Cultivating a Supportive Learning Environment for Students

Course(s): CHM 151 Chemistry Around Us, CHM 251 College Chemistry I, CHM 341 Pharmacology I, CHM 342 Pharmacology II, CHM 352 Medicinal Chemistry II

Department: Chemistry

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor(s): Erin Avram, PhD

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 12 – 200

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Google Forms

Author Bio: Erin Avram earned her Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Iowa and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Pharmacology at Case Western Reserve University. She has been teaching science since 2013 ranging from middle school through graduate students. Currently, she is an Assistant College Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at Cleveland State University and earned the Lily Ng Outstanding Teaching Award in 2022. Dr. Avram’s research interests focus on assessing the impact of the implementation of active learning and inclusive teaching strategies on student learning outcomes.

Abstract: If you walk into a college classroom, you are likely to see many students shopping online, watching movies, and playing games on their phones. Students are often bored and disengaged – if they are showing up at all. An overwhelming theme in these classrooms is the unidirectional flow of information, from the instructor to (or rather “at”) the students. Even though this teacher-centered approach is still used in an overwhelming majority of higher-education STEM classrooms (Stains et al., 2018), this method has been proven ineffective (Cabral-Gouveia et al., 2023; Dewsbury et al., 2022; Freeman et al., 2014; Haak et al., 2011; Harackiewicz et al., 2016; Spitzer & Aronson, 2015; Theobald et al., 2020). The primary goal of my teaching practice has been to change this dynamic in my classroom by focusing on three relationships: the student with the content, the student with their peers, and the student with their instructor. This case study will discuss practical tips for developing engaging learning activities, promoting peer-to-peer relationships, and fostering the student-teacher relationship. Changes I have made in my classroom have increased student success and narrowed achievement gaps between race and gender groups.


During my first semester teaching, I used the department-provided syllabi and defaulted to a didactic and teacher-centered approach that had historically been used in these courses. I quickly realized that this method was not effective, my students were disengaged, distracted, and off-task. Worse yet, I saw a dramatic decrease in the diversity of the students in my classroom as the semester progressed. I didn’t have specific numbers to support this claim, but the change in my classroom diversity was so dramatic that my qualitative observations indicated something was obviously wrong.

I immediately began to change my pedagogy focusing on two goals: 1. implementing a flipped classroom with active learning and 2. creating an inclusive learning environment where all students can be successful. I identified these goals based on evidence that active learning can narrow the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers, particularly in STEM fields (Beichner et al., 2007; Clark, 2023; Freeman et al., 2014; Gaffney et al., 2008; Strelan et al., 2020; Weir et al., 2019). Active learning occurs when students are invited into the learning process through thought, discussion, problem-solving, investigation, and creation. These benefits are enhanced when coupled with inclusive teaching practices, where teaching pedagogy is consciously, intentionally, and continuously adjusted to meet the needs of students across different identities, life experiences, and abilities (Dewsbury et al., 2022; Hogan & Sathy, 2022; Schmid et al., 2016; Theobald et al., 2020).

Goal 1. Developing Engaging Curricula by Implementing Active Learning Strategies and a Flipped Classroom

My implementation of the flipped classroom and active learning strategies were largely based on Doug Talbert’s book “Flipped Learning” and “Teach Your Students How to Learn” by Sandra McGuire (McGuire, 2015; Talbert & Bergmann). These were important intellectual journeys that encouraged me to reflect on and develop how my students were engaging with the course material and how my classes were structured. This process involved identifying specific learning objectives for each day and then creating short lecture videos, homework assignments, and engaging in-class activities that align with and support each day’s learning goals. I reflect daily on what my students will be “doing” during class: how will they engage with new information and how will they formatively explore their level of mastery.

Each of my class meetings has a similar structure so students are familiar and comfortable with the routine. Prior to class, students are expected to engage with the day’s material by either watching a short lecture video or by reading a section of the textbook. These expectations are stated in the syllabus, in the daily announcements in Blackboard, and within each learning module. The students are then welcomed into class each day with several images on the board asking them to reflect on how they are feeling (see Figure 1) and an accompanying check-in survey (create a copy of the instructor template version of this form to edit and reuse). The check-in surveys typically include a metacognition question asking the students to reflect on how they prepared for class, a couple of review questions from the previous day, and a few preview questions for the day’s content. We then review the day’s learning objectives and the plan to achieve them. We do a short review of the major concepts for the day using discussions, writing exercises and/or polls before students begin working in small groups on higher-level learning activities. While students are working in their groups, I walk around the room to answer questions and interact individually with students. These activities, while highly variable, may include analysis of primary research, case studies where they use their knowledge to diagnose patients, or guided activities using interactive websites, such as PhET.

