Proactively Developing a Positive Course Climate

Foster an Engaged Community

Faculty often comment that each cohort of students has its own contextual personality: dominant student voices in the classroom set a particular tone, students’ experiences with technology or organizational clarity (or lack thereof) early in the semester create good or ill will, social bonds among students may or may not be cemented.  Even the season, time of day, or weather can impact the dynamics of the classroom. While some factors are beyond our control, we can proactively deploy specific practices to increase the likelihood that a positive, supportive “course climate” will prevail.

What Course Climate Characteristics Encourage Learning?

Students report that courses with supportive, positive climates allow them to learn more deeply (Holley & Steiner, 2005). In these environments, they report that both instructors and other students engage in respectful, open exchange of ideas—especially controversial ones that challenge them to reconsider their assumptions about the world (Holley & Steiner, 2005). By intentionally modeling respect for all participants, thoughtful questioning, and deliberate reflection—and encouraging students to engage in those practices as well—instructors can work with students over time to create a course climate that allows deeper engagement and inquiry.


Reflective, structured dialogue can help students who might otherwise feel marginalized in the classroom feel more engaged (Miles & Kivlighan, 2012). While this model is most adaptable to discussion-based courses, it includes many individual elements that are useful in other classroom contexts.

  • Co-creating and using “ground rules” or “community agreements” for interaction in the classroom can help to preempt and manage conflicts in student groups.
  • Building in moments to pause and reflect at intervals throughout a lecture or lesson can give students a chance to integrate new ideas with prior knowledge, and to identify remaining questions (Ash & Clayton, 2004).
  • Finally, intentional practice and feedback can move students from asking superficial questions about content and ideas toward asking questions that promote their own critical thinking and deeper processing (King, 1990, 1992).


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2004). The articulated learning: An approach to guided reflection and assessmentInnovative Higher Education29(2), 137-154.

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

King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioningAmerican Educational Research Journal27(4), 664-687.

King, A. (1992). Facilitating elaborative learning through guided student-generated questioningEducational Psychologist27(1), 111-126.

Miles, J. R., & Kivlighan Jr., D. M. (2012). Perceptions of group climate by social identity group in intergroup dialogueGroup Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice16(3), 189.