Learning from my Classroom Learning Community?
By Alex Urquhart
Have you ever noticed each new class is different in terms
of learning style and personality? Of course every student is unique—they are
individuals after all—but as a group I notice these individual characteristics
blend and coalesce into a group identity. Like having a child, the class starts unknown
to me but as it ages a unique personality emerges. I have had classrooms that
act as self-raised flowers: ones that learn with minimal intervention. I have
had the Lisa Simpson-classroom where the students seem insatiable for new knowledge
and the extrinsic proof that they have acquired it. I have had the quiet, smart
kid: a class that asks minimal questions but produces incredible results.
Sometimes I find these "personalities" rewarding and they assist
the learning process. Other times they are the problem child I want to grow up
and move out. What continually astounds me is that these different “class
identities” emerge despite the fact that I am generally doing the same thing.
The explanation of this phenomenon that I found most elucidating
is that of community. Groups of students, like any group of people forced to
coexist in time and space (even virtual space), form communities. Communities
set norms, work together or against each other in specific ways, and even develop
ways of knowing and understanding.
Kay, Summers, and Svinicki (2011), in their literature review
and conceptual analysis, researched this phenomenon as the classroom community.
A concept they claimed comes from the meeting of psychology and education and
can actually be measured using the Integrated Sense of Community Scale (ISCS).
How well a classroom embodies the ISCS determines how effective they will be as
a whole when working together as a learning community. Although there are a
number of items in the diagnostic, there are four major categories that
determine an effective classroom community: 1) students and instructor have shared
goals and responsibility; 2) engagement is shared between students; 3) the
students have a positive relationship with the instructor; and 4) there are opportunities
for peer learning where students learn from one another.
Kay et al. (2011) argued that the role of the instructor is
to provide opportunities for an effective community to emerge while providing content.
This means connecting your objectives with those of the students, doing things
that let students know they can depend on you and they can depend on each
other, engaging student comments and ideas, ensuring students treat each other
As I read through the ISCS questioner of what to look for,
it was a litany of the things Dr. Hines and CELT speakers have been telling me for
years. I believe, at least to a certain extent, I have integrated these techniques
into my course design, but understanding a classroom community reminds me that
when desirable community traits emerge I do not need to do as much to foster
those traits. When the undesirable ones show their ugly head, it is my job to
foster those elements of community that are missing.
With my self-raised flower and my quiet, smart kid I now
realize I needed to foster a better relationship between the students and me.
My self-raised flower classroom thought it did not need me and my quiet smart
kid found me unapproachable. I know this because I went back and saw this in my
evaluations. In my Lisa Simpson-classroom the students were competing for extrinsic
rewards and did not have a sense of shared engagement or peer-learning. Again,
I saw this in my evaluations. My students in that class wrote disparaging comments
about other students and told me how well they did.
My students were telling me what they needed in terms of
classroom community. My classrooms may have different personalities, but I need
listen to what each of those personalities need. I need to not sit back and
comment on them; I need to work to actively form them.
You may wonder if this concept of classroom community
applies to online classrooms. I know I did. In fact, Cho, Hathcoat, Bridges,
Mathew, and Beng (2014) found that the ISCS is an equally important and
effective way to measure classroom community in an online-classroom. However,
they also noted that students generally reported a lower sense of community in online
classrooms. Perhaps it is even more important.
Now I need your help. Most of the research on classroom
community is K-12. Its importance is well established there. However, there is
debate about whether a classroom community is actually applicable when students
are not together 7 hours a day 5 days a week. So what do you think? Click here to share a story or give your opinion.
Cho, Y., Hathcoat, J. D., Bridges, S. L., Mathew, S., &
Bang, H. (2014). Factorial invariance of an integrated measure of classroom
sense of community in face-to-face and online courses. Journal Of
Psychoeducational Assessment, 32(8), 725-736. doi:10.1177/0734282914543170
Kay, D., Summers, J. J., & Svinicki, M. D. (2011).
Conceptualizations of classroom community in higher education: Insights from
award winning professors. Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative
Research, 5(4), 230-245.