Building a Classroom Community
Getting Everyone Involved
Building a Classroom Community
You will find that each of your classes carries its own dynamic and its own personality. Sometimes this will be good, sometimes it will be very frustrating. Your responsibility as an instructor is to do what you can to create an environment in which the students can learn together. Research has shown that students learn best in a classroom where they feel free to express their ideas, they feel needed, and they feel comfortable with their peers. Here are some tips on how to create this kind of a learning atmosphere:
--Learn students' names and help them to learn each others' names.
--Use an icebreaker on the first day in order to help students get to know each other (see What to Do on the First Day)
--Welcome questions and continually thank students for asking them. If students seem hesitant to ask questions, try using the "Think-Pair-Share" activity (see Collaborative Activities) or leave a little more wait time after asking if there are any questions.
--Use group activities to help students feel more comfortable with each other (see Collaborative Activities).
--Arrive early to class in order to chat with students and stay a couple of minutes after class to answer any individual questions they might have.
--Welcome diversity and model tolerance in the classroom.
--Create lessons that allow students to be active learners with their own contributions, not just empty receptacles that need to be filled (see Collaborative Learning).
--Ask for feedback on your teaching and do it often with various methods (see Assessing Your Teaching).
Collaborative learning is the act of giving the responsibility of the learning to the students. Don't panic if you haven't heard of collaborative learning before, you've probably done a collaborative learning activity in a class without knowing it. It's basically the instructional art of using groups and pairs of students to fulfill a task/assignment. If done well, these activities can create a valuable source of motivation, critical thinking skills, and active learning while the students learn to manipulate classroom information into their own working knowledge (see Teaching and Learning Styles). Here is a checklist on how to create the most effective collaborative activities (adapted from Bassano, S., & Christison, M.A. . Community spirit: A practical guide to collaborative language learning. California: Alta Book Center). The following page has ideas on activities to use in class.
___1. Is the activity highly structured physically, spatially, and temporally? Students want to know: Who will they work with? Who will go first? Second? What will they use? How much time do they have as a group or individually? What is the process?
___2. Do students know the rationale for an activity? Do students know why they are doing this activity? Do they know how it will help them improve their [abilities]?
___3. What is expected of them by the teacher? Do group members know what you expect them to have, show you, turn in, know, or tell others when they have finished the activity?
___4. How will the learning activity affect motivation? Will the students be motivated to participate in the activity? Is the activity fun? Interesting? Valuable?
___5. Does the activity accommodate various group speeds? When some groups complete the activity early, what do they do?
___6. How long will the activity take? Have you given them a task much longer than their attention span?
___7. How will the students feel when the activity has been completed? Is there something built into the activity that will guarantee some sort of satisfaction when the activity has been completed? How can you show them success?
___8. Does the structure of the activity give students time to process the new information before they are asked to respond? Is reflection time built into the activity?
Grouping and pairing activities
This activity helps to relieve the anxiety and mental block of being called on to answer a question in class. The rules are as follows:
1. Ask an open-ended question or pose a problem to the students.
2. Give the students a time limit in which they can ponder the answer.
3. Have them discuss their answer with someone sitting next to them.
4. Call on different pairs to share their answers.
Phillips 66 helps to get the class into discussion mode:
1. Choose six people in the class (preferably in different parts of the room-see Getting Everyone Involved).
2. Ask a question about the homework, the reading, or any other pertinent subject about the class.
3. Tell them they have six minutes to discuss the topic.
This can help your student get more involved with the subject matter:
1. Pair students and give each of them an assignment to play the part of a certain theorist or leader from your field.
2. Have the pair write a conversation between their characters pertaining to a specific problem or issue.
3. Walk around the room and monitor the progress of the role plays.
4. Choose certain pairs (either randomly or those you know will be comfortable-see Getting Everyone Involved) to act out their skit in front of the class.
If done well, debates can promote critical thinking and they can get an entire class interested in a topic:
1. Choose an interesting and/or "hot" topic in your field.
2. Have the students take sides on the issue and group them in different areas of the class.
3. Have them prepare an argument or statement of defense.
4. Have them choose someone as a spokesperson (or choose someone randomly-see Getting Everyone Involved) to start off their side of the debate, but then give the floor to the entire group for the discussion
Note: If the group seems to have no opinion, or they are one-sided on the issue, you might need to stage the discussion by putting the students into groups and randomly assigning a side (letting them know that this will help their critical thinking skills).
These are field-specific, but the following are a few pointers in order to carry group projects out successfully:
1. Choose a project that will be challenging, yet not too difficult, for the students. It will succeed if it is interesting to the students-especially if it has direct relation to their own lives.