Figure 1. Example images for a check-in survey. Students are asked to choose which image best
represents how they are feeling today.

Goal 2. Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

My other major goal has been to create a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. A key component of the classroom environment is the teacher-student relationship. Research has demonstrated the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the students and the impact this has on student learning outcomes (Cornelius-White, 2007; den Brok et al., 2005; Roorda et al., 2011; Wubbels & Brekelmans, 2005). I intentionally begin building these relationships even before the semester starts, with initial communications to students welcoming them to the semester and sharing some key information about the class. These emails and Blackboard announcements help to ease any concerns or anxiety students may have about how my course will be run. During the first week, I distribute a welcome survey so that I can get to know the students and understand what specific needs or concerns they may have about the semester. I then send a personalized email back to each student, making sure to address concerns they share and to provide information about relevant campus resources such as the mobile campus or TASC. I also make a point to ask students for their preferred pronouns and chosen names (with pronunciation) during this first week. This helps me learn the names of every student in my classes as quickly as possible (even in my large classes!). Learning the students’ names (and using the proper pronunciation) is an important aspect of creating a welcoming and inclusive classroom, and ensures the students know that they are an important contributor and valued member of the learning environment (Cooper et al., 2017; Hogan & Sathy, 2022; Murdoch et al., 2018; O’Brien et al., 2014).

I continue to build and focus on the student-teacher relationship throughout the semester through frequent positive interactions with my students. The use of the flipped classroom is beneficial because it gives me more space within each class meeting to interact with each student in my courses. I make an intentional effort to talk with every student in every class period (this is not possible in my large lecture classes with over 200 students in a single class, but I still try to talk with as many students as I can each day). Students are much more likely to ask questions if they can ask me directly without raising their hands in front of the entire class. I also send check-in emails to students who have missed class, missed an assignment, or did well on a quiz or exam. This set of intentional practices helps me to maintain connections with students, particularly those who may be experiencing challenges in their academic or personal lives. My inclusive practices also allow me to more easily identify and refer students who need extra support services.

In order to assess the student perceptions of the classroom climate, the “What is Happening In This Class” (WIHIC) survey was administered to several of my undergraduate courses at CSU (CSU IRB-FY2023-204). CHM 151 Chemistry Around Us is a non-majors chemistry course (48 students enrolled); CHM 251 College Chemistry I is a required course for pre-nursing majors (129 students enrolled); CHM 342, Pharmacology II and CHM 352 Medicinal Chemistry II are upper-division courses for science majors (19 and 12 students enrolled respectively). This survey is based on the work of Rudolf Moos and validated by Barry Fraser (Fraser, 1998, 2023; Fraser & Treagust, 1986; Moos, 1980; Skordi & Fraser, 2019). This survey was used to assess six aspects of the classroom climate: student cohesiveness, teacher support, involvement, task orientation, cooperation, and equity, with eight items for each category.

Students rated each item as almost never (1), seldom (2), sometimes (3), often (4), and almost always (5). The students’ ratings for each category were converted to numerical rankings and averaged across each item and each category. These values are reported in Table 1 (plus or minus the standard deviation), along with a description of each category and an example item. These scores demonstrate the aspects of the classroom climate that are the strongest for this subset of my classes (teacher support, task orientation, and equity). Interestingly, for each category the scores for the upper-division courses were higher than the lower-division courses, but the overall trends seemed similar.

Table 1. WIHIC Survey results from CHM 151, Chemistry Around Us; CHM 251, College Chemistry I; CHM 342 Pharmacology II; and CHM 352 Medicinal Chemistry II. Approved under IRB FY2023-204.

This survey was advantageous not only in demonstrating areas of strength in my pedagogy but also in identifying potential areas for growth, namely student cohesiveness and involvement. This helped me realize that I had erroneously assumed that since I knew all the students in my classes, that they also knew each other. In reality, students were only interacting with their direct neighbors, those that they regularly worked with on in-class assignments. The other area with the potential for growth is the involvement category, which assesses the extent to which students are sharing their ideas with others and explaining their approach to solving problems. In the future, I plan to incorporate more explicit activities that involve students explaining their ideas to their peers and varying the group structures throughout the semester so students can get to know more people in the class.


