Improving the Classroom Environment

Allen Klinger, Cynthia J. Finelli, and Dan D. Budny

Abstract - This paper summarizes effective teaching techniques identified during one of the technical sessions of the 1999 Frontiers in Education Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The paper involves the perspectives of twelve experienced college teachers engaged in a round-table discussion of "Ways to improve a classroom environment" and "Behaviors to avoid in the classroom." In this paper, those ideas are discussed and then supplemented with general advice and specific suggestions from the experience of the authors. The paper includes a bibliography of related reference material. Advice presented in this paper could benefit any teacher seeking to improve classroom effectiveness.


The 1999 Frontiers in Education Conference was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 10Ż13, 1999. In addition to including a variety of informative exhibits, workshops and sessions devoted to engineering education, the conference provided ample formal and informal opportunities to discuss effective teaching practices. One of the technical sessions (session 13B2) included a roundtable discussion whereby twelve participants identified "Ways to improve a classroom environment" and "Behaviors to avoid in the classroom." Participants∆ comments were compiled into two lists, and the items of those lists were subsequently grouped into three categories: basics, stance, and management.

The basics category describes all items stated at the beginning of the course, such as course objectives, the course syllabus, grading policies, office hours, and course content. Stance covers both the attitude adopted to confront and deal with particular situations in the classroom and the distinction between lecture, recitation, project, and other forms of course organization. This category also includes the use of various teaching techniques to address the needs of all the students in the classroom, resulting in better teaching and learning. Management concerns the systematic use of non-recorded instructional vehicles to achieve the course objectives. This category involves stimulating interaction in the classroom in such a way that students get involved because they want to interact, rather than because they are forced to do so.


Ways to improve a classroom environment

Table I presents a summary of "Ways to improve a classroom environment" grouped into three categories (basics, stance, and management). This section provides a description of those elements.


Course instructors seek to convey knowledge, encourage learning ability and interest, and develop a group of skilled individuals. One way to accomplish those goals is to explicitly list all skills and basic concepts that the students should learn. That is, exams should be considered before the semester begins, and the skills that will be required to complete the exams should be listed. The course objectives should then be designed, and they should reflect things

Table I

Ways to improve a classroom environment


Provide a clear statement of course objectives and course syllabus.

Have clear grading policies, and be certain these are compatible with course objectives.

Establish ample office hours.

Relate curriculum content to events currently in the news.


Provide something Ż a suitable activity Ż for each learning style.

Encourage class participation, but keep in mind the differences in learning styles.

Learn about your own learning style.


Stimulate student interest by introducing pictures, real problems, and hands-on activities.

Draw from your own experiences, and use student examples as teaching instances.

Distribute copies of key visuals to save on note taking, and leave gaps for students.

Collect students∆ written reactions and thoughts Ż including to the course objectives.

necessary to develop these skills. Finally, the syllabus should be a road map to reaching these objectives. The instructor∆s responsibility is to design each class period with the goals of improving the students∆ understanding of the concepts, having them learn to apply the basic principles of the course, and developing in them the ability to solve problems with these new skills.

The instructor should also design a grading policy that will measure different levels of accomplishment in terms of the course goals. For many students, having this policy is an important component of every course. It should address questions such as: How are exams given? What will be their nature, frequency, and length? and What fraction of the course grade depends on exam scores? In designing such a grading policy, the instructor should consider whether tests alone can accomplish the goals of the course or whether other devices (such as homework, attendance, class participation, and design projects) will be needed to provide a means of measuring different levels of understanding. If possible, it is helpful for the instructor to describe, in words, various levels of achievement to further clarify the grading policy.

The instructor should also make sure that the grading policy is compatible with the course objectives. For example if building interpersonal skills is one course objective, then the instructor should refrain from grading on a curve. It is difficult to encourage teamwork and collaboration if students see classmates as competitors who could raise or lower the curve. In addition the instructor should establish ample office hours, both for students and for teaching assistants. Also, in developing the course, the instructor should take care to relate the content of the course to current events if possible.

These expectations about student achievement are best stated at the beginning of the course, reinforced as the course progresses, and fed back to students with grades or evaluations of work items. Although beginning a course without providing this type of structure may initially save the instructor some effort, the consequences for both the instructor and the students are severe. Even when students complete the course they could be misled about their accomplishments. This is true for every type of course, although it is more evident in cases where there are open-ended objectives.


Striking a balance between lecturing and engaging in alternative teaching techniques is an instructor∆s personal challenge. Several practitioners within the domains of science and engineering education have noted the importance of embedding a learning style approach within a variety of teaching strategies [1Ż9]. Still others have studied applications of psychological, or personality, types in various educational domains [10Ż14]. Learning style is a biologically and developmentally imposed set of personal characteristics that make some teaching (and learning) methods effective for certain students but ineffective for others [15, 16]. For example, some information is best transmitted by direct speech, but other knowledge can be better conveyed by practice. Whatever one∆s instructional style, flexibility (including willingness to shift from one form to another) is a good practice. Dunn has offered the following statements based on current research on learning styles to assure that every person has the opportunity to learn [17].

