Creating a Positive Class Climate


Put most simply, class climate is the intellectual, social, and physical environment in which students learn. Inclusive Teaching Principles

Other definitions have focused on the interpersonal aspects, defining class climate, for example, as “the sum of student and instructor behaviors and related student perceptions that influence the emotional and social experiences of the class.”  Climate

Creating a positive climate is closely connected to practicing inclusive teaching in that both aim at creating a learning environment that maximizes learning by fosters students’ sense of belonging and connection to the course and creating a community of learners. Inclusive Teaching

There is evidence that student learning is affected by class climate; therefore, one goal for instructors is to create a positive climate that encourages, supports, and sustains student motivation, engagement, and performance.

Class climate is believed to affect student learning by

  • Influencing the creation and dissemination of knowledge. In an inclusive climate all students are more likely to volunteer, providing different perspectives and thus enriching discussions.
  • Engendering emotions that impact learning.  If the predominant emotions in a class are fear, shame or embarrassment, or boredom and apathy, these negative emotions will decrease students’ motivation and thus learning.
  • Channeling energies either away or toward learning. If students do not feel safe in class, they monitor their participation for fear of inadvertently exposing themselves, thus limiting their engagement with the material.
  • Impacting student persistence. When the messages students perceive communicate that they are not as able as other students and don’t belong in the course, students are less likely to stay in the course or even in the program or university.
    ​​​​​​​Classroom Climate

How to Achieve

Instructors can influence class climate through the design of their course, including the content they include and the teaching strategies they employ.  They can also focus on creating and communicating classroom norms and expectations conducive to positive engagement and learning. Although cultivating a classroom climate that fosters learning is an ongoing process, it is important to introduce these practices early and continue to use them throughout the semester/term.

One the most effective ways instructors can of influence the class climate is through their communications and interactions with students. This includes the following techniques:

  • Learn about the students (e.g., their names, the pronouns they use, what they hope to get out of the course, and what preparation and background knowledge they have).
  • Provide information about own professional background (e.g., tell stories about own history and activities).
  • Clearly communicate how to be successful in the course (e.g., let students know what is expected of them regarding preparation, attendance, and participation in class activities).
  • Create a sense of community among students (e.g., assign shared projects, give students opportunities to work with different partners, encourage participation by all students).
  • Give students regular constructive feedback on their progress, including suggestions on how to improve (e.g., provide specific comments on student work and encourage individual meetings). Providing Effective Feedback
  • Make course materials inclusive (e.g., ensure variety of authors and sources, representing a range of experiences and perspectives). Inclusive Teaching
  • Clearly articulate what students need to do in order to fulfill all class requirements (e.g., review all rubrics and clarify all changes that may occur). Creating Rubrics
  • Articulate or create ground rules for participation and discussion and address incivility if it occurs (e.g., learn to manage disruptive behavior). Managing Disruptive Student Behavior
  • Acknowledge and respond to controversial topics (e.g., learn to facilitate difficult dialogues and provide opportunity for everyone to talk about these topics). Facilitating Difficult Dialogues
  • Be mindful of language (e.g.avoid language that is culturally specific that may not be familiar to all students; use appropriate language when speaking about a particular identity or community and admit uncertainty and ask for help if needed).
  • Introduce a variety of learning activities that foster student engagement (e.g., incorporate active learning strategies that entail working in pairs or small groups).
    Promoting Active Learning
  • Be approachable and accessible to students who have questions or seek help (e.g., invite them to attend office hours and respond to mails in a timely manner).
  • Do an early-semester check-in by gathering feedback (e.g., give a survey and then summarizing your findings and explain what you can or cannot do in response to the feedback and why). Midterm Feedback

Instructors also can influence the class climate through the course syllabus. Thus, another way to create a positive class climate is to develop and disseminate a warm syllabus – one that​​​​​​​ provides course information in a positive, inviting, and friendly manner. The goal is to build a sense of belonging and community and encourage students to feel welcome, comfortable, and excited about the course. Specifically, a Warm syllabus does the following:

  • Focuses on what the students will learn and how they will learn it
  • Expresses high expectations and confidence that students will succeed
  • Uses language, including humor, that shows passion for teaching and for the subject matter
  • Includes self-disclosure through sharing relevant personal experiences
  • Arouses students’ curiosity and gets them excited about the course
  • Provides rationale for policies and requirements
  • Expresses compassion
  • Provides rationale for assignments by relating them to learning objectives
  • Sets tone by using inclusive friendly language
  • Emphasizes positive over punitive language
  • Creates invitations rather than commands
  • Uses cooperative rather than authoritarian language

These objectives can be reached by including the following information in the syllabus:

  • ​​​​​​​Brief professional biography
    • Interest in the topic and this course
    • Philosophy of teaching
    • Approach to student evaluation
  • Diversity statement that includes
    • Commitment to respect diversity
    • List of relevant dimensions of diversity
    • Commitment to including and supporting all students
    • Commitment to civility in interactions
  • Mutual expectations
    • Instructor’s commitments to students (e.g., being prepared, giving meaningful and timely feedback, treating students respectfully)
    • Students’ commitments to instructor and other students (e.g., attending regularly, being prepared, paying attention and participating, treating others respectfully)
    • Giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Communication with instructor
    • Preferred name/title/pronouns
    • How to contact: email address, telephone number
    • When available: office/student hours, other opportunities
    • Where to meet: office or other locations/online
    • Explicit invitation to talk outside of class time
  • Student success
    • ​​​​​​​What students need to do to be successful
    • Best practices for maximizing learning (e.g., attending TA study sessions, taking good notes, participating in in-class activities)
    • Commitment to helping all students succeed

How to Create a Syllabus

Creating an Inclusive Syllabus

In addition to the content of the syllabus, the tone of the document also influences students’ perceptions and motivation. The following are examples of wording in a warms syllabus:

  • Not “Students must…,” but “I encourage you to…”
  • Not “I only accept…,” but “You have the opportunity to…”
  • Not “Late work will be penalized by a reduction of 40%,” but “Late work is eligible for partial credit of 60%.”
  • Not “Students are expected to attend every class session. Unexcused absences will result in a lower grade,” but “It is important that you attend every class session. Otherwise, you will miss out on the many learning activities that we will engage in.”
  • Not “Students are expected to comply with the following course policies or will face consequences,” but “The following course values will guide our interactions and help you learn.”
  • Not “Students must complete makeup work to receive credit,” but “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
  • Not ““If you need to contact me outside of class …,” but “I welcome you to contact me outside of class …”
  • Not “come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage in learning,” but “I hope you actively participate in this course …because I have found it is the best way to engage you in learning.”
  • Not “traumatic events … are no excuse for not contracting me with 24hours,” but “traumatic events … are unwelcome and because I understand how difficult these times are, if you contact me with 24 hours of the event and provide documentation, I will be happy to give you a make-up exam.”

For additional examples see Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate


Key Moves
Harvard University Bok Center for Teaching and Learning

Classroom Climate
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Handling Difficult Moments
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Inclusive Teaching
Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

Georgetown University

Writing a Syllabus
Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation

Effects of Syllabus Tone
Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning

Course and Syllabus Design
University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning

Warm Tone College Syllabi
Oregon State University

How You Write Your Syllabus Can Make a Big Difference
McGill University Office of Science Education

Guidelines for Class Interaction
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching

Ten Tips for Facilitating Classroom Discussions on Sensitive Topics
Hampshire College

Best Practices for Managing Disruptive Behavior
University of Washington Office of VP for Student Life

Accessible Syllabus Project 
Tulane University