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Building a Classroom Culture that Paves the Way to Learning

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Best of the NEE

Tagged Division

New Engineering Educators

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.274.1 - 25.274.8

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Paper Authors


Brian Swartz P.E. University of Hartford

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Brian Swartz is Assistant Professor of civil engineering at the University of Hartford. He received his degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, where he also taught for two years. He was a visiting faculty for one year at Bucknell University before joining the University of Hartford. He teaches courses in structural engineering and pursues research related to concrete bridges.

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A Healthy Classroom Culture Paves the Way for LearningThis paper conveys the author’s lessons learned from the first five years in engineeringinstruction. The author has observed that a healthy classroom culture is both difficult to achieveand vitally important to a productive educational experience. It seems that students enter mostcourses biased against the professor and expecting the professor to be aligned against them. Thisis an unfortunate reality, and an obstacle that must be overcome for successful teaching. As theinstructor, convincing students that you have their best interests in mind becomes a crucial task.The author has identified six important strategies in establishing a classroom culture that fosterslearning:First, the instructor should hold himself to a very high standard, leading by example in theclassroom. All teachers tell their students to work hard, but the message is quickly lost whenstudents sense the teacher taking lazy shortcuts or exhibiting poor motivation. When thestudents see their leader working hard, they respect those efforts and respond with like behavior.Second, all assignments should have a clear purpose that is obvious not just to the teacher, butalso to the students. Students loathe any aspect of a course that they consider to be a waste oftheir time. Unfortunately, they have had teachers – or at least they perceive that they have hadteachers – who have wasted their time with meaningless assignments. If they understand theimportance of the assignment, and the course as a whole, for that matter, they will be bettermotivated to put forth their best effort.Third, the teacher must establish the “real-world” relevance of the material. Many students arenot motivated to pursue studies that are merely “academic.” They need to see a practicalapplication of the knowledge, and this helps bring the topic into better perspective.Fourth, the teacher must provide frequent and timely constructive feedback, both positively andnegatively. Students should never be left wondering what their level of understanding is on aparticular subject. The instructor should provide a meaningful assessment, or give the studentthe means to assess his own understanding. Sometimes assertive, but respectful, feedbackconvincing a student of his shortcomings in the subject is exactly the boost he needs, and heleaves the experience with great respect for the professor who was willing to provide it.Fifth, the teacher should challenge the student to think, but not exasperate him. If the student isnot led to think, he will not learn. But if the instructor is too harsh with challenges that arebeyond the student’s reach, he is left despising both the subject and the teacher. That attitude is amajor obstacle to learning.Finally, the teacher should communicate often with the class, soliciting feedback and respondingto student suggestions. Most classes will have many different learning styles representedamongst the students and it can be challenging to figure out exactly what teaching approachesand classroom strategies work the best for each class. The author has found students veryreceptive to discussions related to finding the best way for the class to learn the material. And agenuine apology from the teacher when a strategy has clearly failed is appreciated by thestudents.Through the author’s experience and observations, these principles help to establish anenvironment that facilitates learning. Once the students are receptive to learning, conveying theinformation becomes simple and truly enjoyable.

Swartz, B. (2012, June), Building a Classroom Culture that Paves the Way to Learning Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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