Graduate Program

Improving Classroom Climate in Science and Engineering

This document includes:


An Overview of Classroom Climate Issues

The purpose of this handout is to encourage you to conduct your recitations and labs in a nurturing and supportive style. A manual for foreign TA's teaching in American classrooms is available and may have already been distributed to you. In a similar spirit, this handout is intended to address some of the main issues that arise when TA's conduct recitations and labs to students with diverse backgrounds and training.

A good teacher gears his or her presentation to the level, interests and special needs of the students in the classroom. This means fulfilling the recitation session's primary purpose, which is to help students. It also means that TA's, as they become better teachers, learn to overcome cultural bias and preconceived notions about how students "should" behave. For example, to an American TA, Japanese students may appear to be less outgoing than other students. This could be due to the respect accorded teachers in Japanese culture, and does not mean that Japanese students are less knowledgeable. Another example is the case of non-science/engineering majors, who may require a different teaching style than majors in order to stimulate their interest. It is important for TA's not to look disparagingly on non- majors, but rather to gear the class so as to motivate students to appreciate science and engineering concepts and methods. In addition, in a mixed class the more aggressive students may end up monopolizing classroom discussions. It is the responsibility of teaching assistants to improve the classroom climate for all students. If there is competition among students, it should be reserved for exams.

Every culture fosters particular stereotypes, of men, women, and foreigners. Here we are concerned with stereotyping behavior, which occurs when an instructor unconsciously assumes that a student has particular skills, motives or potential, based on the student's classification in a certain group. As mentioned earlier, the group may be premeds, ethnic minorities, older students, handicapped persons, women, or other group. In the material which follows, we will be focusing primarily on the issues and stereotypes affecting women, but most of the points are applicable to all cases of stereotyping.

Students tend to perform better if they are expected to perform better. The impression which all students should get from their TA is that the TA believes that the students can learn and do well. If, on the other hand, the TA believes that a certain "type" of student will not perform well, that predisposition also tends to be self-fulfilling. This is one of the main problems with stereotypes: stereotypes tend to be limiting. One good way to convey your positive expectations is to EXPRESS CONFIDENCE IN YOUR STUDENTS! This may take different forms. In another university, the mathematics department found that over the years, the 10 students who passed exams for the honors classes were always men. One year, that department approached the women in the other classes and requested that they take the tests for the honors classes. Most of the women said that they did not take the exam because they did not expect to do well. Nevertheless, when women were encouraged to take the exam, it was found that 5 men and 5 women had the highest test scores. This example represents a self-limiting stereotype of women which was not challenged socially for many years.

Women represent 50% of the population, but they are highly underrepresented in science, especially physics, and engineering. This fraction has changed little over the years in spite of affirmative action policies in universities and departments. Most departments indicate that they would like to have more women. However, the stereotyping of women is subtle, largely unconscious by both men and women, and even accepted socially, despite the limiting expectations it tends to impose on women.

There are many reasons why women tend not to end up in science and engineering careers. We will not address all of these reasons here, but instead focus on those which instructors, including TA's, can influence. Since TA's in science and engineering are typically male, some of the difficulties that women undergraduates encounter in science and engineering classes may be due to cultural differences between men and women. Women typically compose a significant fraction of introductory undergraduate classes, but are much less represented in upper level classes. Some studies have indicated that women show interest in science when they enter college, and that part of their loss of interest and self-confidence comes from stereotyping behavior by instructors, advisors and peers, which collectively generate a "chilly classroom climate" for women. This means that colleges and universities must re-examine the way that science and engineering are being taught.

In addition to the important matter of correcting inequities, increasing the number of women in science and engineering has benefits to all concerned. Women in science and engineering benefit by having other women to interact with; men benefit by having a more balanced professional community, fostering creativity and communication; society benefits by having equal representation of all its segments in science; and the fields benefit by tapping the intellectual potential and new ideas of half the population. The pool of women students is the largest pool from which the U.S. can increase the number of scientists and engineers in future years, a matter of growing concern in the nation.

