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Effective Learning Environments

In-Class Instructional Practices

The kinds of instructional practices used in a classroom will vary according to any number of factors, including the material taught, size of the classroom and learning objectives. One instructional practice that all students can benefit from is knowing what is expected of them by being given a clear framework they can use to anchor their knowledge and progress (Balgopal, Casper, Atadero, & Rambo-Hernandez, 2017). Finding ways to provide structured, intentional and transparent assessment practices can limit anxiety and improve a student’s learning, retention and testing performance (Chiou, Wang, & Lee, 2014; Cross & Angelo, 1988). Encourage them to ask questions and seek help.

Simple Ideas

  • Review previously learned content before introducing new information.
  • Connect course content to the real world.
  • Plan instruction, including any activities or discussion, effectively.
  • Incorporate “think, turn, talk” during lessons.
    • Think: Have students think about their responses to a question or idea.
    • Turn: Ask students to turn to a partner.
    • Talk: Have students share their thinking about the question or idea with their partners.
  • Incorporate writing-to-learn activities such as admit or exit tickets, non-stop writes, silent conversations and write-arounds.
    • Admit ticket: A brief writing activity at the beginning of class to review previous learning.
    • Exit ticket: A brief writing activity to review what was learned in class or preview what will be learned in the next class.
    • Non-stop write: Timed writing activity in which students take two to four minutes to write about their thinking, questions or ideas related to what they’ve learned.
    • Silent conversation: An activity similar to “think, turn, talk” but instead of talking about their thinking, partners write about their thinking, read what one another has written, and respond to it in writing. Each written response is usually timed for one to two minutes.
    • Write-around: An activity similar to a silent conversation, but instead of partnering with one person, students pass their written responses around in a group of four to five.
  • Be explicit about objectives related to abstract learning such as thinking processes and problem-solving, and explicitly show students how these types of learning relate to content, activities, exams, etc.
  • To check for understanding, ask students to give you a thumbs-up, thumbs-sideways or thumbs-down to represent how they’re feeling about the content. If there are very few thumbs-ups, then you can probe further to learn the specific causes of difficulty.
  • Incorporate quick, informal assessments to gauge student mastery of concepts and provide immediate feedback.

More Complex Ideas

  • Allow students to apply knowledge and not only memorize information.
  • Create cooperative learning activities to engage students in application, analysis and synthesis. Establish norms with students for how to work collaboratively.
  • As students work in pairs or small groups, listen to their ideas and questions, and make note of what specific students say. During the whole-group discussion, ask different students if you can share their comments during the paired/small-group work. This technique is especially helpful for engaging students who are reticent about talking in front of the whole class.
  • Use worked examples and non-examples. Non-examples are problems that have been done incorrectly. Have students find the mistakes and work in partners or groups to resolve them.
  • Allow students to begin work on a homework, lab or other assignment in class to get support from you and their fellow students before completing the assignment on their own.
  • Offer choices in assignments and tasks, including exam structure (e.g., multiple-choice vs. short-answer vs. oral response).
  • Create assignments in which the results can be utilized by a community or campus initiative.
  • Invite outside speakers who can connect learning to civic engagement and professional endeavors.

Outside of Class Activities

Office hours are often underutilized by students, but when a single check-in and reflection meeting is made mandatory, students tend to improve their learning outcomes (McGrath, 2014). These findings suggest that personal recognition and engagement have an important augmentative effect above and beyond additional exposure to the material students were tasked with learning— statistics, in this case. See McGrath (2014) for a sample reflection exercise to conduct with students during office hours. In addition to office hours, consider conducting informal activities outside of class to get to know students on a personal level and help them make connections to other resources (e.g., museums, libraries).

  • Provide informal opportunities such as Q&A sessions and study groups for students to discuss course content.
  • Invite small groups of students to attend office hours.
  • Create informal activities/get-togethers for faculty and students to get to know one another. Examples include:Coffee chats
    • Cookies, donuts or ice cream with different faculty
    • Lunch with students
    • Informal weekly meetings to talk with students about their life goals, plans, etc.
  • Respond to student emails or other forms of communication in a respectful and timely way.
  • Mentor teaching assistants whom you’re supervising in well-being practices.

OUR DEPARTMENT HAD AN ICE-CREAM SOCIAL WHERE ADMINISTRATORS GAVE OUT ICE CREAM TO STUDENTS AND FACULTY. IT GAVE US A CHANCE TO COME TOGETHER AS A DEPARTMENT AND GET TO KNOW ONE ANOTHER ON A PERSONAL LEVEL. MANY STUDENTS TOLD US THEY ENJOYED GETTING TO RELAX AND NOT HAVING TO THINK ABOUT THE NEXT EXAM OR LAB. IT WAS JUST ABOUT GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER.
– Faculty Member

Departmental Activities

In addition to the role of individual faculty members in supporting student well-being, administrators within colleges and departments can work to coordinate these efforts. Such coordination can help faculty more easily support students. Administrators may also consider embedding conditions for well-being into various departmental activities to positively impact the well-being of both students and faculty.

  • Communicate the importance of faculty members taking care of their own states of well-being.
  • Create a student-led wellness group that makes recommendations for improvements in departmental policies and practices.
  • Provide training for faculty in recognizing and responding to students in distress. Contact the Dean of Students office or the Personal Counseling Center for a briefing about resources for students.
  • Provide training and support to teaching assistants in well-being practices.
  • Create informal activities/events for faculty and students to get to know one another.
  • Allow time for faculty to share well-being practices they are incorporating into their classes.
    • Support faculty well-being.Within a professional development series, build in classes related to mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-care.
    • Promote classes for faculty and staff in yoga or meditation.
    • Plan book studies related to wellness topics (e.g., using the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt).