Class Climate - Understanding the Differential Experiences of Your Students

Inclusive Teaching at a PWI is in a blue rectangle at the top. Below are three green circles for Climate, Pedagogy, and Content. Climate is emphasized with key points: Create a welcoming learning space, given the differential experiences of students

Definitions of Climate 

There is not a shared definition of climate, although in general terms climate means how the social, cultural, learning, and physical environment feels. The metaphor of temperature is sometimes used to distinguish a warm and welcoming climate from an unwelcoming and chilly climate. Research on climate tends to use the construct of “sense of belonging” to assess climate. Common descriptors for “sense of belonging” include: comfortable, safe, welcome, and respected (Refer to Student Experience in the Research University Survey - SERU). In their literature review on “sense of belonging,” Vaccaro and Newman (2016) noted additional descriptors of: valued, accepted, included, supported, connected, and the importance of positive relationships (926-27). Within a PWI, the climate or environment will likely be experienced differentially by BIPOC students and white students (Rankin and Reason, 2005).  So, it’s important to ask, for whom is this climate welcoming or unwelcoming, and under what circumstances?

Class Climate versus Campus Climate at a PWI

Class climate - how it feels for students to learn, communicate, interact, and simply “be” in the classroom environment (in-person or online) - is less studied than campus climate. Because large quantitative surveys may not be representative of BIPOC students at a PWI, their experiences of campus and class climate are better studied through qualitative and ethnographic research. For example, Vaccaro and Newman (2016) find in their in-depth interviews that “privileged” students (students who did not self-identify with a minoritized identity) describe a positive sense of belonging as being comfortable and fitting in. “Minoritized” students (students who self-identify with any minoritized identity, not exclusively BIPOC) also referenced comfort and fitting in, but they emphasized safety and respect as essential for a positive sense of belonging. We can reasonably conclude that safety and respect matter for “minoritized” students because they have not consistently experienced safety and respect in their campus and class climates. In this guide, we reference qualitative and ethnographic research on BIPOC students at PWIs, even if sample sizes are small, in order to call attention to the specifics and nuances of BIPOC student experiences.

Key Idea for Class Climate

BIPOC students will likely have differential experiences of class climate at a PWI compared to white students. In Bourke’s (2016) literature review on PWIs as a category of higher education, they highlight “white students generally perceive the PWI campus as being open and welcoming (Rankin and Reason 2005) whereas students of color perceive the PWI campus climate to be chilly, unwelcoming, and hostile (Hurtado 1992, Rankin and Reason 2005)” (17-18). Why does research from 2005 matter today? Unfortunately, campus and class climate continues to be an issue in need of change. Ongoing research and programming are a growing endeavor through initiatives such as the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates that focuses on 6 content areas of campus racial climate. We explore PWI assumptions that contribute to the differential experiences of climate as well as a core concept that helps instructors better understand the racial and Indigenous dynamics of class climate.

PWI Assumptions for Class Climate

The core PWI assumptions that most affect class climate are “colorblindness” (or race neutrality) and the assumed racial comfort of white participants (Cabrera et al. 2016). “Colorblindness” has been the dominant racial paradigm in the U.S. since the mid-1960s, and it supposedly promotes equality by actively refusing to “see” or acknowledge race and racism (Bonilla-Silva 2018). The push to treat everyone as identical in the name of equality, disregards histories and structures of racism that often position BIPOC communities as having less access to power, resources, education, wealth, and agency over their own lives. In the classroom, “colorblindness” might easily appear in discussions on structural racism or health disparities but also in courses on statistics or literature. For example, students may respond to discussion prompts about structural racism with examples of other identity-based disadvantages (such as gender or social class) or with alternative explanations (“it’s not racism because that also happened to my white uncle”). The “colorblind” paradigm tends to negatively affect the class climate for BIPOC students because if they voice perspectives that challenge the “colorblind” paradigm, they may be countered with these deflections and microaggressions (Sue 2010). Of course, white students or instructors may also challenge the “colorblind” paradigm, but the negative feelings in the air tend to “land on” BIPOC students, regardless of who voices the challenge.

