Creating a Classroom Culture

By Taylor Martin and Ken Smith, Sam Houston State University

A good educator must facilitate learning for a classroom full of students with different attitudes, personalities, and backgrounds. But how? This question was the starting point for a new Faculty Teaching Seminar in the math and statistics department at Sam Houston State University. In the conversation that transpired, we looked to identify the most important components of creating a class culture that best enables us to achieve learning outcomes. What are our goals? How do we get the ball rolling each semester? How do we get our students on board? Read on to find out…

What is a “classroom culture”? What are you after? Why is it important?

Taylor: The environment in my classroom is a necessary component of a successful semester. The rapport that I build with my students, the tone of the class, and the ways that my students interact with each other are just as much a component of learning as the lectures or textbook.

In my experience, setting up a productive class culture can determine the potential for learning for the entire semester. A productive class culture is one where the students feel supported, protected, and valued.

Ken: I seek a “learning community” of student-scholars, people who are curious about mathematics and serious about learning. I want calculus students who are proud to be taking calculus. I want an upper level mathematics class where the students see themselves as professionals. I want a graduate class where students focus on exploration of mathematics and its mysteries, and where curiosity is the driving reason for study.

I don’t distribute the class syllabus as a hard copy. I collect work every class period and “speed-grade” it to return it the next day. I work with a department secretary to force late registration students to meet with me before adding my classes. I never have office hours before class. When challenged by colleagues about some of these unusual practices, I realized that I desire a certain type of classroom environment. I push, coach, and manipulate my students to achieve that environment.

What do you do on Day 1 to create a classroom culture?

Ken: My class culture begins with my syllabus, which lays out some “professional” expectations of my students. But I also begin, from Day 1, to set the stage for class expectations. Since much of the material I provide will be online (either via Blackboard or Google Drive), the syllabus is also available there and I do not hand out a hard copy. There will not be handouts during the semester; let’s get the students used to this on the first day!

In classes with a prerequisite, I give a quiz the first day. The intended message is, “We are serious about learning and are on the move!” Early in the semester I keep the class at a fairly brisk pace (emphasizing a steady regime of study) and I make sure to model this on day 1. Since many first-year students view office hours before class as an invitation to procrastinate, my office hours are not before class, but afterwards!

I never dismiss class early, not even on the first day.

Taylor: The answer to this question depends on what level the class is and what method of teaching I am using in the class, but there are some common themes in all of my classes on Day 1:

  • Get the students talking: I always do some form of introductions in my class. Most often, I will have students pair up, introduce themselves to their partners, and then have each students’ partner introduce him/her to the entire class. This takes up a lot of time, but it is worth it! The students quickly learn that they are expected to participate. They must contribute to class, and this exercise makes them more comfortable speaking up. This also helps me to start learning their names and eliminates the need for me to do a roll call, inevitably stumbling awkwardly through hard-to-pronounce names.
  • Be a cheerleader: I use some type of unconventional or atypical pedagogy in all of my classes. I always start with the assumption that my students will be new to this teaching method. I must begin to sell my teaching style on Day 1! I achieve this by explaining to students what they can expect from a typical class day and why we do things the way that we do. I also make sure to tell them what my expectations are.
  • Include some content. I want to make sure that my students take my class seriously. Hard work begins on Day 1; like Ken, I never dismiss class early.

Does classroom culture vary by class level?

Taylor: Yes, absolutely. I usually focus on one or two aspects of a successful class culture and hone in on developing those aspects. In a Calculus class, for example, I most want the students to learn to justify their thought processes. To achieve this, I will ask them to buddy up every day – literally push their desk next to someone else’s. I tell them, “Turn to you partner and ask, `Why is it true that…?’” I’ll then solicit feedback in a way that supports their collaboration by asking a student, “What justification did you and your partner come up with?”

In an Inquiry Based Learning class, I most want students to value productive failure as an integral part of the learning process.

Students critiquing each other's proofs

Students critiquing each other’s proofs

I will then carefully praise mistakes and encourage participation from students who know they are wrong.  In the photo, you see my IBL Algebra students writing proofs on the board; I have them visit each other’s work and circle anything they don’t agree with. Since we have a safe space where it’s ok to be wrong, my students are professional but thorough when it comes to correcting mathematical errors.

Ken: Yes, certainly this varies by level. At the lower level my expectations are typically overly optimistic. I don’t abandon them, but I recognize that students have been trained to focus on grades and testing.  At the graduate level a classroom culture can be relatively easy to create, particularly if the students are already in a cohort and beginning to form a community.

The emphasis on a classroom environment is even important at the grade school level – see this article by Yackel and Cobb on creating a productive classroom environment in second and third grade!

What about students who don’t buy in? How do you create/enforce “buy in” of your culture?

