When students take a course, they experience more than just an interaction with course content. The learning environment includes the intellectual, social, emotional and physical environments of a course; all of which will affect learning. Instructor-student interactions and the tone of the course may affect how students approach learning and work through difficulties. The demographics of students within the course, and how peers interact, also play a key role in this environment. Finally, equity, inclusivity and accessibility are important parts of creating a learning environment that supports all students.
The learning environment can be just as important to student learning as choosing course content and your teaching methods. A synthesis of 1,500 meta-analyses of 300,000,000 students (Hattie, 2012) found that the following environmental factors significantly impacted student learning:
- Classroom management: Situational awareness or mindfulness of teachers, teacher intervention, clarity of purpose and strong guidance.
- Classroom cohesion: The sense that all (teachers and students) are working together.
- Peer influences: Helping, tutoring, providing friendship, giving feedback, making school a place where students want to come each day.
These factors determine whether students perceive their environment positively or negatively, which affects their behavior and therefore learning outcomes. A positive climate can improve students’ learning while a negative climate can hinder learning and performance (see Literature below).
In positive learning environments students experience a high level of trust amongst themselves and their instructor. They view decisions as fair, they have a sense of belonging, and they feel listened to. Only in these environments are students able to tackle challenges, take risks, express themselves and ask for help.
In negative learning environments students may feel uncomfortable, confused, unsupported and afraid to make mistakes. This environment does not force students to “toughen up” or “put in more effort.” Instead, they are likely to judge the course or themselves negatively and become unmotivated or even quit.
As an instructor, you will want to keep students’ perspectives in mind when building and teaching your courses. Class activities should create positive climates, support student learning and allow for risk taking.
Improving the learning environment
There are many factors that determine the learning environment in which you teach. Some of these factors will be outside your control such as the physical classroom space or the learning management system. However, how you work with the elements of the environment that you can control will impact your students’ ability to learn. Here are a few popular approaches.
Community of Inquiry
The Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) states that there are three important and interacting factors that must be present for a positive learning community to prosper:
- Social Presence: The ability to interact with others in a meaningful way.
- Cognitive Presence: The extent to which the participants can construct and confirm meaning through sustained communication.
- Teaching Presence: The design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for meaningful learning.