The second dominant PWI framework protects the racial comfort of white participants, and like the “colorblind” paradigm, also ignores the relationship between identity and power, what we might call positionality. How am I, with all the aspects of my identity, positioned in the PWI? If I am positioned as a “minority” or as “marginal” or as an “outsider,” my participation in class discussions and even what I might write in papers or projects is circumscribed by the ongoing and unstated press for the racial comfort of the predominantly white participants. Instructors may use materials or facilitate discussions primarily to “convince” white students that racial inequality exists while also avoiding white students’ (and white instructors’) discomfort. In classroom discussions on Whiteness as privilege, white and BIPOC students may indicate their discomfort by not participating. White students may express frustration at being blamed for the actions of their ancestors. BIPOC students may internalize the historical and structural hierarchies based on racial or Indigenous identity, or they may resist these hierarchies. These discussions may be doubly uncomfortable (or even harmful) for BIPOC students as their positionality is often ignored while the discussion itself may jeopardize their positive relationships with their white classmates and white instructors.

Race Stressors as a Core Concept

Research on race stressors captures the specific dynamics of race and Indigeneity for BIPOC students on campuses and in the classrooms of PWIs. These studies indicate that “race stressors,” an umbrella term, refer to the nexus of stereotype threat, microaggressions, overt racism, and other dynamics that negatively affect the climate for BIPOC students and also damage the learning climate for white students. We summarize the findings of two research projects (one on Black undergraduates and another on Latinx undergraduates) and invite you to consider how these race stressors may affect classroom learning and participation in your own courses. We plan to expand this section in the future to offer research findings on other BIPOC student populations.

Stereotype threat - the heightened awareness of negative stereotypes about one’s identity and community - greatly affects the classroom climate and may diminish learning. In their qualitative study of race stressors for Black undergraduates at a PWI, Griffith et al. (2019) document the following student and instructor behaviors, many of which are microaggressions:

  • white classmates think Black students are intellectually inferior
  • Black students are excluded from study groups
  • white instructors have low expectations for racial/ethnic minorities
  • Black students are the last to be called on
  • white students co-opt ideas by Black students
  • Black student comments are dismissed or ignored
  • white students and instructors are surprised that Black students are smart and “well spoken”

In response to stereotype threat and its related microaggressions, Griffith et al. (2019) find that Black undergraduates at a PWI carry an emotional and cognitive load that may hinder their learning. Black undergraduates may need to spend additional time seeking support from mentors and friends (often outside of the PWI) in order to process their feelings. Griffith et al. (2019) find that some Black undergraduate responses to stereotype threat are easily misinterpreted by instructors as students being unprepared or disengaged. For example, Black students may work harder to disprove negative stereotypes because they are hypervisible as the “only one” or one of a few Black students in a course. In turn, Black undergraduates may take longer to participate in class discussions because they are triple checking their contributions, once again responding to microaggressions about their intelligence. Race stressors at PWIs tend to channel Black undergraduates to a place of responding to an ambivalent class climate rather than existing with the ease granted to white students in the class environment.

Stereotype threat takes different forms for different BIPOC student populations. In their qualitative study of Latinx undergraduates at a PWI, Ruvalcaba (2020) finds that stereotype threat includes the following behaviors: 

  • Latinx students are classified as speaking “Broken English,” rather than being multilingual. “Broken English” is a stereotypical code denoting lack of intelligence or education specific to Latinx populations.
  • Latinx students are perceived as “always a foreigner,” regardless of citizenship status. This perception forecloses possibilities for a sense of belonging for Latinx students.
  • Latinx students are asked to be the “racial spokesperson” in class discussions. This behavior assumes Latinx students are monocultural, flattening the diversity within and among “Latin” communities.