To promote effective learning, it is important to provide suitable activities that appeal to all learning styles. It is also important to encourage class participation. However, in doing so, one must keep in mind the differences in learning style. Research has shown that there are dominant learning characteristics involved in the perception of information through concrete versus abstract experience [18Ż20]. Some learners need to express their feelings, they seek personal meaning as they learn, and they desire personal interaction with the instructors as well as with other students. A characteristic question of this learning type is why? This student desires and requests active verbal participation in the classroom. However, other individuals best obtain information through abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. This learner tends to respond well both to active learning opportunities with well-defined tasks and to trial-and-error learning in an environment that allows them to fail safely. These individuals like to test information, try things, take things apart, see how things work, and learn by doing. A characteristic question of this learning type is how? Thus, this student also wants and needs active participation; however, hands-on activity is preferred over verbal interaction.

The instructor must have a sincere interest in the students, but there is clearly no best single way to encourage participation. Individual student differences in willingness to participate by asking questions will often surface [21Ż25]. Still, although the number of times an individual speaks up strongly depends on student personality qualities, a class where all are encouraged to enter into dialog is preferable, and opening the lecture to questions benefits all students.

An instructor who strives to understand his/her own learning style may also gain skill in the classroom. Consider the question: How does the way you learn influence the way that you teach? Most instructors tend to think that others see the world the way they do. But viewing things from a different learning perspective can be useful. It is good practice to specifically contemplate approaches that will accommodate different learners. And, this is often easiest after learning about your own learning style. An instructor with some understanding of differences in student learning styles has taken steps toward making teaching fun.


Specific sources can assist students in gaining practical experience. Student interest is often stimulated by showing pictoral examples, introducing real-world problems, and assigning hands-on activities. There is little difference with regard to teaching value whether the stimulus included in a course comes from research activity, professional practice, or community service. The key elements are that the item be current, topical, and real world. A useful approach for an instructor is to draw on his/her own experiences when planning the course. In a related vein, student examples can also add practical material. They can lead to interesting open questions. Specific problems, technical issues, and even practice or experience can come from the students, particularly in rapidly developing fields.

There are many examples of situations where universities, consortia, and academic-industrial partnerships bring realistic problems into teaching situations. One such program is the Manufacturing Engineering Education Partnership between Penn State, the University of Puerto Rico, and the University of Washington. The Federal Work-Study Program at UCLA is another such program [26]. Under this program, undergraduate students have some financial support from the federal government, and they get practical experience by working for the University, for governmental agencies, or for public or private non-profit organizations. Students employed through the Federal Work-Study Program not only provide essential services to the University and to the community, but they also have the opportunity to secure positions which may relate to their educational objectives or enable them to gain valuable work experience.

Finally, two other practices can act to improve a classroom environment. Rather than expect students to take extensive notes during the class period, distribute copies of key materials, leaving gaps for students to complete during class. Not only will students be appreciative, they will have more time to concentrate on the material being presented. Also, throughout the term, collect students∆ written reactions and thoughts. This will help shape the direction of the course as it evolves over the semester.


Behaviors to avoid in the classroom

There are several classroom approaches by instructors that could potentially inhibit learning. Table II presents a summary of "Behaviors to avoid in the classroom," again categorized as basics, stance, and management. This section describes those elements.


The elements in this category include things that anyone might do occasionally, but that when repeated could interfere with learning. Two such items involve speaking too quickly and not facing the audience. Talking rapidly could impose difficulties for all students, simply because they are unfamiliar with the subject. What might be a normal but quick exchange in a collegial context may be not understood at all by someone exposed to the material for the first time. Further, foreign dialects prevalent in today∆s modern society (both in terms of students with English as a second language and professors with a foreign accent) make it important to avoid speaking too quickly. Simply rephrasing material throughout the lecture may increase student understanding. When in front of a class, an instructor should strive to keep eye contact with the students.

Other key issues involve content of the lecture and handling of questions. An instructor should not read verbatim from a visual prompt or a textbook. Rather, a copy of the information could be distributed to the students and summarized during class. In terms of student questions, it is important to provide some answer, even if it is just "I∆ll have to get back to you later about that." Similarly some provision for providing feedback (especially in terms of course grades) is necessary.

Table II

Behaviors to avoid in the classroom


Do not speak quickly or with your back to the students.

Avoid reading directly from textbooks or other sources.

Do not delay in answering concerns or providing feedback.

Do not write examination questions that do not correspond to course material.

Avoid time-filling activity such as meaningless exercises or busy-work.

Don∆t start class late or hold class after the scheduled time. Don∆t be absent during posted office hours.


Do not give assignments that you haven∆t tested.

Don∆t delay in returning graded material.

Do not set unreasonable expectations.

Do not talk down to students or discourage them because of their mistakes. Do not expect students to fail.


Do not rush to complete a technical topic. Also do not tell long, personal stories.

Do not dominate experiential exercises: students∆ activities should lead.

Do not use just one single teaching approach.

Do not use cooperative learning blindly.


