Building Community

For students to feel empowered to share ideas freely, instructors must work to foster a classroom culture that is both caring and challenging, safe and supportive. Such a culture seldom materializes by happenstance, and building it must be a sustained effort throughout the semester. With community in mind, effective instructors consider how to set up the physical environment, how to encourage intellectual risk-taking, and how to model appropriate discussion behaviors, such as active listening and responding to one another respectfully.

How might we get to know our students better so we understand their prior experiences and content knowledge? How do we set a tone in which students are unafraid to share ideas, even if they may not be “right”? What steps can we take so that in-class discussion flows more like a conversation wherein students respond to each other’s ideas rather than simply looking to their professor for affirmation? In these videos, featured professors describe actions they take to build community in their discussion- and lecture-based classrooms.

How can I lay the foundation for a strong classroom culture?

How can I encourage students to take risks?

What does the research say?

  • Using the theory of conceptual change in biology education, Tanner and Allen argue that wrong answers can help instructors teach “right” answers. Framing wrong answers for students as starting points toward better understanding could help normalize making mistakes (2005).
  • Instructor nonverbal immediacy (behaviors like eye contact and smiling) has been correlated with student self-reports of enhanced and affective learning. Affective learning is an important consideration since students’ emotional responses in class could promote or impede student learning (Witt et al., 2007).
  • In an investigation of student perspectives on classroom environment, authors described classroom safe spaces as settings where students were able to take risks, and rewards outweighed potential penalties. Ways instructors might facilitate environments of willing risk-taking include welcoming discussion, being approachable and supportive, avoiding punishment for unpopular views, and being emotionally present (Holley & Steiner, 2005).

McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie's teaching tips. United Kingdom: Cengage Learning.

Instructors can find guidelines on how to use the first day to establish a sense of community (p. 19), including specific activities like reciprocal interviewing and question posing (p. 23)

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. John Wiley & Sons.

Chapter 3 includes tips to foster a sense of community in the classroom (p. 40-43)

  • University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching provides “Inclusive Teaching Resources and Strategies”

  • “Teaching with Discussions” from The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis offers tips for instructors before, during, and after discussion, including how to create a comfortable non-threatening environment from the first class onward

  • A post from Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor blog describes three forms an unproductive discussion might take and provides suggestions for how build a more effective, collaborative discussion amongst students

Featured Faculty

  • One of the great glories of a class is that you build up a relationship with people over many weeks, and they come to count on you, and you get the dividends of those many weeks.

    - Bob Kegan

  • I never want a student to not participate in class just because they feel they don't have the right answer.

    - Dan Levy

  • I'm a teacher, but I'm also a learner in this space. I'm a speaker, but I'm also a listener. In every curricular and pedagogical move I make, I am trying to communicate that philosophy.

    - Christina Villarreal

  • I often refer to the class as a “collective brain.” What we get out of a class is what we all put into it. I want students to have that kind of shared ownership.

    - Brett Flehinger

  • I try to draw in students in a gentle way. Then, bit by bit, even a student who’s more shy at the beginning sees that everybody can raise their hands -- that I don’t really bite.

    - Paola Arlotta

  • I don't see it so much as being immersed in uncertainty during the class discussion as I do fleshing out some of the possibilities and getting excited about those possibilities.

    - Jane Mansbridge

  • Students are getting the most out of their learning when I can relinquish control of the classroom to them. But the only way to get to that place is being really engaged and devoted to modeling behaviors at the outset.

    - Timothy McCarthy

P. Arlotta

Paola Arlotta

Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology

STUDENT GROUP

Undergraduate

SCHOOL

Harvard College

COURSE

Got (New) Brain? The Evolution of Brain Regeneration

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, 22 students

Brett Flehinger

Brett Flehinger

Lecturer on History

STUDENT GROUP

Undergraduate

SCHOOL

Harvard College

COURSE

American Populisms: From Thomas Jefferson to the Tea Party + Trump

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, 38 students

Dan Levy

Dan Levy

Senior Lecturer in Public Policy

STUDENT GROUP  

Graduate

SCHOOL  

Harvard Kennedy School

COURSE

Advanced Quantitative Methods

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, 74 students

Bob Kegan

Robert Kegan

William and Miriam Meehan Research Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development

STUDENT GROUP

Graduate

SCHOOL

Harvard Graduate School of Education

COURSE

Adult Development

COURSE DETAILS

Spring 2016, ~200 students

J. Mansbridge

Jane Mansbridge

Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Value

STUDENT GROUP

Graduate

SCHOOL

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

COURSE

Democratic Theory

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, ~30 students

T. McCarthy

Timothy Patrick McCarthy

Lecturer on History and Literature

STUDENT GROUP

Undergraduate/Graduate

SCHOOL

Harvard College

COURSE

Stories of Slavery & Freedom

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, 16 students

 

C. Villarreal

Christina “V” Villarreal

Visiting Lecturer on Education

STUDENT GROUP

Graduate

SCHOOL

Harvard Graduate School of Education

COURSE

Ethnic Studies

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2016, 23 students