Innovative Strategies to Promote Academic Success

In his book, Effective Educational Environments, Jean Stockard examines classroom environmental factors that promote student achievement. Stockard approaches these factors from a social, psychological, and then physical environment in the schools. Stockard also notes that, “Completion of certain levels of schooling, more than simply learning a given amount of material, facilitates entry into occupations” (Stockard 1992). Stockard distinguishes between attainment and achievement, stating that attainment is a more accurate indicator of student success; however, due to the fact that many studies cited list achievement as the dependent variable, achievement is the term used throughout the book. In all of these cases, Stockard believes that environment does impact student performance: “[L]iterature consistently indicates that schools and classrooms that have strong academic norms, an orderly environment, supportive and effective leadership, and warm, supportive interpersonal relationships have higher achievement” (Stockard 1992).

Some of the classroom environment factors that influence student achievement are straightforward, but some of them are pretty unexpected. For example, Kachel believes that the low divorce rate in Amish households fosters academic success. Douglas Kachel examines the one-room schoolhouse environment within Amish cultures and notes that in spite of the lack of physical environmental accommodations such as electricity or running water, students meet the same test scores and sometimes outperform their peers at parochial and public schools (Kachel 1989). Kachel believes that the psychological safeguards associated with a stable home environment as well as the strong integration of the school with the community produces these results. The one area in which these schools fall behind is vocabulary (Kachel 1989). The term that Kachel uses to include the psychological strengths found in Amish communities is “social capital,” and the work of Coleman in 1988 echoes Kachel’s findings: social capital has a strong impact on education achievement.

Another less than straightforward approach to changing the classroom environment in order to improve student performance examined the “power” dynamic of classrooms. Similar to social capital, this was not a tangible change that the teacher could implement in the physical realm. It consisted of including students in the scientific inquiry process with the belief that instilling a sense of competency will affect students’ achievement positively. In the article, “Power in the Classroom: How the Classroom Environment Shapes Students’ Relationships With Each Other and With Concepts,” University of Washington professors Lindsay Cornelius and Leslie Herrenkohl call for a shift in the way that teachers communicate with their students. They fault the traditional model of class that involves teachers talking for the majority of class, and then only engaging students by asking them direct questions. They view an effective classroom environment as one that promotes students to “talk science” with the teacher and take on an active role in the process of scientific inquiry (Cornelius & Herrenkohl 2004).

Advancements in technology have taken us away from the traditional model in an interesting way. Virtual classrooms permit easy access to electronic copies of course materials, as well as provide a virtual hub for students to comment on class readings. In the article, “Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement,” University of Washington professor Sapna Cheryan and her colleagues reference the adaptation to learning this online forum provides: “As the use of virtual classroom environments continues to grow, care should be taken in how these spaces are designed to create a virtual classroom culture that is welcoming to all students” (Cheryan et. al 2014). Cheryan references the potential negative effects resulting from such an easily accessible and anonymous portal. It is therefore in the hands of the course facilitator to establish guidelines for acceptable posts, as well as respectful ways to respond to the posts of classmates.

In this article, Cheryan also speaks of the ways that physical classrooms (outside the realm of the web and online classrooms) affect student performance. She lists inadequate lighting, noise, low air quality, and deficient heating as legitimate concerns to a students’ ability to succeed in the classroom. When these symptoms occur, Cheryan claims they are directly related to worsened academic performance (Cheryan 2014). Cheryan also gives a voice to minorities by connecting the fact that the people most likely to suffer from these environmental handicaps are black students from poor neighborhoods. A failure to address the conditions in which students learn not only lowers grades, it holds racial biases in place. Cheryan also cites scientific studies that prove a classroom’s décor positively influences student learning (Cheryan et. al 2014).

Another component to classroom environment that impacts student performance is class size. One study conducted in Tennessee demonstrated that small class sizes are linked with achievement benefits for “all students in all schools” (Nye et. al 2000). This belief was not universally held until recently. In a study published in 1989, Dr. Hanushek argued that the effects of a small class size must be small due to the lack of substantial amount of statistical significant evidence available (Hanushek 1989); however, this preceded Nye’s study and numerous other sources echo the modern belief that small class size does positively impact student performance. A potential explanation for Hanushek’s perspective was the lack of knowledge available to him at the time. In 2016, the data speaks a different story. Small class size is good for student performance.

It is not surprising when one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that some research articles choose to focus on creating classrooms that are safe. In “Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment,” Lynn C. Holley and Sue Steiner reference a study that examined 121 baccalaureate and masters students at a university to uncover that safe environments affected both “what and how much they learned” (Holley & Steiner 2005). An example of how classrooms might fall short that Holley and Steiner are concerned about is that, in an attempt to create a space that promotes honest dialogue, a teacher may fail to create a feeling of safety for all students in the classroom (Holley & Steiner 2005). For example, a teacher may open the class up to a dialogue about injustice that could leave one or more members of the class feeling left out or in the minority due to differing beliefs or backgrounds. They also stress the importance of educating teachers so that these mistakes do not occur.

Unfortunately, even topics as universally accepted as safety are not blanket statements that mean the same thing for every student. An interesting study that was conducted for the performance of music ensembles in schools explored the idea that not every student benefits from the same classroom environment. In regards to the concern of safety mentioned in Holley’s editorial, this article found that “some students were found to thrive academically in classrooms that were high in competition, order, structure and teacher control, while other students found such environments threatening” (Halmann et. al 1990). Halmann’s article is interesting because it demonstrates that even when one agrees about concerns that affect the classroom environment (which ultimately affects student performance) such as safety, there is not always a clear answer on how best to attain a classroom that exhibits these ideals. Even in Holley’s article, the ability to speak openly and honestly could be helping the students who do not feel “unsafe” in such an environment. It is therefore at the teacher’s discretion to prioritize classroom organization in such a way as to benefit the most people.

Arguments for the importance of classroom environment were not always a summary detailing ways to improve a teacher’s classroom. There were also articles that argued for the importance of classroom environment as being the penultimate determination of success. One such article, entitled “The Classroom Environment: First, Last and Always” goes so far as to say it is the first and last concern for pedagogical instruction. Specific examples the authors include are how class materials are organized, such as a supply of paper and markers in an activity area will encourage students to create and explore. Another article takes a more balanced approach to promoting classroom environment as a future predictor of success. In “The Relation of Kindergarten Classroom Environment to Teacher, Family, and School Characteristics and Child Outcomes,” Robert Pianta and his colleagues examine public schools for young children and uncover two factors to be explored. The first is the importance of early school years for later school outcomes, and the second examines the quality of preschool and early childhood settings. Although Pianta is in agreement that classrooms affect a students’ ability to learn, he fails to go so far as to say it is the “first and last” predictor of success.

Regardless of whether one believes that the classroom is the most important predictor of success that goes on in the classroom, the evidence provided in these articles shows that the classroom environment does have a significant impact on how students perform. Also, although factors are not always clear on how best to benefit the most students, there are many environment factors that are universal. Teachers are encouraged to implement as many of these as possible in their classrooms. A summary of these include good class organization, small class size, adequate lighting, little-to-no noise, sufficient heating and/or air conditioning, positive social capital, class discussions that actively involve students, online environments that are respectful of all individuals, and—to the best of the teacher’s ability—a classroom environment that is considered a safe place.

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