Creating a Course Climate That Enhances Learning

How Students Learn: Climate's Role

“Course climate” refers to the sum of student and instructor behaviors, and related student perceptions, that influence the emotional and social experience of the class (Ambrose et al., 2010). Even in the most content-focused course, climate plays a dramatic role in what, how much, and how effectively our students are able to learn (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

What are the characteristics of a supportive course climate?

In courses with supportive climates, students report that instructors are nonjudgmental, open, and respectful of others, as well as comfortable exploring conflict and controversy; peers are also respectful and nonjudgmental, honestly share their thoughts and ideas, and come together to create a community (Holley & Steiner, 2005).

Research suggests that classroom climate ranges across two continua, from marginalizing to centralizing diverse viewpoints, and from doing so implicitly to explicitly (DeSurra & Church, 1994). Supportive learning climates explicitly centralize diverse viewpoints through representative course materials and planned prompts that proactively value alternate ideas.

Research reveals that implicitly marginalizing climates, whereby unplanned instructor responses to comments or events in the classroom tend to diminish diverse perspectives and devalue those who bring them, are unfortunately the most common (DeSurra & Church, 1994). Thus, course climate has a differential impact on students with marginalized viewpoints and identities, such as women in math and science classes, first-generation college students, students with racial or ethnic backgrounds stereotyped as less academically successful, and students not subscribing to the dominant political ideology in the room (Steele, 2011).

How do supportive course climates enhance learning?

Diversity practices, such as cultivating a more supportive and inclusive classroom climate, impact multiple learning outcomes above and beyond diverse representation (Hurtado & Guillermo-Wann, 2013). Students report that classes with supportive climates are more challenging and allow them to achieve a range of additional learning outcomes that they are not able to learn in classes with less supportive environments (Holley & Steiner, 2005). These outcomes include learning about and understanding other people’s ideas and perspectives, increasing their own self-awareness and personal growth, being challenged to think “outside the box,” and even tackling course content that is more “real-world” and experiential (Holley & Steiner, 2005).


  • Instructors and students can work together to model and be explicit about behaviors and attitudes that shape course climate and maximize learning. Begin the semester by proposing a list of 5-10 basic ground rules for respectful classroom interactions, and invite students to expand on or propose alternate guidelines. For example, ground rules might encourage students to “listen with resilience” when an idea is difficult to hear, suggest that all ideas be given the benefit of the doubt in terms of the speaker’s intentions, and allow participants in a discussion to pass (or pass for now). Once the class agrees on a set of ground rules, revisit them regularly throughout the semester—especially when difficult topics are explored in the classroom or when events outside the classroom might lead to higher tensions in the room—and work with students to hold everyone accountable for following them to help students feel supported in the class (Holley & Steiner, 2005).



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

DeSurra, C. J., & Church, K. A. (1994, November). Unlocking the classroom closet: Privileging the marginalized voices of gay/lesbian college studentsPaper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, LA.

Holley, L. C., & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environmentJournal of Social Work Education41(1), 49-64.

Hurtado, S., & Guillermo-Wann, C. (2013). Diverse learning environments: Assessing and creating conditions for student success. Final report to the Ford Foundation. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research (Vol. 1). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.