Classroom Climate

  • A supportive classroom climate can help students develop a sense of belonging in a class, which is associated with greater motivation and academic achievement.
  • Both instructor-student interactions and student-student interactions contribute to the classroom climate.
  • Instructor-student interactions
    • Instructor warmth, organization, respect for students, and encouragement of connection and participation are associated with a positive classroom climate.
    • Chilly or hostile classroom climates can develop when the contributions of one group are valued over others’. The ways in which this can occur vary, from instructors calling on or highlighting comments from males over females, to allowing disrespectful comments from students to go unremarked.
    • To promote a supportive climate, instructors should consider ways to mitigate stereotype threat, which can result in underperformance for students in negatively stereotyped groups. Using language that signals an identity-safe environment and incorporating science and scientists that represent the community and its interests have both been found to have a positive impact.
  • Student-student interactions
    • Interactions with peers are a key part of positive classroom climate, which can develop from a sense of shared interest in course content, peer acceptance and peer support.
    • Both brief and extended group work can promote student-student collaboration and support, but instructors should be aware that student groups have the potential to marginalize or exclude some students. Instructors should take care to establish norms of mutual respect and inclusion at the outset and to support those norms throughout the class. The evidence-based teaching guide on Group Work provides information about effectively structuring both informal and formal group work.

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H. & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belongingness of college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education 75, 203–220. Sense of belonging has been shown to be important for K12 students’ motivation, academic engagement, and success. This study asked whether college students’ sense of belonging can also influence their motivation and engagement in a class. In addition, the study asked what instructor behaviors promote a sense of belonging and whether a sense of belonging in a single class contributes to sense of belonging at the institutional level. 238 first-year students in non-major sections of biology, psychology, and english responded to surveys that measured their sense of four factors: class and university belonging; instructors’ pedagogical caring; social acceptance by peers and others at the university; and motivation, including their sense of self-efficacy and task value.  Students also responded to the Student Perceptions of Learning and Teaching questionnaire, which measures student perceptions of instructor organization, warmth and openness, and encouragement of student participation.  Instructor encouragement of student participation strongly correlated with student belonging.  In addition, instructor warmth, openness and organization significantly but more weakly correlated with student belonging. This sense of class belonging further positively correlated with measures of self-efficacy, task value, and intrinsic motivation. Thus, these results suggest that instructor choices can promote a sense of student belonging in a given class, and that this sense of belonging positively predicts student motivational factors. The results also indicated, however, that students’ overall sense of belonging at the university appeared to depend more strongly on students’ sense of social acceptance, defined as acceptance by peers and other members of the university, than on sense of belonging in a single class.

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E. & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: A mixed method study. Instructional Science 42, 661-684.  This study examined the relationship between a supportive classroom environment and student motivation, specifically testing the self-system model developed by Connell and Wellborn. The self-system model indicates that a supportive classroom environment promotes student motivation through development of a sense of belonging; self-efficacy, or students’ belief that they can accomplish the tasks of the course; and task value, or a belief that the tasks of the class are important. These factors lead students to engage in academic activities, resulting in student achievement. This study used a sequential mixed methods design to further develop the model, asking whether a sense of belonging precedes the development of self-efficacy and task value. 212 undergraduates in educational psychology courses completed surveys to measure sense of belonging, self-efficacy, task value, and student perceptions of course climate, while their instructors rated the students’ engagement with course work. Course grades were used as a measure of achievement. The authors tested two models, finding support for a model in which a supportive classroom environment promotes belonging, which then promotes the self-efficacy and task value that predict engagement and subsequent achievement. This model fit the data better than a model in which belonging, self-efficacy, and task value are parallel predictors of engagement.  These results suggest that instructor academic and social support initially promote a sense of belonging, and that this sense of belonging helps mediate the development of other aspects of motivation. Elements that promote a sense of belonging were investigated in follow-up interviews with six students. These interviews indicated that interactions with peers were a key element and that a sense of shared interest in course content, peer acceptance and peer support correlated with belonging. Students noted that instructor respect for students, “setting the tone of the class”, and fostering student-student interaction were also important elements of promoting belonging.

