Reading In Action

Chapter Six: Why do Students Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?

This post is contributed by Laura MacKay, Chapter Six Facilitator. 


Principle: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

This chapter of How Learning Works addresses how learning is influenced by the interactive effects of holistic student development and classroom climate. Students vary from one another and from class to class. This is what makes teaching exciting and always changing.  But this also has pitfalls unless educators proactively work towards creating a supportive classroom climate that intentionally acknowledges and addresses differences. The educational environment is often focused on student intellectual development but students are also rapidly growing and changing socially and emotionally. While educators have less impact on student development according to the authors, they can shape the climate of the classroom in ways that address holistic development and enhance learning.

A number of theories are presented that describe changes in how students perceive and understand the world around them and the ways in which this impacts the class environment. Strong emphasis is placed on students’ development of identity and how this can lead to the formation of ingroups and outgroups and the development of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes. The classroom can be a place where students feel invisible, or marginalized, or discriminated against, or supported, or inclusive. How educators structure the class climate will impact learning.

According to DeSurra and Church (1994) classroom climate is best understood on a continuum:

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 9.06.30 AMClassroom climate is determined by:

  • Faculty-student and student-student interactions
  • Tone
  • Stereotyping
  • Content


A negative class climate hinders learning whereas a positive environment strengthens learning. Educators have a great deal of control over classroom climate. HLW suggest several strategies that encourage student development and create a productive classroom environment.

  • Make uncertainty safe
  • Resist a single right answer
  • Incorporate evidence into performance and grading criteria
  • Examine your assumptions about students
  • Be mindful of low-ability cues
  • Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group
  • Reduce anonymity
  • Model inclusive language, behaviour, and attitudes
  • Use multiple and diverse examples
  • Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction
  • Make sure course content does not marginalize students
  • Use the syllabus and first day of class to establish the course climate
  • Set up process to get feedback on the climate
  • Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues
  • Address tensions early
  • Turn discord and tension into a learning opportunity
  • Facilitate active listening


Instead of looking to the above strategies as a checklist, it may be helpful to consider your learning environment as more of an ecosystem with interacting components between yourself, your students, and the course content.  As one component changes, the learning environment changes.

To reflect on this chapter and prepare for the upcoming book club meeting you may wish to comment on the following:

  • The focus in this chapter is on young adults (17-24). How might this principle apply to older learners? What might be different?
  • What explicitly inclusive approaches do you use to foster a more positive classroom climate?
  • Do you see the principle of learning in this chapter applying to online class climate? How might it be similar or different?
  • Much of the discussion around the stages of development, in particular in relation to social identity, has a negative connotation. In what ways might social identity be construed as positive?

To encourage participation, those who share a comment/post this week will have their name entered into the Chapter Six draw for a $25 CAD gift certificate for Chapters Indigo. Read the contest guidelines here. Good luck!\

The Book Club chat on Chapter Six will take place on Friday, Nov. 2nd at 10 AM PST. Check out the schedule and how to connect with the group.



  1. Jennifer Kirkey

    I will not be able to call in on Friday as … oh the irony … I will be in an elementary school classroom doing my best to inspire young people in physics.

    In the book the authors talk about “Developing Purpose” and mention on page 162 on “how man women in traditional male-dominated fields report being told … that they would never succeed in science because of their gender.” Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, and the work was awarded the Nobel Prize but she did not receive the award. She just received the Breakthrough Prize in Science and donated the 2.3 million British Pound prize to fund women, under-represented ethnic minorities and refugee students to become physics researchers.

    She was in Waterloo Ontario last week at the Perimeter Institute and gave a great lecture. You can see the webcast here. Want to learn about being a female physicist in the 1960s? She is eloquent about the Imposter Syndrome that she suffered, but refused to give into, and what it takes to build the radio telescope that found pulsars. One of the best lectures I have heard in years.

    I realize this is technically not what was asked for by the moderator, and I promise to read the rest of the chapter and respond, but this topic occurred five pages into the chapter and I needed to share these thoughts.

  2. laurajmackay

    Sorry we will miss you on Friday Jennifer. Other than a small section on stereotypes threat, the chapter didn’t delve much into addressing how negatives experiences and the perpetuation of stereotypes undermines achievement (and probably motivation). Students come with all of this prior experience and it impacts learning. Is there a link to a webcast of Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s?

  3. isabeaui

    Hi all,

    I hope to be back to post more as I really like this chapter.

    I read it several weeks ago when I was preparing a session on Faculty-Student rapport. In case I don’t make it back to post before tomorrow’s call, I wanted to share the link to my slides (Creative Commons, share alike, adaptations welcome, attribution — so feel free to use/modify). If this link doesn’t work, please let me know:

    Like Jennifer, I know I’m not replying to the prompt questions:)

  4. laurajmackay

    This is a great resource. Thank you Isabeau for sharing! This will be great for our faculty teaching new first-year seminars.

  5. english060girl

    Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing. I wonder what your experience was like as a woman in science. How were you encouraged (or not) to feel a sense of belonging or identity? In your experience, is it still the case that women are under-represented in science, and do you have a sense of how to address this in the classroom?

  6. english060girl

    For me, the most important idea was about challenging assumptions. The chapter asked instructors to examine assumptions about students, but I believe it is far more important to examine one’s own assumptions and to consider how these inform the biases, perspectives, beliefs, attitudes and values implicit and explicit in both our personal and professional realms. I don’t believe it is possible to be neutral, nor do I think this is a goal for educators. Examining our own notions of privilege and identity is one of the keys in being able to address issues explored in the chapter.

    I am interested in ways in which to critically examine my own identity, and I wonder if anyone has anything to share around this.

    I also noted that the chapter defines holistic as including intellectual, social and emotional. It does not reference physical or spiritual. The spiritual realm in particular is one of interest to me, and I wonder if others have given this any consideration.

  7. english060girl

    Sorry: I am unable to attend the meeting today, but interested in continuing the conversation if there is a way to do so.

  8. bccleva

    There were a few of us on Friday but we had some great discussion and I truly appreciate the thoughts shared as this was such an interesting Chapter that we could take in all directions! Some of did find we were left with many more questions! Let’s explore where we might take our conversations about these important topics and ideas further. Do any of you have a suggestion? (I’ll take a look where we might be able to extend our conversations using a discussion tool maybe a plugin for WordPress?)

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