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An active learning assignment requires a safe learning climate

Last updated on 21 February 2024
Would you like your students to be motivated and enjoy participating in activating learning methods such as discussions or collaborative exercises? Make sure that your teaching takes place in a safe learning climate. You can promote this by agreeing on basic rules for discussion and interaction with the students.

Ground rules improve interaction and discussion
If you use active learning methods, not all students might participate actively, even though that is expected of them. This may be because these students do not dare to speak out, feel insecure or uneasy. This can occur when it's unclear how they can discuss or interact with you as a teacher or with each other, respectfully.

Whether they are discussing their approach to a maths assignment, or their political viewpoints – promoting a safe learning climate works the same way. Discussing expectations of how the students can express their knowledge or opinions in a group, will promote a safe learning environment in all teaching situations. It's also a good idea to mention what active participation really means. 

It's best to draw up the ground rules together with the students, this way they become co-owners of the rules themselves. You can do this, for example, by having students write ground rules on post-it notes and pin them to a board. You can also collect statements anonymously, for example with Mentimeter.

Examples of such jointly established ground rules could be: 

  • we communicate in a respectful way; 
  • we show interest in each other's points of view; 
  • we appreciate it when differences of opinion are expressed (and we recognise that this is not easy for everyone); 
  • we give room for mistakes and learning. 

You could also remind students of the commonly used rules for communicating in a connective way, such as 'be an OEN' (being Open, Honest and Curious). See this image for six common rules of thumb. You can also print this document and hang it on the wall of the classroom.

Take a close look at your teaching: is the learning climate safe?
To find out if there is a safe learning climate, talk to your students to find out if they experience a safe learning climate.

One way is to simply address this subject in the classroom. However, try to be mindful of doing this in a safe way. If, for whatever reason, the students do not feel safe enough to speak up, they may say that everything is okay, or not respond at all.

You can avoid this by using an exercise that guarantees (some degree of) anonymity. For example, with the 'exit-slip' exercise. The students write down how they experienced the learning climate on post-it notes before they leave the classroom. They can answer a specific question, for example:

  • Did you feel well understood?
  • How did you contribute to a safe learning climate?
  • What worries you? 

Have the students put the post-its on a stack to make the collection anonymous and therefore more safe. For larger groups, an online tool such as Mentimeter can be more fitting. Discuss the results at the next meeting.

If the discussion and observance of the ground rules goes well, active learning exercises will be beneficial for even more students.

This tip is based on the VU Mixed Classroom Educational Model. It contains more tips on creating a safe and inclusive learning environment.