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Course climate

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description 

The phrase “course climate” captures a number of elements that impact student learning, particularly for historically underserved populations. Ambrose et al. (p. 170) define course climate as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. Climate is determined by a constellation of interacting factors that include faculty-student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student-student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials. All of these factors can operate outside as well as inside the classroom.” Attending to relationships (between instructor and individual students as well as among students) is key to developing a supportive course climate.


  • Set high, clear standards and use them consistently. Research indicates that instructors can overvalue the work of students of color in an effort to demonstrate their liberal values or undervalue it by unintentionally acting on a negative stereotype.  The result for students can be ignoring feedback as unreliable or as evidence of an instructor's racism.

  • Examine assumptions. Introduce students to the cultural contexts through which the discipline has developed over time.  Incorporate published challenges to disciplinary assumptions into course content and assignments.

  • Eliminate “microaggressions", the "everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership" (Sue, 2010). Microaggressions affect student learning and motivation;  they can also remind students of negative stereotypes about their group and that can undermine students' ability to perform (learn more about stereotype threat here). Instructors may not realize that they are doing these things.  Examples include:

    • singling out a student to represent the thinking of an entire group to which the student belongs or appears to belong, 
    • interacting with a student based on the negative stereotypes of such a group,
    • sending a message that a student is less capable because of membership in such a group. 
    • assuming that students share your own background, 
    • using language, examples, or scenarios that either exclude a group or cast a group solely as victims.
  • Learn more about historically underserved populations, stereotypes, microaggressions, diversity. Start with online training UWL provides.

  • Set ground rules for interactions.  Work with students to develop ground rules collaboratively. See below for specifics.

  • Teach students to handle conflict.  Low-stakes practice and negotiation can give students practice with using ground rules.

  • Infuse course materials with diverse perspectives and examples. Strategies could include:

    • acknowledging contributions to a discipline from other cultures
    • incorporating studies by researchers from the discipline’s underrepresented groups into course content and assignments.   
    • diversifying the people and settings in course examples, scenarios, and problems.
  • Include diversity-related statements on the syllabus. See Downloadable Templates for UWL's recommended statements.

  • Include campus resources on the syllabus. A link to the Student Success page might be sufficient. Feel free to flag particular resources that previous students in this course have found useful.  

Tips to Improve Course Climate Effectively

  • Communicate clear, high standards to students in the syllabus and/or assignment sheet. Use them consistently.

  • Students should know that, for example, the solutions to problems coming from a particular discipline may not automatically fit the cultural values and priorities of an affected population. Your discipline’s assumptions may be so familiar that they are invisible to you, but every discipline’s assumptions are culturally embedded and have been critiqued in print. Look for critiques written by disciplinary experts with roots in cultures whose values differ. 

  • Research indicates that instructors and classmates can and often do commit microaggressions unintentionally. Invite students to give you anonymous feedback about these issues and provide the mechanisms for students to do so. See the Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation website here for ideas.
  • Involve students in developing ground rules.

    • Include your own ground rules if students don’t suggest them, and help students reframe rules that would be too restrictive.  Carnegie-Mellon's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence's "Ground Rules" document has ideas for ground rules to include and a process for working with students to create them. 
    • Don’t prohibit emotional expressions – you can’t prevent emotions.  Do suggest ground rules that help students understand the possible reasons for an emotional response;  and do require civility.
    • Some instructors ask students to sign the ground rules.  You can do this in class or through D2L.
    • Ground rules should produce a climate that is safe for inquiry, but a safe environment is not the same as a comfortable one. Learning, especially at the university level, often challenges what students think they already know (“prior learning”), and novice learners typically ignore or even actually (and sometimes emotionally) resist that challenge. Possessing erroneous prior learning does not mean a student is stupid; but treating a student with disdain, or allowing classmates to do so, can undermine motivation for the entire class.
  • Students often need help learning how to handle conflict and emotions without an arbiter, but they often have no experience mediating conflict. Ground rules are for the entire class to use, not just you. Consider providing some opportunities to think through how to handle a situation before one arises.  Try dividing the class into smaller groups to discuss how they might handle a specific scenario using the ground rules they have developed. Ask groups to generate several approaches.  Share, but don’t grade, the ideas each group generates.  Depending on the centrality of discussion to your course and the potential it poses for conflicting perspectives, repeat this exercise several times.  If your course includes small group work, include several scenarios set outside the classroom.

  • Many instructors wonder why they should bother expanding the perspectives and examples they use in their course materials. Consider gauging the climate of your course using the continuum invented by DeSurra and Church (1994) in an unpublished paper.  “They suggest … conceiving of class climate as either explicitly marginalizing (hostile and unwelcoming), implicitly marginalizing (inadvertently or unintentionally exclusive), implicitly centralizing (inadvertently or unsystematically inclusive and welcoming), or explicitly centralizing (systematically and intentionally welcoming)” (Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, University of Pittsburgh, The two components (implicit/explicit and marginalizing/centralizing) capture the extent to which students must bring an underrepresented perspective to the attention of the class (rather than the instructor), as well as how the perspective is treated by both instructor and class once it is introduced.


  • Ambrose, S. A., et al.  How Learning Works:  7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010), pp. 170-187. 
  • Sue, D. W. Microaggressions and Marginality:  Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley & Sons, 2010). 

Hoskins, D. (2015). Course climate. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from