McKinney, J.P., McKinney, K.G., Franiuk, R. & Schweitzer, J. (2006) The college classroom as a community: Impact on student attitudes and learning. College Teaching 54, 281-284.  The authors investigated the relationship between students’ sense of community, satisfaction, and performance in an upper-division psychology class at a midsize Midwestern university. In the experimental section of the course, 40 students engaged in activities intended to promote a sense of community. These activities were drawn from neighborhood community studies and focused on six themes: connection, participation, safety, support, belonging, and empowerment. These activities were not included in the control section of the course, which enrolled 36 students. Both groups of students responded at the beginning and end of the semester to the Sense of Classroom Community measure developed from a previously published sense of neighborhood community questionnaire. The responses demonstrated a significant increase in students’ sense of classroom community over the course of the semester for both sections, but the experimental section of students demonstrated significantly higher community scores than the control section at the end of the semester. Further, survey responses indicated that experimental participants’ perception of their learning and their academic performance (as measured by exam scores) was significantly related to their sense of community.

Elliott, D., Gamino, M. & Jenkins, J.J. (2016). Creating community in the college classroom: Best practices for increased student success. International Journal of Education and Social Science 3, 29-41.  The authors frame their work by summarizing the literature on the role of community in supporting college student success, noting that a sense of classroom community promotes students’ contributions and reduces students’ anxiety in class and that it increases students’ academic performance and satisfaction, particularly for first generation and minority/underrepresented students. They surveyed 505 undergraduates in 25 colleges/universities in southern California to identify definitions of community and practices that promote classroom community, asking nine open-ended questions. Survey responses were coded and analyzed to identify four emergent themes. The theme of shared space was identified in more than half of survey responses, with respondents identifying it as a necessary element for community building. 44% of respondents identified the importance of accepting others and their contributions as key to forming a community. About 30% of respondents identified common interests as important for community building, with the shared interests ranging from hobbies to values. The final theme that emerged was a sense of belonging, with several respondents noting the importance of teamwork and group projects for promoting belonging. The authors conclude by situating each of these themes within a different theoretical context, leading to suggestions for classroom practice.

Wenzel, T.J. (2002). Controlling the climate in your classroom. Analytical Chemistry 75, 311A-314A. This essay reviews research that first defined the “chilly climate” and the ways in which it can appear in science classes. The author notes that this work revealed that instructors tend to recognize male students more frequently than female students, ask them more follow up questions, and praise the intellectual content of their responses; that students contribute to this chilly climate in both verbal and nonverbal ways; and that women and students of color report that their gender or race/ethnicity are key to their experiences. The essay then identifies actions that help build an inclusive classroom environment, from encouraging participation from all students to addressing microaggressions.

Pascarella, E.T., Whitt, E.J., Edison, M.I., Nora, A. & Hagedorn, L.S. (1997). Women’s perceptions of a “chilly climate” and their cognitive outcomes during the first year of college. Journal of College Student Development 38, 109-124.  The authors review the early literature describing the climate on college campuses for women and investigate the impact of such a climate on female college students’ intellectual development. At the beginning of their first semester, 3840 incoming first-year female students at 18 four-year and 5 two-year colleges and universities provided demographic information and took the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP), which has sections that assess reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. At the end of their second semester, 70% of the original participants again took the CAAP and completed the College Student Experiences Questionnaire and an additional instrument designed to measure students curricular and out-of-class experiences. When statistical controls were applied for confounding influences, the authors observed that at two-year colleges, student perceptions of a chilly climate were negatively associated with cognitive development and self-reported gains in academic preparation for a career. At four-year colleges, student perceptions of a chilly climate tended to have negative relationships with cognitive outcome measures but only had a significant relationship with one variable, specifically a negative association with self-reported gains in academic preparation for a career.