Similar to Black undergraduates, Latinx students carry an increased emotional and cognitive load as they navigate a climate of stereotypes and microaggressions. They may underperform academically due to these race stressors. Their responses to these race stressors include two sides of the same coin. If they participate in class discussions, Latinx students may meticulously calculate their responses (countering the “Broken English” stereotype), or they may self-censor and not participate at all (Ruvalcaba 2020).

One implication for instructors is that students, BIPOC or not, should be given the opportunity to prepare for class discussions or in-class activities in a non-stressful setting. Providing discussion questions in advance and reflection or problem-solving prompts prior to in-class activities will be helpful for all students’ learning. Another implication is that instructors should be aware that class discussions (especially without time for students to prepare) may be differentially stressful for BIPOC students. 

Suggested Practices for a More Inclusive Class Climate

We suggest instructors think about creating and sustaining an inclusive class climate across time and in iterations. We frame this process as proactive (setting the stage before teaching a course and early in the term), “in the moment” (responding to class climate dynamics as they occur), and ongoing (sustaining and sometimes re-setting the class climate dynamics). We also highlight a few teaching practices that may be common at a PWI that we think instructors should avoid.

Proactive Practices

The purpose of proactive practices is to set the stage for an inclusive class climate by promoting a positive sense of community and creating open communication channels.

  1. Introduce yourself as the instructor. It’s important for students to see the instructor as someone they can turn to for questions or other help. To ease communication, students need to know how to address the instructor (Dr. Last Name, Prof. Last Name, First Name only, pronouns if you choose, etc.). Also it’s helpful to share a biography that humanizes you. Many students may not feel comfortable “approaching the professor.” An instructor biography need not be too long or too personal, and it should link to your course. How did you become interested in your subject matter? What do you like most about teaching? These are easy ways to start connecting with students. Biographies may be shared in the syllabus or course site, in writing or in a short video, and in person. If the instructor is a first-generation college graduate and/or identifies as BIPOC, please consider sharing this with your students. First-generation college students and/or BIPOC students may find it easier to connect with you.
  2. Get to know your students using a confidential survey. We suggest instructors use a student information survey to learn about their students. This helps humanize students for the instructor, rather than students being a sea of faces (or Zoom boxes). The survey should not be intrusive but should include opportunities for students to share how they would like to be addressed (with the option to share their pronouns), their academic or career goals, their learning goals for the course, an option to share anything that might affect their learning (disability status, a concern about learning the course content, a special circumstance such as an illness in the family, etc.), and their access to technology. Surveys should be clearly stated to be confidential and for the instructor’s use only.
  3. Outline how students will work with (learn with) each other and the instructor. For example, will the class use ground rules (or class agreements) for in-class discussions? How will these ground rules be developed and addressed? Because many common ground rules may inadvertently reinforce PWI practices, we invite you to consider Sensoy and DiAngelo’s (2014) critique of typical ground rules for social justice education. Will students work in teams? While well structured and scaffolded teamwork is a powerful learning experience, there are many climate dynamics at play. We invite you to visit our Faculty Guide to Team Projects for guidance.

For all of these proactive practices, be sure to respond to what you are learning about your students, as needed. For example, if there are recurring themes about learning the course content in the information survey, the instructor may want to respond to the entire class. Here are some questions shared in the surveys and here’s how we will address those questions in the course … Responding to students’ concerns right away will model and promote open communication throughout the course. By making it easy and routine for students to communicate about smaller things (how do I address you?), instructors can set the stage for students to communicate about bigger things (how do I deal with the problems with my team project?). 

In the Moment Practices

Because class climate develops from the social and cultural dimensions of learning together, it is perhaps the most complex domain in our Inclusive Teaching at a PWI Framework. Expect to be surprised and expect to make mistakes. We suggest instructors consciously develop their observational skills. For example, notice nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. Take note of patterns and changes for attendance, participation, completion of assignments, and other course-related behaviors. Additionally, seek feedback from your students on class climate (more on this in the Ongoing Practices Section). Despite an instructor’s best efforts, there may be conflicts related to ideas expressed, working together, communication styles, work styles, and other dynamics. Conflict will certainly occur for courses that deal with race and Indigeneity and other topics that draw upon the diversity of lived experiences of our students and their communities. Drawing upon research by Pasque et al. (2013), we highlight two principles to help instructors address “in the moment” conflicts or class climate dynamics that are problematic (12).

