David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

When You Communicate With Students, Tone Matters

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Walking past an open classroom door, I often find myself astonished to hear the professor speaking to college students as if they were third graders. It’s not my place to criticize someone else’s teaching without sitting in on their class properly. But whenever I overhear a faculty member talking down to students, I wonder: Why do you do that? What do you gain from treating your students as antagonists, employees, or children? Do you really think that tone makes students want to come to your class?

Similarly, when supervising new graduate-student instructors, I often have to convince these rookie teachers that their syllabus does not need to contain a litany of rules and regulations, threatening punishment for bad behavior at every turn. "Your position automatically gives you authority in the classroom," I tell them. "You don’t need to go out of your way assert it with your words."

Tone matters when you communicate with students. It’s one of the most important ways you can influence your students’ learning environment.

Since August, I’ve been writing about motivation — specifically, the three variables that most contribute to student motivation, as laid out in How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Learning, a 2010 book written by current and former staff members of Carnegie Mellon University’s teaching center. Their argument: If you want students to be motivated to learn in your classroom, they need to value the goals you set for them, believe that accomplishing those goals is possible, and feel supported along the way. Having covered the first two, I’ll focus here on that last element — whether the learning environment in your classroom is supportive.

It’s easy to grasp why learning environment would affect student motivation. If the projects you are asking students to complete are difficult (as they should be), if success is not guaranteed (as it shouldn’t be), then the kind of support students will receive along the way becomes a pressing issue. The less supported they feel, the less motivated they will be in pursuit of a course goal. How Learning Works offers a raft of research to show that whether or not students feel included in your course is a prominent indicator of their likelihood of success.

So what can you do to help students feel supported in your classroom?

Change your tone. Like it or not, the way you communicate with students speaks volumes about how you see them and sends a message about their place in the course. Treat students like children and you’re telling them you expect them to act like children. You might as well just say: "I don’t expect you to take full responsibility for this course or its goals."

How you talk to students during class and office hours, how you call on them to contribute, how you address them in writing on assignment and homework prompts — all of those are opportunities to let students know that they own the course and the institution as much as you do. The more secure they feel in that ownership, the more motivated they will be to work hard.

One indicator of a supportive environment is the degree to which students feel comfortable coming to you for help. Even the tone and phrasing of your syllabus policies can make a difference. According to not-very-surprising research cited in How Learning Works,"Students are less likely to seek help from the instructor who worded those policies in punitive language than from the instructor who worded the same policies in rewarding language." Hand out a strict, punitive-sounding syllabus and you reveal from the get-go how approachable you are (not very) and how much they can trust you to help when they need it (not much).

Go out of your way, particularly early in the semester, to set the right tone:

  • Reassure students that it’s OK if they don’t understand everything at first.
  • When they express uncertainty in class, make sure you respond in a way that encourages others to feel comfortable expressing their uncertainty as well.
  • Explicitly remind students of your office hours. Keep encouraging them to come to you for extra help. Don’t expect them to automatically take advantage of opportunities for support.

Create an environment that helps students get to know one another. Research has shownthat student participation in class is influenced more by peers than by the instructor’s interpersonal style. That is: Whether your students participate in class is affected less by their perception of you and more by their perception that other students in the room are welcoming, encouraging, and attentive. They clam up if they are worried about how their peers will react.

But just because students attribute their own sense of comfort to their peers’ behavior doesn’t mean the instructor is irrelevant. For one, students may not always know exactly why they feel more comfortable in one class rather than another. More important, instructors have a big role to play in shaping the environment of the classroom. You help create the conditions in which students feel welcomed and respected, whether they realize you’re behind it or not.

Here are ways to create that environment:

  • Set aside time for activities that help students get to know one another and bring their lives into the classroom. For example, instead of just taking attendance in the usual way, do a question roll: Ask students to answer an informal question at the beginning of class after you call out their names. It’s an easy way to help everyone feel more comfortable with each other, and with you.
  • Look for ways to connect course material with students’ lives, so that they might discuss their experiences and grow closer as a community. Giving that community a chance to develop can be a huge help in your efforts to motivate students.
  • Sometimes the best teaching strategy is to get out of the way and let your students get to know each other, see what’s valuable in one another, and start trusting each other.

Practice inclusive teaching. To me, inclusive teaching is an approach that seeks both to treat students equally and to recognize the inequalities of the world. If you are serious about creating a welcoming environment that helps every student be motivated to learn, you need to open your eyes to how your usual way of doing things may be making some students feel less than supported.

Everyone has implicit biases. Combating them is difficult precisely because they are implicit — but it’s not impossible. A good place to start: On your syllabus, spell out your policies about the importance of mutual respect and tolerance in the classroom. Even better, make sure your course includes (and centers) identities other than your own. As How Learning Works notes, course content — including not just readings but also "the examples and metaphors instructors use in class and the case studies and project topics we let our students choose" — is important because it sends "messages about the field and who belongs in it."

Even if you’re not swayed by the social-justice argument for inclusive teaching, the pedagogical argument is pretty strong, too. You are helping your students develop into capable and responsible citizens. Take each of them seriously and work to make sure your classroom environment is designed with all of them in mind. As the research shows, when students feel they belong in your classroom, they are more likely to be motivated to work hard, and more likely to learn.

The environment within your classroom is not completely under your control as the instructor. But there’s enough you can influence to make thinking about course climate a worthy pursuit.

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