Maintaining an Environment for Learning


November 21, 2016

by Michele DiPietro
Executive Director for Faculty Development, Recognition and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of Mathematics

and Esther Jordan
Director, Faculty Success and Associate Professor of Political Science

One of the basic principles of learning is that students’ emotions can influence both individual engagement and the course climate, either facilitating or hindering learning (Ambrose et al. 2010). As the last week of classes and final exams swiftly approach, we can expect heightened stress and anxiety levels in our students, due to the usual end-of-semester pressures. This year in particular, we can also anticipate compounding effects of charged emotions and uncertainty due to the contentious national election as well as local transitions on campus. As a center for teaching and learning, we are committed to maintaining an inclusive and respectful environment for learning, a concern shared by university leadership. Yet, many faculty and students are unsure of how to respond when approached by others who want to share their reactions or when confronted with speech and behavior that threatens the learning environment.

At our center, we have heard from faculty who have been approached by students who want to celebrate or commiserate in private or in front of their peers. We have heard from faculty who have been asked for help, much more than usual, by students experiencing debilitating anxiety. We have heard from faculty who have witnessed hate speech or behaviors among their students. The following are some strategies and resources that may help.

  • Before you decide how to respond, remind yourself that students are still developing during the college years, intellectually, emotionally, morally, interculturally, and in several other aspects. In any course you will likely see students along a range of developmental stages (Patton et al. 2016). Less developed students might see the world in stark contrasts of right and wrong, and not be ready to entertain other points of view. Others might believe that stances on any kind of controversial issues are just a matter of subjective opinions that do not need to be justified by data and facts. And of course, more developed students might have a strong grasp of nuance and the merits of contrasting perspectives. Given this range, some frustrating responses are actually predictable.

  • Plan ahead how you will respond to multiple scenarios. It is important to acknowledge marginalizing statements and behaviors, but each of us must find the approach we feel comfortable with. You may want to avoid difficult dialogues altogether or engage them head on. There is a range of responses that can support learning in our classes. Huston and DiPietro (2007) analyzed a range of instructor responses and found that even small actions, such as a minute of silence in response to hate fliers on campus, can have strong positive impact on our students.

  • Of course, the situation is different if the offensive behaviors happen in your class. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge a hostile statement with a response such as “ouch” and move on.  You may perhaps follow up later with a reminder of the KSU Nondiscrimination Statement. Or, you may want to adapt your planned class activities to take time to allow students to reflect on their reactions and develop a plan of action (which can range from contacting a KSU counselor to volunteering for an advocacy or support group). The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan (2016) offers guidelines for these challenging scenarios.

  • If you are comfortable confronting disrespectful and marginalizing statements directly, by all means do, but be prepared. Lee Warren from Harvard (2000) provides a set of principles to navigate hot moments in the classroom, and she shares an important insight for disrespectful comments. Explain what the impact of such statements is. If there are students in your course who are direct targets of offensive comments, attend to them and to their feeling. And finally, protect the students who make unsophisticated comments, not to spare their feelings but to ensure they can hear the feedback and not shut down and foreclose further growth and development.

  • If you choose to engage your students directly in a difficult dialogue, have a good structure in place to support it. DiPietro & Huston (2007) found that discussions about controversial topics were only 50% effective. Their efficacy depended on the professor’s ability to manage the complex array of emotions that arise. Ground rules are a great starting point to create that structure, and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence offers some guidance for establishing them.

  • Another reason why these discussions are challenging are the very words we use to have them. Language can be inclusive or divisive. Many students feel that unless they know the “right” words to use, they will be criticized and therefore prefer not to engage. If you sense that is the case, shift the conversation to the principles behind words, such as avoid stereotyping and focus on individuals rather than groups. Davis (1993) provides some ideas for engaging in an inclusive dialogue.

Finally, sometimes the best course of action is to connect your students to one of the many resources that KSU offers.  Here are but a few that are particularly relevant to the issues addressed here:


  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.S., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, (n.d.). Responding to Difficult Moments. The University of Michigan.
  • Davis,  B.G. (1993). Diversity and Complexity in the Classroom: Considerations of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, in Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence (n.d.) Ground rules. Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M.  (2007). “In the Eye of the Storm:  Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy,” To Improve the Academy, 25, 207-224.
  • Patton, L., Renn, K., Guido, F., & Quaye, S. (2016) Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Warren, L. (2000). Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.  Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.


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