According to Virgo (2016), student engagement, motivation and learning can be maximized when the instructor provides a positive learning environment that is safe, supportive, inclusive, engaging and challenging.
Safe: Students need to feel not just physically safe but also emotionally and socially safe in the classroom.
Supportive: For students to learn they must feel supported. It is important that they feel respected and valued as a learner.
Inclusive: Students need to feel included in their learning environment.
Engaging: Students need to be engaged in their learning for it to be a positive learning experience for them.
Challenging: Learning needs to challenge students individually. Some students may find things easier than others, but as an educator one needs to challenge students intellectually, emotionally and socially.
While attending elementary and secondary schools (all eight of them!), I was badly bullied. When I complained to the principal, he did not support me or protect me whatsoever. In order to avoid the daily beating, I would hide in the washroom. When I was discovered by a teacher and forced outside, I hid in front of the school until I was discovered by a teacher and forced into the school yard. So I went home sick because I didn’t want to get beaten that day. I missed school often to avoid beatings. In class I sometimes told the teacher that I didn’t know the answer (when I actually did know) to avoid being singled out as the ‘smart kid.’ I eventually made friends with the janitor, who let me hide in his broom closet during recess to avoid the beatings. Then at age 14, I started lifting weights to be the ‘strongest man in the world’ so that nobody could beat me up. It is very likely that my attendance at school would have been much better had the environment been safer.
Both of my children experienced social bullying from classmates at school. My daughter ended up changing schools to escape from one particular bully. My son quit dancing due to bullying. Kids at school called him cruel names alluding to homosexual orientation because he danced competitively. It was a shame that he quit because he was invited to the National Ballet Junior Training Camp. His skills were exceptional – he won Canadian and US Nationals for his jazz and acro solos, duet and two of his teams for which he was the lead. Had he felt safe at school he may well have continued to dance.
I experienced a significant lack of inclusion when I attended elementary school. I was at best, the last pick for any teams because I sucked. Mostly they didn’t pick me at all because I was considered a burden rather than a benefit. Once all the other students were picked over, and I was the only remaining unpicked student, typically everyone just walked away and left me standing there without actually picking me at all. It was very humiliating. I hated phys. ed. class as a result of this exclusion.
To this already damaging situation my phys. ed. teacher added a significant lack of support. At age 13 I decided I didn’t want to be fat anymore. I started dieting and jogging. The first day I jogged about 100 meters because that was as far as I could jog without stopping. Then I walked for a bit and then jogged some more. It took me almost a year to be able to jog all the way around the 2 km block (we lived out in the country) without stopping. About 15 months after I started jogging, I happened to be one of the first ones out of the school onto the school field after changing into gym clothes for phys. ed. class. I realized that for the first time, all of the fast runners were still in the school getting changed and I actually had the chance to be first to finish running a lap around the field, prior to the fast runners being out on the field. So I ran as fast as I could and for the first time I finished first. But my phys. ed. teacher came out after I started and didn’t pay attention to me. When I finished first, the teacher told me that I could not possibly have finished first without cheating. He wrongfully accused me of cutting the corners and he insisted that I run another lap, refusing to acknowledge my hard-earned victory. I had never missed a day jogging, but I never ran for that despicable teacher ever again. I hated him and his class. That was the moment that I disengaged permanently from phys. ed. class. I competed successfully for positions on the school rowing, football and wrestling teams but that was the end of my engagement in phys. ed. class.
This lack of support was actually trumped by my grade 6 music teacher, who told me the first week of school that she hated my voice and I was not allowed to sing ever again. She forced me to write lines for the entire music class, every class, for the entire grade 6 school year. I never sang again. Not ever.
I found that throughout elementary and secondary schools, my classes were not challenging. I rarely did homework and still got good marks. In grade 13, I had a 93 average for two English courses, French, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Algebra, Functions and Calculus, with 98, 99 and 100 for the three maths, but without doing homework. This was a problem because I had not developed any academic skills or work capacity. At university the workload is heavy enough that work capacity and academic skills are necessary for success. When I first went to university immediately after secondary school I failed miserably. As a result, I failed to gain acceptance into medical school and instead worked as a paramedic. Eventually I went back to school, but not until my mid-forties. It is one of my greatest regrets that I delayed my post-secondary education until so late in life. I have failed to realize my most significant goals and dreams because of this delay. It is now too late for most of them.
It is necessary for students to feel safe physically, emotionally and socially in the classroom and at the school in order for students to engage in learning. Fear of physical, emotional or social abuse is a strong motivator for students to withdraw, hide or hold back from engaging. An instructor can and should go to great lengths, if necessary, to provide a safe environment for students. Bullying should be prevented if possible, with education and awareness of what constitutes bullying in all its forms, and what behaviours are prohibited. Harsh punishments for bullying should be carried out. The instructor can also enforce a code of conduct in the classroom whereby students treat each other with respect.
Students should feel supported and valued as a learner. The instructor can enforce that students listen when someone is speaking, not interrupt, and respond respectfully to the instructor and to each other. All students should be included and not left out of participating in discussions or teams (i.e. phys. ed. class). Introverts may choose not to speak at times, but they should at least feel that it is safe for them to either speak up or hold their silence. An instructor can use a variety of resources and methods to deliver material, phrasing and re-phrasing in different ways to provide different ways of understanding the material so as to engage a diverse group of learners. Providing challenge to individual students may be difficult for an instructor; however the rewards are so huge that it is worth making the effort. An instructor can always ask students individually the question, “How does this relate to you personally? Is there some context in your life, family or work to which this could apply?” The more personally relevant a topic is for a student the greater the student engagement in the material. The instructor can seek out applications, activities and examples that are relevant to individual learners to increase student engagement.
I wish to be an effective instructor with motivated, engaged students in my class. This requires that I provide a positive environment that is safe, supportive, inclusive, engaging and challenging for my students. To this end, I commit to assure that my classroom is physically, emotionally and socially safe for my students. Should I learn of social bullying on social media that affects my students, even if it is not in my class, I will take steps to bring it to the attention of the students involved and to make sure they realize that such behaviour is unacceptable and require that they make amends for their conduct. If necessary, I will involve the student’s parents and also my Supervisor in the matter. I will take a stand against bullying and educate my students regarding the necessity of treating each other with respect. I will treat my students with respect and require that they treat me and each other with respect at all times. I will support each student with their learning by effectively communicating my expectations and providing office hours and a discussion forum to address students’ questions and challenges. I will encourage students to take responsibility for their learning. I will take the role of facilitator to support my students with resources that support their learning. Such resources will support self-directed learning strategies. I will include each students in my classroom, making the effort to teach with a variety of resources and methods to increase student engagement. I will make the effort to identify contexts, applications and examples that are relevant for individual students. I will seek to facilitate student self-directed learning so that students can challenge themselves in contexts that have relevance, interest and purpose for individual students. I will seek to model my teaching on the best instructors I have had the benefit of learning from. I will make use of open questions to encourage student engagement and to prompt consideration of contexts, applications and examples that are individually relevant to learners.
Barkley, E. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass: John Wiley & Sons; San Francisco, CA.
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Techniques: Supplementary Student Materials. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology. Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies: Course Assignments & Rubrics. Handout offered by Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
Virgo, O. (2016). Positive Learning Environments. PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies: January 2016; Doug Mauger; Feb 14 – March 5: Open Forum; Re: Positive Learning Environments; by Opal Virgo – Thursday, 18 February 2016.