A safe learning environment is free of threat of emotional or psychological harm and allows students to risk exploring difficult issues and express their views honestly. Emotional dynamics are different for each student, but there are general ways we can establish a learning climate that allows all students to participate and work with issues that are challenging to them. We want students to express their ideas without threat of judgement or prejudice. We want students to believe that their ideas are valued. Students will experience conflict, but an effective and compassionate instructor can help manage this conflict.
Holley and Steiner (2005) investigated student perceptions of a safe learning environment and discovered the following characteristics:
The instructor in a safe learning environment:
- avoided judgement and bias,
- provided ground rules,
- demonstrated comfort with controversy and conflict,
- required classroom participation,
- demonstrated caring for each student, and
- shared about self when applicable and appropriate, and
- was comfortable and knowledgeable.
The peers in a safe learning environment:
- had good discussion skills and were good listeners,
- shared their thoughts honestly,
- were nonjudgmental and positive,
- had a sense of community, and
- constructively challenged each other’s thoughts.
Instructors can create a similar safe, inclusive learning environment by:
- examining their own assumptions about their students;
- learning about their students and helping students get to know one another through activities such as icebreakers or group work;
- using inclusive language that can be understood by all in the classroom and providing definitions of cultural translations as needed;
- providing examples and materials representing diverse backgrounds;
- avoiding asking one individual to speak for a group;
- determining if diverse perspectives are represented in the curriculum;
- providing constructive and frequent feedback to students;
- modeling effective and meaningful classroom discussion and participation;
- conveying care for students; and
- establishing guidelines for discussion and classroom behavior.
Holley, L. C. & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(1), 49 -64.