Fostering a positive, inclusive, and safe environment is an important step toward engaged teaching and learning, as one of the four pieces of the Fearless Teaching Framework. The student body at the University is diverse, and we have a responsibility to each student to provide the best possible learning environment. Here we provide information about the University’s expectations for creating a healthy classroom environment. It includes practical advice from instructors on methods, techniques, and approaches as well as resources for you and your students as you make your way through the semester.
The University has an official statement on “Classroom Climate.” The University is committed to equalizing opportunity and eliminating discrimination. Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the University’s position.
The University community is diverse in terms of the student body, but also in terms of faculty and instructors. Both teachers and students bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds that make this campus such a rich learning community. Often important lessons are learned through the interaction with others who are dissimilar and have different backgrounds. These interactions help to prepare students for an increasingly global workplace and serve to broaden the students’ horizons as they learn about cultures, experiences, and lifestyles. Teaching and learning are enhanced by the wide range of racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, or economic diversity brought to the classroom. Many of the teachers that students will learn from at the University introduce their own diverse experiences, educations, and perspectives into the classroom.
The 2016 University Strategic Plan states:
A core belief and operating principle of the university is that excellence requires diversity at all levels. UMD is fully committed to the highest standards of equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education. Insight into Diversity recognized UMD with its 2015 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award. UMD has been named a Top LGBT-Friendly University by Campus Pride and The Huffington Post for four years in a row. This is reflected in the rising success and diversity of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff; the focus and impact of our educational initiatives, offices and staff dedicated to diversity programming, research, scholarship and creative activities; our community engagement and service; and efforts to maintain an inclusive campus climate
(Reprinted from the 2016 University Strategic Plan, https://svp.umd.edu/sites/default/files/inline-files/2016StrategicPlanUpdateFinal_0.pdf.)
In support of the University’s Strategic Plan, there are campus offices and resources dedicated to diversity and inclusion such as the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Education (OMSE) and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equity Center (LGBT Equity Center). In general, they support faculty and instructors who wish to broach issues related to diversity and inclusion in their classes, students and staff seeking personal and academic support, and programs designed to increase awareness and conversation about difference across campus.
For international students—including GTAs—for whom English is not a native language, the following may provide support:
- Learning Assistance Service offers an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Conversation Program (https://stamp.umd.edu/engagement/graduate_student_life/graduate_handbook/academics).
- The Maryland English Institute provides high-quality programs and courses for non-native speakers of English and strives to provide balanced perspectives of the diversity of American academic, social, and cultural life (mei.umd.edu/). The Institute also offers English programs for International Teaching Assistants to become effective oral communicators in the classroom (http://marylandenglishinstitute.com/wpdir/english-programs/).
- Free English editing services for international graduate students are offered under the aegis of the Graduate School (see https://www.gradschool.umd.edu/graduate-school-writing-center/english-editing-international-graduate-students).
Classes are constructed communities. While there are certainly many ways to promote an equitable and successful learning environment in your classroom, any approach should be founded on a sense of participation in an intellectual community founded on the importance of free exchange and respect for ideas from all sources. Consider including a statement encouraging students to understand the classroom in this way in your course policies. For instance:
This course requires university-level work and, as such, requires university-level participation. Every student will be expected to treat his or her peers as members of a scholarly community, to provide useful critique, and to refrain from destructive or harassing commentary. Do not talk while your peers are talking. Turn off phones when you arrive. Do not disrupt the class by packing up your materials before our meeting time has ended.
An instructor must set the tone for the class and build a community within her classroom. Building a productive community requires effort and thought but it also brings great benefits and can help to create and sustain an effective learning community.
Consider the following advice for beginning to build a successful classroom community:
DO'S & DO NOT'S
- Integrate student comments into discussion to model good discourse.
- Circulate through the room, attentive to group behavior, in order to reinforce positive student-to-student interaction.
- Show students how to diplomatically critique each other’s work and rely on peer critique as a feature of your course.
- Learn and use student names and encourage students to use each other’s names in class discussion.
- Create assignments in which small groups share distinct responsibilities for a common learned objective.
- Provide opportunities for students and groups of students to present their work to the class or to a larger public.
- Be attentive to the varied experiences students bring to your course.
- Make students spokespeople for ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, or other groups.
- Ignore observed antagonism between groups of students.
- Disrespect or humiliate any student, particularly in the presence of his or her peers.
- Create an ongoing sense of difference between a student whose exceptional work you share with the larger group and the rest of the class (i.e., be sure emphasis is on the work and not on the individual student, if you single him or her out for praise).
- Grade in a way that merely encourages students to compete with one another.
- Let students regularly form the same small groups (if possible, put students together whom you think could learn from each other, given expressed interests and previously submitted work).
- Make assumptions about students’ experiences and identities.