Principle 1

Rather than avoiding, minimizing, or quickly “fixing” conflict, which is a typical PWI response, Pasque et al. (2013) suggest instructors strive to normalize the existence of difference and conflict, given our societal and educational inequalities. Some suggested actions to normalize difference and conflict include:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the conflict. Simply state that you observe that there is a conflict or tension in the air.
  2. Check one’s own reactions as the instructor. And seek some feedback on student reactions perhaps with an anonymous, spontaneous free writing prompt. For example, an instructor could ask students to respond to an anonymous prompt such as: What are you hoping to learn in the course? What can we do differently to help each other learn?
  3. “Diagnose the nature and focus of the conflict” (12). Is the conflict interpersonal? Was a microaggression or stereotype directed at someone? Are there various levels of readiness to discuss the topic? Did someone have an intense emotional response? (Intense emotional responses are not wrong or bad, and in fact, may be appropriate given the topic and positionality of the student or instructor. But it may be helpful to provide some space for those emotions to be processed privately.)

In these three suggested actions, the goal is not to “run away” from the conflict or class climate event, but to model for students how to respectfully acknowledge a conflict or dynamic that may (or may not) be further explored via Principle 2.

Principle 2

Given the range of instructor interventions from “do nothing” to” some intervention” to “stop the class activity,” Pasque et al. (2013) suggest that instructors seek to balance control of the situation with exploring the learning potential of the event (12). Some suggested actions to balance control with learning include:

  1. Listen to the voices and feelings of students that are affected by the conflict. The instructor may decide to make space for those voices in a structured manner, such as offering the affected students the opportunity to state what is troubling without rebuttals or interruptions. Or, the instructor and students may draw upon what was written in an anonymous, spontaneous free writing prompt.
  2. Decide whether, when and how to address the conflict or problematic dynamic. You may state that as the instructor you are not sure how to proceed, but you invite continued feedback from students. The instructor may seek some advice from colleagues and let students know what to expect next. Not every conflict needs to be further processed beyond acknowledgement and listening, but instructors will need to explore if more needs to be done.
  3. If further work is needed, consider meeting with the affected students privately. Or, the instructor might create an in-class or structured online learning activity that will further explore the issue. For example, the instructor could provide a case or scenario that is germaine to the conflict and ask students to generate as many solutions or options as possible, rather than seeking consensus. Consensus models are typical for PWIs and tend to disadvantage students who are “minoritized.” Be sure to check-in with the students affected by the conflict as sometimes further exploration (or an in-class activity) will be more harmful than helpful.

Balancing instructor control of the class with exploring the learning potential of a conflict or problematic climate dynamic is tricky. Remember, there are no best practices because the context matters and should inform any responses or interventions. Instructors should be sensitive to the positionalities and power dynamics among their students and themselves when exploring Principle 2.

Ongoing Practices

We encourage instructors to seek feedback from their students on class climate in an ongoing fashion, throughout the semester or course term. Feedback on class climate is different from early/midterm student feedback (sometimes called midterm course evaluations) or feedback on learning such as Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). Feedback that is specific to class climate can promote open communication and help the instructor understand the differential experiences of their students. Two suggested practices include:

  1. Ongoing check-in surveys (or conversations). Check-ins about climate can be as simple as 2 questions: 1) How is class going for you this week? 2) Is there anything happening that I can help with? An optional question might be: Is there anything you’d like to share?
  2. Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ). Stephen Brookfield’s CIQ was developed to offer insight on classroom dynamics and recognizes the differential experiences of class climate for students. The 5-question survey asks students about their emotions and internal responses in a non-threatening, anonymous format. Instructors may use all 5 questions or a selection depending on their teaching context.

