Carnegie Mellon University

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Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students are responding to course content and/or classroom dynamics in emotional and unproductive ways.

The course climate inadvertently alienates or threatens students.

Course climate refers to the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environment engendered by a course, both in and outside the classroom. Climate can be influenced positively or negatively by a number of factors, including the instructor’s behavior, the tenor of his or her interactions with students, the behavior of other students, and the nature of student-student interactions. Although instructors cannot control all aspects of course climate, there are several things they can do to maintain an environment that is both intellectually challenging and emotionally supportive and to make students feel respected, included, and safe from verbal attack or ridicule.


Use the first day of class and the syllabus to establish a course climate that is both challenging and supportive.

Your students will form impressions about you, your expectations, and the course on the first day of class, so it is important to set the tone that you want to carry throughout the semester. Before the first day of class, think about how you can convey competence and authority as well as supportiveness and approachability. Use language that conveys this tone in your syllabus and other course materials. If you will be teaching topics that may elicit strong emotional reactions, explain on the first day of class why the material is important and how you hope students will approach it.

Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction.

Students can alienate others with their choice of words (e.g., "you are absolutely wrong"), their tone (e.g., cynical or belittling), and their body language (e.g., raised eyebrows or smirks). To ensure that everyone in the classroom behaves in an inclusive and respectful manner, establish ground rules for interaction. This is particularly important in discussion, lab, or studio courses where there is considerable student-student interaction. Ground rules (pdf) for discussion, for example, might include the following: build on each other’s ideas; listen attentively; do not interrupt; refer to one another by name; criticize ideas, not people; and so on. To motivate students to follow such ground rules, some faculty involve students in the process of creating them. Having established ground rules, you will need to occasionally remind students about them and immediately address behavior that violates them.

Reduce anonymity.

If students feel anonymous in your course, they are more likely to become alienated when they encounter challenging topics or unnerving emotional interactions. On the other hand, if students feel personally acknowledged, they will be more inclined to communicate with you and with one another – rather than simply withdraw – if they are upset. There are several ways to reduce anonymity, including learning students’ names, providing opportunities for students to learn each others’ names, inviting students to office hours, going to a student’s theatre production or sports event, and so on. While learning names and establishing a connection with students is more difficult in large classes, it is not impossible. To this end, some instructors have their students put name tents on their desks, arrange to meet informally with groups of students outside of class, or collect information on students’ backgrounds and interests. Even minor efforts to reduce students’ anonymity can help establish an environment in which students communicate--rather than withdraw--when they encounter challenging or emotionally charged issues.

Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group.

Minority students often report that they either feel invisible or too conspicuous as a minorities in class. This experience of feeling different is heightened when minorities are addressed as spokespeople for their whole group--for example, if the instructor or another student asks questions like "Jason, you’re Hispanic; how do you feel about the proposed immigration legislation?" or "Melissa, as a female engineer, perhaps you can talk about why women don’t choose science careers?" Although it may seem helpful to draw out the opinions of students from different backgrounds, instructors should realize that being publicly singled out as a representative of a particular social category or group can be profoundly uncomfortable, and it may elicit emotions that interfere with those students’ future engagement and learning.

Avoid differential treatment.

Research has shown that instructors sometimes treat certain categories of students differently without intending to. For example, in an effort to help students from a group they perceive as disadvantaged, some instructors may inadvertently send disempowering and alienating messages. A well-meaning instructor may make statements such as "I'd be happy to help you with this because I know girls have trouble with math" or "I’ve never had an African-American student do well in this class, so I’m determined to help you succeed." Such seemingly innocuous comments, which reflect assumptions about students’ abilities based on characteristics like gender or race, can diminish students' sense of self-efficacy and motivation and influence students' perception of the course climate. An instructor's non-verbal behaviors can also send unintended but powerful messages to students. For example, certain groups (e.g., men, women, minorities, students from a particular major) may be called on, interrupted, asked less sophisticated questions, or given acknowledgment for their contributions more frequently than others. It can be helpful to videotape yourself or ask a third party (e.g., a TA, a teaching center consultant, a colleague) to sit in on your class and observe your interactions with students.

Explicitly acknowledge and draw on student diversity

One way to create a welcoming classroom climate is to recognize and celebrate the diversity of students in your class. This can be done in several ways. Some instructors collect and share information about students’ hometowns, travel experiences, majors and minors, career goals, and languages – in aggregate and anonymous form – with the class so students are aware of the diverse experiences, skills, and aspirations that are present in the classroom. This exercise conveys to students that the differences among them are valuable, not problematic. Since students sometimes feel more different from their classmates than they really are, it can also reassure them by pointing out commonalities (e.g., other students who have never taken calculus or traveled outside their home state). You can help to shape a welcoming classroom climate simply by acknowledging student differences in a positive way.