Recommendations for Teaching Assistants and Faculty

  1. Examine your own attitude
    • Occasionally, observe your own behavior and that of people around you. Ask yourself whether you or they inadvertently treat women and men students, or students from differing cultural backgrounds, differently.
  2. Avoid behaviors that contribute to a chilly climate for women students
    • Avoid disparaging (and false) comments about women in general (for example, about women's intellectual abilities or professional potential). Avoid questioning a woman student's seriousness of purpose or academic commitment, even (especially) in a joking style. Women are in college for serious professional reasons, just as men are.
    • Never use sexist humor as a classroom device. If a student uses such humor in a class situation, you may state politely, but clearly, that it is in poor taste. At minimum, do not "go along with" such humor in order to be friendly or nice. Saying simply, "Remarks like that are inappropriate", can go a long way toward eliminating sexist humor, and send a strong, positive message to the other students.
    • Obviously, never refer to a woman's physical attributes in a classroom or work situation. Discuss the work or questions at hand.
    • Avoid comments which indirectly (and incorrectly) imply that women are not as competent as men (for example, "I know that women have trouble with laboratory equipment, but I'll be glad to give you extra help"). Instead, express confidence in the student's ability to learn the unfamiliar material and techniques that you are teaching (for example, "I'm sure you can figure this out").
    • Put men AND women in the examples you use to explain principles (like, "a woman pushing a cart"), and avoid using the male pronoun ("he", "him") exclusively. Sometimes there is a tendency to refer to inanimate objects, like computers, as "he" or "this guy" - be on the lookout for this.
  3. Create a climate that encourages all students to participate in class
    • Make a special effort to draw every student into classroom discussion in the first few meetings of class. Participation patterns established at the beginning of the semester tend to continue. Make a specific effort to call on every student. Learn all the students' names and call on students or refer to their comments by name. Some students may become your favorites, but avoid calling on them more than others.
    • Note patterns of interaction among students or between you and the students. Be aware of tendencies to interrupt another student's comments, to shut out him or her from discussion, or to ignore an unusually quiet student. Make sure that all students have the opportunity to finish their comments. Remember to acknowledge each question or comment. Studies have shown that men tend to interrupt women much more frequently than the reverse, and that teachers often do not "hear" women or respond to them as directly as to men students.
    • Use the concept of "wait time". This means giving students long enough to respond to your questions. The necessary "wait time" can feel excessively long (60-90 seconds).
    • Respond to all students in the same manner. For example, make eye contact with each student when responding to a question. Use the same tone with women and men. Pay full attention to each student. Look for nonverbal cues that indicate that a student would like to ask a question, and then encourage that student to speak.
  4. When Conducting Laboratories
    • Constantly circulate among your students and discuss the laboratory with each person or team, if you can.
    • Laboratory partners tend to have one student as leader and another as follower. Interact with both leader and follower equally. In the middle of the semester, you may suggest that laboratory partners change to partners of more equal ability, but this cannot be forced. Sometimes it is not a matter of ability, but a matter of who is more vocal. Make sure that the less vocal laboratory partner is participating and learning.
  5. Advice to women TA's in classroom situations
      • Be prepared for possible uncomfortable situations/behavior on the part of some students. The following situations are rare, but have been reported by women TA's in other universities. One case typically occurs when a student has made a sexist remark/joke to the TA in class. Another case occurs when men students, misinterpreting the encouragement and extra help that they were receiving from a woman TA outside of class, have asked the woman for a date. The important thing is to anticipate that uncomfortable situations may occur at some point in your teaching career, to consider what your response should be, and not to be caught by surprise. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, you can point out that the behavior is outside the teaching context. You may focus on the work material, indicating that this is the appropriate context of the interaction. In general, DIRECT and honest communication is appropriate in such situations. (For example, "I'd appreciate your not making remarks like that.") If the behavior persists or you continue to feel uncomfortable, there are several lines of action that you may take, with the help of a sympathetic faculty member and/or the University Intercessor. These persons should take your case seriously and ask you what you would like to have happen (for examples: switch your TA assignment, have the student removed from your class).
    1. Grade fairly
        • This is essential. Cases of discrimination (on the basis of gender or race) are far from unheard of. If and when you make up solutions sets or a sample lab report, be sure you have a grading scheme that you can explain to anyone who asks. This may vary from problem to problem and assignment to assignment; the important thing is that you apply it without bias, consistently, to the students in your class. You may also devise a means to conceal from yourself the student's name on the papers you are grading, so as to reduce your bias.
        1. The basis of a good classroom climate
          • TA's often wonder how they can get their students to engage more fully in the class. Here are two points to keep in mind:
            • Listen. Being a good listener is a skill you can develop over time. Careful listening will reveal exactly where a student is having trouble. Listening to the emotional content will reveal if the student's emotional state is interfering with his or her ability to understand the material. Students are known to have a range of emotional reactions to math and science - from frustration, resentment, fear or rebellion to excitement at "getting the hang of it". In science and engineering, we are taught to leave our emotions out of the picture, especially negative emotions. Learning to include the emotional content, to deal with it and help the student work through it, can change the learning experience markedly.
            • Respond, so that the student knows that he or she has been heard. This comes (almost inevitably) after careful listening. Your individualized response lets the student know you care and sets up a clear "transmission line" along which the information you want to convey can get through. Students appreciate an instructor who is able to come to their level, see things from their perspective and then provide the insight that clears up confusion. Look for ways to put control in the students' hands. Although you are the leader and guide in your classroom, students' sense of having control of their learning is essential to their motivation and performance. You may foster their sense of control in different ways: you may ask how they would like to see the class time used; making up your own questionnaire to solicit their (anonymous) feedback; asking them to remind you if you use unfamiliar units or notation, or if you speak too softly or too fast. Some of these ideas make more sense once you have been teaching them for one or two weeks. Student feedback may include suggestions you can pass on to the professor or the department.


