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Teaching Toolbox

Climate Controlled Classroom

A friendly atmosphere can enhance learning for everyone.

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Different students respond to the classroom environment in different ways. Some students do well no matter what, but others require a welcoming and supportive classroom. Making it friendly for all begins by developing a climate in which all students are recognized, respected, and valued.

Creating this atmosphere begins with steps as simple as addressing each student by name and providing an opportunity for them to learn each other's names. Many students are more comfortable participating in class discussions after they get to know the instructor and their peers. Since a cooperative atmosphere comes partly from having the opportunity to contribute, the instructor needs to encourage the quiet ones and restrain the exuberant. Informal, small group discussions encourage everyone to participate because they are much less intimidating than those involving the entire class. Boisterous students tend to be a bit calmer in small groups.

When breaking into groups, be sure to give the class a task to accomplish. Students often don't know where to start when told to “discuss” a topic. And having a simple duty such each group giving as a brief oral report to the entire class at the end of the session will keep students focused on the task.

Professors have to set certain standards of behavior, and if the students refuse to meet them, the instructors must become disciplinarians. This includes holding students responsible for their behavior in class. Students can't be allowed to harass their classmates, and the instructor must step in whenever it occurs. Jokes that belittle people are particularly insidious since the harassing student will often claim it “was just in fun,” but students may drop out of engineering because of them. Some forms of harassment, such as ignoring another student's contributions during group work because of gender or race, can be so subtle that the student doing it is unaware of his or her actions. Video or audio taping class sessions could be helpful, since insensitive students may only understand their poor conduct when shown the evidence.

Students also should know the consequences of irresponsible behavior such as refusing to work with a group to complete a design project. However, if you respect the students, hold them responsible, and give them the opportunity to reach their full potential, there will be few students earning low grades.

As a professor, even maintaining high levels of mutual respect inside the classroom cannot eliminate the feelings of alienation that can trip up even the brightest of students. First and second year students may not have assimilated to the academic or social life of the institution or department. Without a feeling of belonging, they become isolated. Some prefer to maintain a social life outside the department, but there are those who will benefit from departmental social activities. The student chapters of professional societies can take a lead in this, but professors must support their efforts by giving them time for announcements in classes, encouraging attendance, and even attending some of the functions. Informal, out-of-the-classroom interactions with professors can have a major positive impact on students, perhaps because they tend to be rather rare. E-mail provides another avenue for out-of-class contacts.

Also, new students may not have learned how to navigate the university's bureaucracy. For instance, a new student might not understand the importance of registering for classes early. As advisors, you can explain the potential consequences of registering late. Others don't know how to study. Providing study hints and direction on setting up study groups during class can make a significant difference in student learning, particularly for students who coasted in high school.

Professors can make a difference in the lives of our students. And often it is not our expertise in engineering that helps the students having difficulties. It is our caring as human beings.



Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org.


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