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Course climate and its impact on learning
In the previous episode, we discussed student development in detail. Today we are going to talk about course climate.
The term course climate refers to the intellectual, social, emotional and physical environments in which students learn. Course climate is determined by a group of interacting factors, including teacher-student interaction, the tone teachers set, instances of stereotyping, the course demographics, interaction between students, and the range of perspectives presented in a course. All these factors operate inside and outside the classroom.
It is easier to think of climate in binary terms. That is, the climate is either good (inclusive) or bad (marginalising). However, research suggests that it may be more accurate to think of climate as a continuum. At one end of the spectrum, we find explicitly marginalising climates. These climates are hostile, discriminatory or unwelcoming, where there will be planned and stated attempts to marginalise. The attempts to discriminate will be direct.
Implicitly marginalising climates refer to excluding a certain group of people in subtle and indirect ways. The reality is that it may come unintentionally as well. For example, if a teacher is trying to joke to make a situation lighter but uses a sexist or racist joke, it may result in creating an implicitly marginalised climate. The teacher wanted to lighten the mood but chose the wrong way to do it.
When we move towards more inclusive part of the spectrum, we have implicitly centralising climates. Here, the situation becomes more inclusive by unplanned responses that validate alternative perspectives and experiences. For example, a student speaks about the influence of race on a particular topic. If another student confronts the first student, asking why he brought that up, and if the teacher supports the latter’s views, it may result in an implicitly marginalised climate. However, if the teacher intervenes and says that there is some point in what the first student was talking about, it would make the climate more inclusive.
Course climate does not have to be hostile to have a marginalising effect on students.
Explicitly centralising climate is the most inclusive level of this spectrum. In explicitly centralising climate, marginalised perspectives are intentionally and overtly integrated into the content. This climate is characterised by planned attempts to include a variety of perspectives. This climate fosters the perspectives that students bring to the classroom.
Different students experience climate in different ways. Some students might feel unwelcome or discouraged, whereas the rest might feel the other way. Students can also experience the same environment negatively for various reasons. There is a chance that we may think that our classroom falls on the inclusive end of the spectrum. However, research shows that implicitly marginalising climates are common across college classrooms. Course climate does not have to be hostile to have a marginalising effect on students. According to Roberta M. Hall, subtle marginalisation may be manageable on its own, but the accumulated ‘micro-inequities’ can have a negative impact on learning.
How does course climate impact learning? It is a complex question because several factors contribute to course climate. In the coming episodes, we will discuss four basic areas of climate – stereotypes, tones, teacher-student and student-student interactions, and content.