Whitt, E., Edison, M.I., Pascarella, E. & Terenzini, P.T. (1999). Women’s perceptions of a  “chilly climate” for women and cognitive outcomes in college: Additional evidence. Journal of College Student Development 40, 163-177.  This study is a follow-up to the Pascarella et al. (1997) described above. In this study, students who had participated in that study at the beginning and end of their first year in college were asked to respond again to the College Student Experiences Questionnaire; another instrument designed to measure students’ curricular and out-of-class experiences; and standardized tools intended to assess writing skills and science reasoning at the end of their second year. Students at four year colleges were asked to complete these measures in a third follow-up at the end of their third year in college. When the authors applied statistical controls for confounding influences, they observed that both two- and four-year college student perceptions of a chilly climate for women had statistically significant negative associations with self-reported gains in writing and thinking skills, in understanding science, and in understanding the arts and humanities at the end of the second year. Four-year college students also exhibited a negative association with self-reported gains of academic preparation for a career. These relationships were also observed at the end of the third year for four-year college students. In addition, there was a positive relationship between perception of a chilly climate and reading comprehension; that is, students who perceived a chillier climate also reported higher gains in reading comprehension at the end of the third year. When the authors examined conditional effects, they observed that the negative relationship between perceptions of a chilly climate and self-reported gains in writing and thinking skills were stronger for women who had higher measures of cognitive ability upon entering college.

DeSurra, C. J. & K.A. Church. November 1994. Unlocking the classroom closet: Privileging the marginalized voices of gay/lesbian college students. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association: New Orleans, LA. The authors investigated the characteristics of classroom environments that create feelings of marginalization for gay and lesbian students using group interviews. Gay and lesbian students from several southern California universities were interviewed in groups of 3-6. Initial groups were asked to recount classroom situations where they felt uncomfortable and where they felt comfortable. Later groups were asked to recount personal stories of alienation or marginalization in the classroom, to comment on their perceptions of themes of marginalization, and to provide suggestions to promote supportive classroom climates. Interview sessions were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed to identify categories. The authors identified a “marginalizing-centralizing” continuum to characterize classroom environments, with climates ranging from explicitly marginalizing (e.g., homophobic comments), to implicitly marginalizing (e.g., avoiding gay/lesbian topics), to implicitly centralizing (e.g., the professor responding favorably when gay/lesbian issues arise), to explicitly centralizing. The work highlights both the ways that instructors can promote an inclusive environment as well as the implicit and perhaps unintended ways that they can contribute to a chilly climate.

Grunspan, D.Z., Eddy, S.L., Brownell, S.E., Wiggins, B.L., Crowe, A.J. & Goodreau, S.M. (2016). Males under-estimate academic performance of their female peers in undergraduate biology classrooms. PLoS ONE 11, e0148405. This study investigated one aspect that may influence women students’ decision to persist in science: the social environment of the classroom. The study focused on students enrolled in the second course in a three course introductory biology sequence during three terms. The course met for 50 minutes four times per week and had an additional required lab component; lecture sections had approximately 100 students (first term) or 375 students (second and third terms). Students were surveyed at various points in the semester to identify students they thought were strong with the course material or would do well in the course, although the precise prompts differed across the three terms. In ten of 11 surveys, males received more nominations than females even though females represented a majority (55-58%) in each course. The authors used Exponential Random Graph Models to explore the causes for these observations. The difference in nomination rates derived from males nominating other males; males showed a significant bias toward nominating other males in 11 of 11 surveys, while females showed no bias toward nominating either gender in 10 of 11 surveys. While class grade and high classroom participation were strong predictors of nomination, male bias toward nominating males persisted after controlling for these variables. The authors translate the tendency toward bias into a hypothetical GPA “boost” that males give fellow males, noting that it is equivalent to a GPA increase of 0.765; that is, for a male to be as likely to nominate a female as a male colleague, her GPA would need to be ~0.75 points higher than the male.

Steele, C.M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.  This informative and highly engaging narrative describes stereotype threat and the experiments that uncovered its existence and mechanisms. This book provides an outstanding introduction for instructors seeking to understand how stereotypes influence their students and how they can mitigate these effects.