        The Concept of Micro-Inequities*

        Woman-First-Professional-Second: emphasizing a person's gender or race, for examples, over that person's identity as a professional. - commenting to a woman, "What is an attractive girl like you doing in physics?" - expecting the woman on a man-and-woman lab team to always be the partner who writes down the data while the man performs the experiment.

        Fishbowl Treatment: putting a person under surveillance by staring or making him/her feel out of place. - staring at a person who happens to be the only foreign/woman/handicapped student in the class or seminar room.

        Elitism: representing your field as too difficult, too specialized, etc., for the person whom you are dealing with to undertake. - going rapidly through an explanation that is over the head of your listener; using terms which are unfamiliar to your listener; trivializing your listener's difficulties.

        Marginalization: treating a person as nominally in the field, department, class, etc., but actually excluding that person from important professional responsibilities, discussions, meetings, functions, conferences. - "forgetting" to invite an RA to lunch with the colloquium speaker, who happens to work in his/her area of research.

        It-Was-Just-A-Joke: trivializing a person's complaints about micro-inequities, whether those listed above or others that come up specifically in a given environment.

        (*) The term "micro-inequities" may be attributed to Jody Asbury, Associate Dean for Policies and Programs, Office of the Dean of Students, College of Arts and Science, University of Rochester. A descriptive list of micro- inequities was first generated by Ms. Asbury in 1989 and has undergone several modifications by Priscilla Auchincloss, corresponding to the evolution of the Climate Workshop. This condensed version was made in September, 1992.

        Alternatives for Improving Classroom Climate

        Equality: giving everyone the same responsibilities.

        Respect: assuming competence in students, while being available to help; expressing confidence in students. - when a student asks a technical question on a laboratory assignment, helping the student think through the steps to the answer.

        Encouraging participation: being alert to participation levels of students in a classroom, and drawing out those who are more quiet while preventing talkative students from dominating. - "lowering the stakes" of participation, by saying "What would you guess?"

        Professionalism: dropping preconceptions and expectations about persons because of their gender, race, age, disability, or other attributes; assuming that a student is serious about working in this area.

        Nurturing: remembering how it felt to struggle to learn something difficult.