What is a Safe Learning Environment?
You do a lot to help your students succeed: prep-work, office hours, engaging lectures, and helpful instructional material. But have you considered whether or not you have created a safe learning environment? A safe learning environment allows students to take risks, openly express their point of view, and grow both personally and academically. While this can include having a sense of physical safety, a safe learning environment also focuses on students’ psychological safety.
A common misconception is that a “safe learning environment” coddles students, but a safe space does not mean that students cannot be challenged or pushed outside of their comfort zones. Instead, creating a safe learning environment seeks to give students an overall positive learning experience in your class, which is not without its obstacles. A safe learning environment fosters a positive classroom climate, where students feel supported emotionally and academically.
Why is a Safe Learning Environment Important?
Students often enter college with already formed judgments of the school environment and their own intellectual ability. In the first year of college, students tend to shift toward having a fixed mindset (Limeri et al., 2020). If you seek to help your students progress from this mindset and push themselves to grow and reach their full potential, fostering a safe learning environment is the perfect place to start.
You may recall your own time as a student learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Can you remember the base of the pyramid? The building blocks at the base of the hierarchy are physiological needs and safety. When learners do not have their basic needs met, they cannot progress to the later stages of growth. Even further, good teaching environments have been shown to deepen students’ approaches to studying and to influence their learning outcomes (Lizzio et al., 2002).
How Do You Create a Safe Learning Environment?
A safe learning environment can be created across all subjects, class models, and learning spaces. Even if your classroom is entirely virtual, you still influence the culture of your learning environment. Maslow’s hierarchy is a perfect model for a maximized learning environment. Students are less likely to reach their full academic potential if their basic needs are not met.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid is physiological needs. Physical comfort influences a safe learning space. Are your students aware of when or if there will be breaks to eat or use the restroom? Do you allow food in your classroom?
Next up on the hierarchy is Safety. Does your classroom cultivate safety and trust in your teaching style and discussions?
The third step is Love and Belonging, which can be influenced through peer interactions. Do you create an environment where students can learn without fear of judgment from their peers?
Esteem is next level and can be fostered by providing constructive feedback to your students.
The last level of Maslow’s hierarchy is Self-Actualization, where your learners can finally reach their full potential, at least in terms of your course.
Practice Trauma-Informed Teaching
You may or may not be aware that anywhere from 66% to 94% of college students report experiencing one or more traumatic life events (Carello & Butler, 2015). It may seem quite difficult to anticipate what may trigger your students with rates this high. However, trauma-informed practice is about understanding how traumatic experiences may affect the lives of your students and about creating accommodations when they may seem appropriate.
Teachers of certain subjects may be more or less likely to need to use a trauma-informed approach. For example, a literature professor reading a novel with emotionally complex themes may have more opportunities to teach in a trauma-informed manner than a math teacher. Therefore, teachers covering complicated subject matters such as abuse, death, or violence should provide accommodations to allow students to opt out of assignments that trigger their trauma and offer an alternate assignment.
Consider Your Characteristics
How would you describe your characteristics as a teacher? Students who described their teacher as caring and supportive reported experiencing a more connected classroom community (Kirby & Thomas, 2021). Caring and supportive teachers predicated better learning and academic outcomes among their students. So, not only do these characteristics influence how students feel about the classroom environment, but they also contribute to the students’ academic success.
If you are unsure of how your students would describe you, ask them to complete an anonymous instructor feedback form with a positive and negative list of characteristics.
Use Inclusive Language
The college environment involves a truly exciting hub of different people and new ideas, which makes for such a rich learning experience. In any given class, you probably have a variety of genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, disabilities, and religions. Doing your best to model inclusive language will help to create a safe environment for students who generally feel marginalized.
Start your class by asking students to fill out a form with preferred pronouns, preferred name, and anything else they feel you should know about them, and also give an example of yourself. Replace gendered language such as “Hey guys” with “Hello class.” Be aware that you also may have ESL students, who may not understand American idioms. Using inclusive language may feel intimidating at first, but if your students see that you are trying, it will foster a genuinely safe space.
Can I Do This?
Creating a safe learning environment for your students likely isn’t going to happen overnight. It is something that takes commitment, practice, and above all, a desire to give your best to your students. Since COVID-19, the world undoubtedly has been flipped upside down, especially for students. Now more than ever, your students need a positive environment to push themselves, challenge the status quo, and reach their full academic potential. A safe learning environment has the potential to give just that to your students, and you have the potential to be able to cultivate this environment.
Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059
Eberly Center: Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation. (n.d.). Model inclusive language. Carnegie Mellon University. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/classroomclimate/strategies/inclusivelanguage.html
Kirby, L. A., & Thomas, C. L. (2021). High-impact teaching practices foster a greater sense of belonging in the college classroom. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1950659
Limeri, L. B., Carter, N. T., Choe, J., Harper, H. G., Martin, H. R., Benton, A., & Dolan, E. L. (2020). Growing a growth mindset: characterizing how and why undergraduate students’ mindsets change. International Journal of STEM Education, 7(1), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00227-2
Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., & Simons, R. (2002). University students’ perceptions of the learning environment and academic outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 27-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070120099359
Saiyad, S. (2020). Educational environment and its application in Medical Colleges. Journal of Research in Medical Education & Ethics, 10(1), 3-9. 10.5958/2231-6728.2020.00002.5
Webb, J. (2017). Creating a safe and effective learning environment. In (Eds.) In P. Cantillon, D. F. Wood, & S. Yardley (Eds.), ABC of learning and teaching in medicine (3rd ed., pp. 23-26). Wiley Blackwell.