2. Either assign each member a key role in the project or let them assume a role (e.g., one scribe, one data collector, one mathematician, one theoretician…). This will help with grading issues and responsibility and it will also help your groups to work as a team.
3. Specify exactly what you expect of the students and the end product you anticipate.
After presenting information to the class (see Forming a Lesson Plan), problems are given to the students. The students are paired or grouped, depending on the activity. The basics of this type of activity are the same as the group projects, but you might find that your students are a little hesitant to break out of their comfort zones and meet new people in the class. Here are a few extra pointers on pairing/grouping students to get them to work with a variety of people:
Grouping and pairing activities
Find your partner: Write a number of sentences/equations that pertain to your field. Divide the sentences/equations in half (e.g., Victor Hugo was…a French author or 64 ÷ 8 = …8). Pass the sentence halves out and have students find the partner who has the completion to their sentence/ equation. They will then work with this person during the activity.
Colored-paper grouping: Pass out various pieces of colored paper. Make sure that you have divided equal numbers of colored paper and that the colors are dispersed adequately throughout the class. Have all students who have the same color sit in a group.
Count-off: Sure enough, the old counting off for teams can work great to mix up your students. Students count off into groups (whatever number you deem necessary) and then must sit next to their groups to perform the activity.
This style of learning works with several different fields and types of coursework. It is often very successful at getting students engaged-especially when they have received a great deal of abstract information that they need to translate into real-life situations.
1. Group the students (see Grouping and pairing activities above).
2. Give each group a situation that will require them to use the day's subject in a creative or thoughtful way. For example, if you've been teaching about marketing strategies, give the students a specific product and have them use the information they've learned by setting up a "plan-of-attack" to market it (If you feel uncomfortable making up cases for your specific field, chances are there is a book available with already-made cases. Check with your department).
3. Time the students and have them share their results in the end.
The basis of the activity is for each person to become an expert in a subject and then to teach that information to their peers. It can be somewhat confusing to figure out how to group the students, but if you have the patience to try it, it can be an excellent resource when you need to convey a lot of information in a small amount of time:
1. Group students together and give each group a different resource sheet regarding an aspect of the subject. Number them adequately, for example, if you have three resource sheets, create three groups in the class.
2. Have the students read the information and take notes (if you have a specific worksheet/graphic organizer to help them organize the information, you'll have more success with this activity). They should become the "expert" on this topic.
3. Number the students off again. The tricky part is numbering adequately. For example, if you have 21 students and three resource sheets, the students will have to count off into groups of seven (seven groups of three people).
4. In the new groups, the "experts" will have to teach their peers about the information (again, it is best for all participants to have a worksheet where they can take guided notes).
5. In the end, evaluate what the students have understood about the subject (see Forming a Lesson Plan).
Getting Everyone Involved
Every group has its own mix of quiet students and outspoken students. A quiet student might result from a variety of factors: shyness, boredom, comprehension difficulty, fatigue, introspectiveness or any number of affective disturbances. At the same time, if only two or three students are controlling the class conversation, your class might be missing out on a wealth of opinions and views that could be offered by these quieter students. Try some of these options to get everyone in the class to contribute.
--Create small group activities wherein the students will feel like they can express themselves less publicly. Refer to Collaborative Activities for some ideas on group work.
--Ask the students why they aren't talking. Don't do this in a frustrated manner, simply sit down and discuss the classroom atmosphere and how the students might feel more comfortable speaking about the material.
--Choose students randomly to participate instead of always calling on those with their hands raised first or those with the loudest voice. There are several ways to make this as random as possible. Here are some tips.
o Bring several colored pieces of paper into class and tape them under random desks or randomly pass them out during class. Call on any student with a "purple" piece of paper to give the answer.
o If your classroom has several rows, bring in dice. Roll one die and, depending upon what number you roll, ask the students on that row to answer your question. For example, "Who discovered the radioactive element radium?" (the die rolls to the number 3)…"Can someone on row three answer that?"
o Bring in Hershey's Kisses with a large number of the silver-covered kind and a few of the gold-covered variety. Have the students pick their piece of candy out of a bag. If they choose a gold piece, they will be the "discussion leaders" for the day.
o Group students and then have the person with the lightest colored hair be the discussion leader of the group (this can be done with various qualifications such as: darkest hair, shortest hair, lightest color of eyes, longest pinky nail, biggest foot, last name alphabetically closest to the end of the alphabet, earliest birth date in the year…).
o Hand out a specific number of pennies, toothpicks or any other small items to each member of the class. If each person gets two items, they are allowed to participate in the class discussion two times and then they must remain silent until everyone in the class has exhausted their items.
Written/Prepared by Kim Welch:
Education Specialist for Teaching Assistants
Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence, University of Utah