topic of classroom climate, I can also see your class beginning as a way to keep continuity between in and out of class activities.


  2. I find that I agree with all the suggestions listed. Asking powerful, probing and often oblique questions is close to my pedagogical heart as Ted points out. I read an old study recently that found when faculty spoke to their students they addressed the content in definitive, “truth” statements, but when they discussed the same topics with their colleagues the complexities of the content emerged. Questions reigned, problems surfaced, and skeptical curiosity characterized the discussions. Why? Well, there are many reasons, but one is that giving answers is easy. Framing our work as problems to be solved, as questions to explore, well…that requires more investment. So, I find beginning every course and topic within the course and every lecture as a question to be answered has done wonders in cultivating an environment of curiosity and sparking interest in the fields we hold so close to our hearts and minds.


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