Pennington, C.R., Heim, D, Levy, A.R. & Larkin, D.T. (2016). Twenty years of stereotype threat research: A review of psychological mediators. PLoS ONE 11, e0146487.  [Author abstract] This systematic literature review appraises critically the mediating variables of stereotype threat. A bibliographic search was conducted across electronic databases between 1995 and 2015. The search identified 45 experiments from 38 articles and 17 unique proposed mediators that were categorized into affective/subjective (n = 6), cognitive (n = 7) and motivational mechanisms (n = 4). Empirical support was accrued for mediators such as anxiety, negative thinking, and mind-wandering, which are suggested to co-opt working memory resources under stereotype threat. Other research points to the assertion that stereotype threatened individuals may be motivated to disconfirm negative stereotypes, which can have a paradoxical effect of hampering performance. However, stereotype threat appears to affect diverse social groups in different ways, with no one mediator providing unequivocal empirical support. Underpinned by the multi-threat framework, the discussion postulates that different forms of stereotype threat may be mediated by distinct mechanisms.

Davies, P.G., Spencer, S.J. & Steele, C.M. (2005). Clearing the air: Identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 88, 276-287. This set of studies first investigated whether activating female stereotypes reduced the probability that female students would volunteer for leadership roles and, second, whether fostering an identity-safe environment could reduce this effect.  In the first study, 61 undergraduates enrolled in an introductory psychology class were shown television commercials that were neutral or that included female gender stereotypes. After watching the commercials, students were prompted to indicate their level of interest in serving as the “leader” or “problem solver” for an upcoming task.  Women and men shown neutral commercials demonstrated no preference for either the leader or problem-solver role, but women shown the gender-stereotypic commercials expressed a strong preference for the problem-solver role (the gender-stereotypic commercials had no observable effect on the male students). In the second study (n = 116), the authors varied the identity safety of the leadership role by adding a single sentence to the instructions: “There is a great deal of controversy in psychology surrounding the issue of gender-based differences in leadership and problem-solving ability; however, our research has revealed absolutely no gender differences in either ability in this particular task.” They also added a word choice task to measure participants’ stereotype threat. Again, women shown neutral commercials exhibited no significant preference for either role, but those shown gender-stereotypic commercials exhibited a strong preference for the problem-solver role. This effect was eliminated by the identity-safe statement in the instructions. The word choice task confirmed that women shown the gender-stereotypic commercials had a gender stereotype activated, with degree of stereotype activation predicting role choice. The relationship between stereotype activation and leadership aspiration was completely eliminated in the identity-safe condition.

Schinske, J.N., Perkins, H., Snyder, A. & Wyer, M. (2017). Scientist Spotlight homework assignments shift students’ stereotypes of scientists and enhance science identity in a diverse introductory science class. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, 1-18. This study evaluated homework assignments termed Scientist Spotlights that present counterstereotypical examples of scientists doing work related to course content in an introductory biology class. The work is based on the premise that featured scientists may serve as “possible science selves” with whom students may identify. The authors hypothesized that the assignments would shift students’ descriptions of scientists away from stereotypes and would enhance students’ sense of relating to scientists, and that these changes would correlate with course grades and students’ interest in science. The Scientist Spotlights introduced course content, highlighted personal characteristics of the scientist, and promoted students metacognitive reflection. Students in seven sections of Human Biology were engaged in the study; five sections (338 students) completed ten Scientist Spotlight assignments and two sections (126 students) completed comparable metacognitive online assignments. On the first and last day of class and six months after completion of the class, students were asked to complete two essays related to scientist stereotypes and their ability to relate to scientists; these essays were analyzed for themes and coded into categories for quantitative analysis. Students were also asked to respond to an online survey measuring science interest at the beginning and end of class. The authors observed the predicted shift away from stereotypes and increase in students’ relating to scientists in the Scientist Spotlight sections, changes that were maintained six months later and that were not observed in the control sections. They also saw a small but significant change in science interest in students who shifted away from stereotypic views of scientists, higher grades for students in the Scientist Spotlight sections, and higher grades for students who shifted away from stereotypic views of scientists.

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Cite this guide: Dewsbury B, Brame CJ. (2019) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Inclusive Teaching. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
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