Ken: Some students, in first- or second-year classes, don’t buy in to the steady stream of new material, and the necessary consistent study discipline. I routinely remind everyone of the expectations, and I attempt to motivate these expectations, in the same way that the coach of an athletic team might create team pride. For those students clearly not keeping up, I eventually chat with them briefly about the fact that this class is probably not for them. I encourage these students to either catch up quickly or find a more constructive use of their time. (There is an art to this. I often write an email to a poorly-performing student in which I express concerns about the progress and suggest some constructive alternatives that include starting fresh in the course next semester. I write these emails with a view to Mom reading over the student’s shoulder!)

At every level there is a fair amount of coaching. “Here is where we are going! Here is what we are trying to achieve! Look how far you’ve come!” I’ve coached competitive youth soccer teams and the speeches are similar. “You are working hard to reach this level! Keep it up! Here is our game plan for today…”

Taylor: I want all my students to take charge of their own education, so I will let a challenging student make his or her own decisions on how to participate in class, as long as the behavior isn’t disruptive. I may gently remind that student that I would prefer her or him to be fully engaged. In general, though, I think that if your class culture is based on a genuine desire to facilitate learning, students recognize and value the effort.

What are pitfalls, mistakes, disasters?

Taylor: A few semesters ago, I had a mutinous Calculus class. Somehow, I encouraged so much communication and collaboration among my students outside of class that a vocal minority opposition sprung up from within the class. I later discovered that there were students campaigning for the class to give me bad course evaluations (which happened). My feelings were hurt for a bit, but I learned valuable lessons that semester. I had been uncompromising in my desire for them to ask themselves “Why?” and this group wasn’t academically ready to do that. I now pay more attention to differentiating instruction, for example when a student asks a question in class.

Ken: My goal is a community of students all going in the same direction. If just one or two students are not swimming with the rest, the general flow of students will often pull them in to the current. But if a significant minority resist the direction of the class then things can go bad quickly. I must keep up with class morale and make sure that the program is flowing (somewhat).

Long ago, in an abstract algebra class where students were supposed to do small projects without discussing their work with others, I uncovered a collaborative ring that included a majority of the class. The students had ignored my published restrictions on collaboration. Rather than punish over half the class for this “plagiarism”, I backed up and restarted the process, admitting that I had not been sufficiently aware of the stress my problems generated. (The memory of that class is still a bit painful.)

In summary, effective learning occurs in a class environment in which curiosity, exploration and even mistakes are part of the norm. We seek to create that culture even before the first class day!

What do other teachers do to facilitate this? We would like to know!


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6 Responses to Creating a Classroom Culture

  1. Michelle says:

    Very insightful piece for a maths lecturer

  2. Leesa Johnson says:

    Nice post and it’s too motivational for teachers and students.

  3. Danielle says:

    I agree that the culture of a classroom is hugely important and you have some good tips in here. I think this is an ideal though and not necessarily practical at least in a high school setting with lower level math students. You talk about how students recognize and value the effort in a desire to learn but does that usually work in your experience? I know that there will always be students who don’t participate but it almost sounds like you are writing them off by not making them participate.

    • Ken Smith says:

      Responding to Danielle: Yes, some of our teaching methods are deliberately aimed at students as college students, where attendance is optional. I want my students to decide early if they intend to engage in the class. If the students do not want to engage in the class then they are encouraged to drop the class and concentrate on other classes. This approach would have to be *substantially* modified in a high school setting where attendance is mandatory. I think a high school setting would be much more difficult, with much more “coaching” on the class goals.

  4. M.khalil says:

    all these are the qualities of good teacher or professional teacher.
    good to read it

  5. Jacob Koczwara says:

    I think this is a very insight blog post and I commend you for posting it. I believe it is extremely important to create a classroom culture at any level of teaching. It is of the utmost important to make sure students feel comfortable with their professors/teachers and are able to talk with them about the problems they have. A student will not be able to perform at their highest capacity if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions. This is a problem I’ve seen with a lot of my fellow classmates at my university. I see many of my fellow students struggling with the more difficult subjects and they are just unable to ask the professor for help because they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Thankfully I never have this problem because after my schooling experience I am completely comfortable asking questions when I don’t understand something but my fellow students always seem to have issue doing so. It’s sad when I see so many students dropping courses they need to take or failing a course just because they don’t feel comfortable asking questions about things they don’t understand. It’s such an easy thing to do for teachers to promote students to go to their office hours or go see the ta but I see only a few teachers who actually make the effort to do so or even try to make sure the students understand the material. In my opinion my favorite professors I’ve had are the ones who do put the time and effort into making sure their students learn and master the material and I appreciate those teachers so much more for doing so.

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