Invite feedback on classroom climate.

Early in the semester, make it clear to students that you welcome their feedback on the course environment and that you want to know if they ever feel shut down in discussion or disrespected by anyone in the class, including yourself. Opening this channel of communication can put students at ease, while also increasing the chances that you will find out about problems before they become pronounced. You can also gather feedback by noticing the body language in the classroom. If you notice that students look angry or withdrawn, ask yourself what the potential causes might be. If you are unable to read the situation from contextual clues, consider soliciting feedback from the class as a whole (via early course feedback or an appointed student ombudsman) or talking to individual students outside of class to find out what is wrong.

Address – don’t ignore – offensive behavior.

. If a student or students’ behavior is marginalizing or antagonizing others, address the issue before it gets out of hand. How you handle it will depend a great deal on your intuition about the situation. For example, if tensions are high because a student is expressing an unpopular opinion, you might want to reframe the issue so that it is about broader perspectives, not personalities (e.g., “What Suresh expressed is a widely shared perspective on this issue. What historical circumstances might have led people to this conclusion?”) Another tactic is to differentiate what you believe to be the intent of a remark from its impact, for example: “Nina, I think your comments might have come across more accusatory than you intended, but the sense of injustice they reflect is important to consider.” Still another is to politely but firmly express disapproval (“Rita, that kind of language is not welcome in this class”) and then move on. Sometimes it is useful simply to maintain a neutral stance yourself, and let the class react to a peer’s comment. For example, if a student makes an inflammatory statement, ask the class: “How do the rest of you feel about this?” Often, peer reaction is sufficient to make an inappropriately provocative or antagonistic student reconsider his or her approach. While it is important to address tensions and emotions as they arise in the classroom, it can be difficult in the heat of the moment to know how to respond. One good strategy is to call a short “time out” from discussion, give your students a few minutes to write down what they are thinking and feeling, and use the time to decide how you want to handle the situation.

Acknowledge emotion.

In addition to responding to specific comments or behaviors, it is important for instructors simply to acknowledge when emotions are stirred up in the classroom (e.g., “I can tell that it’s getting a bit heated in here, which is understandable because this is an issue that affects many of you profoundly” or “Some of you are probably feeling uncomfortable right now. Maybe you’ve never discussed race in a racially diverse group before”). By validating the emotions that students are experiencing, you can help them stay productively engaged when discussing contentious topics.

Talk to disruptive students outside of class.

Sometimes addressing a problem directly in class only exacerbates it. Under such circumstances, it can be more effective to move the conversation to another venue (e.g., “Paul, this is obviously an issue about which you’ve got strong opinions, but it’s not contributing to a productive discussion. Let’s talk during my office hours, and think about ways to raise your points in a more constructive manner”). You can use your out-of-class meeting to explain the impact of the student’s comments (e.g., “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but it’s offensive to some people to say...”) or try to guide the student to a better understanding of the issues through a series of questions (e.g., “What are other ways people might perceive that statement? How might your perspective differ if you were from __?”). If you sense that the student is angry or argumentative for reasons that have little to do with the class, you might want to consult psychological services or (if you are worried about your own or other students’ safety) campus security.

Provide opportunities to cool off.

If a discussion or interaction gets heated, it can be helpful to pause the discussion so that tempers – including your own – can cool down. For example, you might give students a few minutes to write about their reactions and then return to the discussion when they have had the chance to compose their thoughts. By the same token, if you find yourself getting angry or defensive, it can also be useful to step back, analyze your own reactions, and seek a more balanced perspective. One way to do this is simply to buy time, for example, by saying, “That’s a complicated question. I’m going to think about how I want to answer it and get back to you in the next class.”

Facilitate active listening.

Sometimes tensions arise because students are not accurately hearing what others are saying. To build better listening skills and help avoid misunderstandings, it can be helpful to ask Student A to paraphrase Student B’s comments and ask Student B if the paraphrasing was accurate. You can also model this skill yourself by paraphrasing a student’s response and then asking if you captured his or her perspective accurately.

Turn discord into a learning opportunity.

When there is significant disagreement in class, try to channel students’ emotions into a useful dialogue rather than end the discussion. For example, you might ask students to assume another perspective using a role-play, to switch sides in a debate, or simply explain how and why discord can be a valuable part of learning. Students need to learn that debate, tension, discord, and cognitive dissonance are all opportunities to expand their perspectives, delve more deeply into a topic, and understand opposing views.

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