Todd Zakrajsek, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Key Statement: Showing support and compassion to students while maintaining high expectations is the model of a "warm" classroom where students will excel.
Keywords: Warm Teaching, High Expectations, High Standards, Student Success
In a landmark article, Chickering and Gamson (1987) noted that a principle of good practice in undergraduate education is communicating high expectations. Hattie and colleagues (Donohoo et al., 2018; Hattie & Yates, 2013) reported that having high expectations is one of the strongest predictors of learning. It is noteworthy that these researchers speak of high expectations rather than rigor. Although some feel that high expectations are synonymous with rigor, these concepts are not the same. Increasingly, the meaning of rigor and how it is demonstrated is being questioned (Supiano, 2022). Traditionally, the old-school concept of rigor leads to “washing students out,” teaching a “gate-keeping course,” and ensuring that many students earn lower grades. Some faculty wear student failure as a badge of honor that supposedly demonstrates their rigor. Jack and Sathy (2021) argue that it is time to get rid of “rigor,” and replace it with more inclusive teaching practices that still hold high standards for our students. In other words, moving from the teaching-oriented concept of rigor to a more learning-oriented concept of high expectations. To help students to do their best, along with maintaining high expectations, we can create warmer teaching strategies that focus on compassion and support for our students and their learning. Student success, not failure, should be our badge of honor.
photo by Artur Solarz
Warming the Course
“Warming the course” refers to helping students feel wanted, supported, and encouraged; we let students know that we are rooting for them. Our students need to know we expect them to meet high expectations, but they should also know that we feel a source of pride when they succeed.
Following are four suggestions that lead to warming up your course. Once you start thinking along the lines of supporting and encouraging students, rather than making learning challenging for them to demonstrate your teaching prowess, many more ideas will likely follow.
Deadlines: Consider whether deadlines are strictly necessary. You might tell students that you have a suggested date for a paper to be submitted, but that if additional time is needed, students can work with you to turn the paper in later. Many faculty succeed with this method despite not penalizing “late papers.” Alternatively, you may hold a firm due date, but frame the deadline in a warmer way. For example, consider not telling students coldly that papers must be turned in by a specific time on a certain date with no exceptions. Instead, explain that to give you time to provide growth-minded feedback on students’ hard work, you need papers to be turned in by a specific date. Further, note that you will periodically check in with students on their progress, and encourage them to check in with you if they are struggling. Note that the deadline still holds, but in the warmer example, you are much more supportive, and students know the deadline is necessary to let you do your job in a way that benefits them.
Structure: Ensure that assignments clearly state your rationale of the assignment’s value, the support you will provide, and your expectations for quality work (e.g., a rubric). You might even ask students to review the structure of assignments and suggest changes. You are not required to make those changes, but make it clear that suggestions are seriously considered. Eddy and Hogan (2017) found that structure closes Black-White achievement gaps and is also beneficial for first-generation college students.
Syllabus: Using a warmer, friendlier tone and supportive statements in the syllabus shows students that you have high expectations, but also that you care about their progress. Students given a warmer syllabus are also more likely to reach out for assistance when they are struggling with mental health issues (Gurung & Galardi, 2021). To warm your syllabus, instead of deducting points when students miss class, note that their presence in class helps create an environment of learning. Instead of mandating participation in class discussions, explain that participation allows various voices to be heard.
Class participation: Offer options for students to participate in class discussions. There are many ways for students to be an effective class member without making them fight for the floor to comment. Some students find public speaking anxiety provoking. Consider allowing students to email after the session with what they would have said had they felt comfortable doing so. You can sometimes use those comments to open the next class period. Or maybe students can use a specific hashtag for your course to tweet a comment during class as their contribution. Perhaps give participation points to those who don’t speak, but provide good nonverbal feedback for those speaking. Your lectures are likely better when students look at you and nod. The same is true of a class discussion. Finally, ask students for ideas regarding alternative ways to demonstrate participation. Once these systems are in place, you may well find that the discussions are much more robust, even though not everyone is required to talk.
I am hopeful that these ideas help you warm, or continue to warm, your courses. Look carefully at your current practices. Make notes where you can change your course in the future, whether you are just getting started or have been working at this for a while. You do not need to make drastic changes all at once. Start small. If you can’t think of where to start or if you need new inspiration, speak with colleagues who have good rapport with their students.
As you move toward an increasingly warmer course, you will start to see changes in how your students respond. It will not be all students, all the time, but you will likely see movement. As your students have better experiences in your course, the room’s affect improves, making the teaching experience more enjoyable for you. In addition, students are more willing to work hard to meet high expectations for instructors they feel care about them. On many occasions, my students met high expectations by working really hard on a paper, or putting in many hours to study for a test, because they did not want to let me down. Responses such as that should be our badge of honor.
Think about courses you have taken. In retrospect, what aspects of the course made you feel positive about taking the course and working hard to meet high expectations?
What are you already doing to make your course a positive experience for your students while still maintaining high expectations?
What is one thing you could do starting next week to make your course even warmer for your students without lowering any course standards?
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate
education. AAHE Bulletin, 3-7.
Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The power of collective efficacy. Educational
Leadership, 75(6), 40-44.
Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing
course structure work? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453–468.
Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2022). Syllabus tone, more than mental health statements,
influence intentions to seek help. Teaching of Psychology, 49(3), 218–223.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2013). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.
Jack, F., & Sathy, V. (2021, September 24). It’s time to cancel the word ‘rigor’: If it’s code for
‘some students deserve to be here, and some don’t,’ then it needs to go. The Chronicle
of Higher Education.
Supiano, B. (2022, March 29). The redefinition of rigor: The pandemic has amplified the
debate over how professors should challenge their students. What’s it really about? The
Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-redefinition-of-rigor