The check-in survey or CIQ can easily be formatted into an anonymous Google form or be completed via paper. Such surveys could be administered regularly and throughout the semester (e.g., weekly or every 2-3 weeks). For synchronous class sessions (in-person or online), it helps to devote class time for students to complete the survey. Allow at least a full 5 minutes, otherwise the instructor will be signaling that the feedback is not important. Using synchronous class time also improves the response rate. Just like with the proactive practices of getting to know your students, instructors need to respond to what they learn in the check-in surveys or CIQs. For example, if a student or students indicate a troubling climate dynamic such as a microaggression, the instructor may want to consider the “in the moment” principles and suggested teaching practices. Or, the instructor may seek advice from a colleague or student affairs professional. Most importantly, instructors should be willing to “re-set” the class dynamic. It’s better to openly discuss with your students that the class climate or dynamics need to be “re-booted” than to continue along a path that is negatively affecting the climate and student learning.

Teaching Practices to Avoid

Although we argue that there are no “best practices” because inclusive teaching is context-specific, we do believe there are some teaching practices that are typical of a PWI and that instructors should avoid.

  1. Do not assume that treating all of your students “the same” is equitable. Once we view the university through the PWI lens and consider the dynamics of identity and positionality, we can see that treating all students in an identical manner reproduces the inequities of the PWI. In fact, the PWI context has never treated all students “the same.”
  2. Do not apply “democracy rules,” majoritarian principles, or consensus models to teaching and learning activities. The PWI context often defaults to consensus models (which assume everyone has the same power), but consensus models always favor the majority and disadvantage the minority. Consensus protocols in teamwork, for example, will likely erase or minimize BIPOC student perspectives.
  3. Do not conflate participation with intelligence. Now that we understand a little more about race stressors, we can see how race stressors may affect participation and create an additional cognitive load for BIPOC students.
  4. Do not ask BIPOC students to “teach” white students and instructors. While on first pass it may seem “respectful” to ask BIPOC students to share their experiences or their thoughts on course content that is ostensibly linked to their identities, when we consider positionality and the likely differential experience of the campus and class climate, it’s stressful to put BIPOC students on the spot or to assume BIPOC students feel “authorized” to “speak for” their identities or communities. This also invokes the stereotype that BIPOC communities are monocultural.

In the next section, we discuss the importance of diversifying your pedagogy and continuing to use a critical lens that is cognizant of the PWI context as experienced by BIPOC students.

Climate References

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2018. Racism without Racists. Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 5th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Brookfield, Stephen D. N.D. “Using the Critical Incident Questionnaire.” Stephen D. Brookfield.

Griffith, Aisha N., Hurd, Noelle M., and Saida B. Hussain. 2019. “’I Didn’t Come to School for This’: A Qualitative Examination of Experiences With Race-Related Stressors and Coping Responses Among Black Students Attending a Predominantly White Institution.” Journal of Adolescent Research. 34(2): 115-139.

Pasque, Penny A., Chesler, Mark A., Charbeneau, Jessica, and Corissa Carlson. 2013. “Pedagogical Approaches to Student Racial Conflict in the Classroom.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 6 (1): 1-16.

Rankin, Susan R. and Robert Dean Reason. 2005. “Differing Perceptions: How Students of Color and White Students Perceive Campus Climate for Underrepresented Groups.” Journal of College Student Development. 46(1): 43-61.

Ruvalcaba, Angelica. 2020. “I Can Be Myself, [Almost] Always: A Latinx Microclimate in a Predominantly White Institution of Higher Education.” M.A. Thesis in Sociology, Michigan State University.

Sensoy, Ozlem and Robin DiAngelo. 2014. “Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education.” Democracy & Education. 22 (2): 1-10.

Sue, Derald Wing, ed. 2010. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Vaccaro, Annemarie and Barbara M. Newman. 2016. “Development of a Sense of Belonging for Privileged and Minoritized Students: An Emergent Model.” Journal of College Student Development. 57(8): 925-942.