Instructors should not simply recycle old examinations without ascertaining their relevency to the current class. Similarly, many students are self-supporting, and they value their time. Instructors need to keep this in mind, taking care to eliminate meaningless activity and busy-work. Further, it is important to be time-conscious in the classroom, adhering to the scheduled start and stop times of the class and keeping posted office hours.


Deviation from a prepared approach without advanced planning is risky. It is better to give simple, past assignments than to turn students loose on difficult, real-world projects if a worked out solution hasn∆t been generated before making the assignment. It is also important that tests be worked out before the material is assigned. Indeed it is essential to assign work at regular intervals; however, the solution to the assignments must be possible. Also, when homework is assigned, the instructor should always collect, grade, and return the work promptly and should ensure that final course grades reflect the graded material. Students tend to rely on a specific structural framework regarding what they must do, and they are often sensitive to how their submitted work will impact their overall academic accomplishment as shown by a course grade.

Another key to a productive instructional activity is to avoid setting unrealistic expectations. Do not talk down to the students or discourage them because of their mistakes. Further, do not expect them to fail. Instead talk openly with the students and strive to practice positive, optimistic, success-oriented teaching efforts.


Perhaps the single most significant caution in this category is to move from thinking in terms of classroom time to focusing on individuals. That is, keep in mind a division between time and people management issues.

For timing, one should avoid rushing a lecture to complete a technical topic. And long, personal stories should also be avoided during the lecture. During experiential exercises, it is important that the instructor not dominate the experience; rather, the students∆ activities should lead. It is also important to avoid using only a single teaching approach. Many different means for conveying information (class email lists, xeroxed handouts, projects and other forms of active or cooperative learning) are available, and all of these enliven and enrich teaching and learning experiences.

Finally, when implementing cooperative learning in the classroom, the instructor should not do so blindly. Cooperation is more than being physically near other students, discussing material with other students, helping others, or sharing materials with other students. For a cooperative learning experience to be successful, it is essential that the following five elements be built in [27]:

  1. Positive Interdependence Ż Students perceive that they need each other in order to complete the group task.
  2. Face-to Face Interaction Ż Students promote each other∆s learning by helping, sharing, and encouraging efforts to learn. Students explain, discuss, and teach what they know to classmates. Groups are physically structured (i.e., around a small table) so that students sit and talk through each aspect of the assignment.
  3. Individual Accountability Ż Each student∆s performance is frequently assessed and the results are given to the group and the individual. Individual accountability is accomplished by giving an individual test to each student or randomly selecting one group member to give the answer.
  4. Interpersonal and Small Group Skills Ż Groups cannot function effectively if students do not have and use the needed social skills. Collaborative skills include leadership, decision-making, communication, trust-building, and conflict-management.
  5. Group Processing Ż Groups need specific time to discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships among members. Group processing can be accomplished by asking students to complete such tasks as (a) List at least three member actions that helped the group be successful, or (b) List one action that could be added to make the group even more successful tomorrow. Teachers also monitor the groups and give feedback on how well the groups are working together to the groups and the class as a whole.


Concluding Thoughts

The discussion at the 1999 Frontiers in Education Conference led to a list of activities than can improve the classroom environment. It also highlighted several behaviors to avoid. Many of the participants teach in universities, and several are in departments of computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering. It is our experience that students in those disciplines have strong competitive tendencies, they frequently seek to avoid writing, and they often obtain less training in verbal give-and-take than those in sociology, political science and English. Some of the classroom practices we recommend expose students to a mode of learning that supports writing and speaking skills. There is substantial literature supporting the long-term career benefits for students in following a development path that aids in strengthening those abilities.

One view is that classroom environments can be improved by recognizing changes that result in technological education being increasingly intertwined with the general culture. Challenges to faculty for students to focus more on writing, speaking, and cooperative group activity is one such response to that view. Another response involves international study, sometimes by an in-residence student work experience in another country. Enrichment through sources that convey the complex way in which society has absorbed technical change is yet another means to create a novel classroom. However it is done, there are many different approaches to an effective class improvement.



The attached bibliography provides several ways to tap into the thoughts of others about class activities. One way to begin involves investigations of learning or cognitive styles. Another is to focus on a subject area and seek out stimulating sources within it. A third approach involves reviewing material specifically geared towards improving class methods.

For the reader seeking reference material about effective ways to structure learning, the books presented in references [28Ż34] can be grouped under the heading Educational Quality. They discuss topics (such as society, culture, visual thinking, brain dominance, and quality issues) that pertain to the United States∆ educational system. For those interested in topics on the subject of Mathematics, the citations listed under [35Ż46] could be classified as Quantitative Thinking. Several of these are written by non-mathematicians, and cover a wide range of historic and cultural issues in the area of mathematics education. Finally, citations listed under [47Ż51] could be classified as Engineering Education, and they provide information which could be useful for any college teacher.

Materials published by the American Society for Engineering Education (including Prism and the Journal of Engineering Education) and by the IEEE Education Society (including IEEE Transactions on Education) are also valuable resources. Many of these references have useful web sites as well (for example, see,, or



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