I have focused on creating a more engaging and inclusive learning environment in each of my classes by incorporating active learning strategies and building community. The impact of these changes is seen in the results of the WIHIC survey, supporting equity, task orientation, and teacher support as the strongest aspects of my classroom climate. These strengths align with the pedagogical goals I set to identify daily learning objectives, align in-class activities with these goals, and to interact each class with my students and using their chosen names. Building this positive community has had a tremendous effect on student success and narrowing the achievement gap between racial groups (data not shown). My next goal is to improve involvement and student cohesiveness in my classes by revamping some of my in-class activities to involve students sharing their thought processes and providing more structure to the group work and student interactions.

Works Cited

Beichner, R. J., Saul, J. M., Abbott, D. S., Morse, J. J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R. J., . . . Risley, J. S. (2007). The student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs (SCALE-UP) project. Research-based reform of university physics, 1(1), 2-39.

Cabral-Gouveia, C., Menezes, I., & Neves, T. (2023). Educational strategies to reduce the achievement gap: a systematic review [Systematic Review]. Frontiers in Education, 8.

Clark, T. (2023). Narrowing Achievement Gaps in General Chemistry Courses with and without In-Class Active Learning. Journal of Chemical Education, 100(4), 1494-1504.

Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom. CBE Life Sci Educ, 16(1).

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-Centered Teacher-Student Relationships Are Effective: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143.

den Brok, P., Levy, J., Brekelmans, M., & Wubbels, T. (2005). The Effect of Teacher Interpersonal Behaviour on Students’ Subject-Specific Motivation. The Journal of Classroom Interaction, 40(2), 20-33.

Dewsbury, B. M., Swanson, H. J., Moseman-Valtierra, S., & Caulkins, J. (2022). Inclusive and active pedagogies reduce academic outcome gaps and improve long-term performance. PLoS One, 17(6), e0268620.

Fraser, B. J. (1998). Classroom Environment Instruments: Development, Validity and Applications. Learning Environments Research, 1(1), 7-34.

Fraser, B. J. (2023). The Evolution of the Field of Learning Environments Research. Education Sciences, 13(3).

Fraser, B. J., & Treagust, D. F. (1986). Validity and use of an instrument for assessing classroom psychosocial environment in higher education. Higher Education, 15(1), 37-57.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Gaffney, J. D., Richards, E., Kustusch, M. B., Ding, L., & Beichner, R. J. (2008). Scaling up education reform. Journal of college science teaching, 37(5), 48.

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213-1216.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Closing achievement gaps with a utility-value intervention: Disentangling race and social class. J Pers Soc Psychol, 111(5), 745-765.

Hogan, K., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Moos, R. H. (1980). Evaluating classroom learning environments. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 6(3), 239-252.

Murdoch, Y. D., Hyejung, L., & Kang, A. (2018). Learning students’ given names benefits EMI classes. English in Education, 52(3), 225-247.

O’Brien, M., Leiman, T., & Duffy, J. (2014). The Power of Naming: The Multifaceted Value of Learning Students’ Names. QUT Law Review, 14.

Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The Influence of Affective Teacher-Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.

Schmid, M. E., Gillian-Daniel, D. L., Kraemer, S., & Kueppers, M. (2016). Promoting Student Academic Achievement Through Faculty Development about Inclusive Teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(5), 16-25.

Skordi, P., & Fraser, B. J. (2019). Validity and use of the What Is Happening In this Class? (WIHIC) questionnaire in university business statistics classrooms. Learning Environments Research, 22, 275-295.

Spitzer, B., & Aronson, J. (2015). Minding and mending the gap: Social psychological interventions to reduce educational disparities. Br J Educ Psychol, 85(1), 1-18.

Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., . . . Young, A. M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470.

Strelan, P., Osborn, A., & Palmer, E. (2020). The flipped classroom: A meta-analysis of effects on student performance across disciplines and education levels. Educational Research Review, 30, 100314.

Talbert, R., & Bergmann, J. Flipped learning : a guide for higher education faculty (First edition ed.).

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., . . . Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476-6483.

Weir, L. K., Barker, M. K., McDonnell, L. M., Schimpf, N. G., Rodela, T. M., & Schulte, P. M. (2019). Small changes, big gains: A curriculum-wide study of teaching practices and student learning in undergraduate biology. PLOS ONE, 14(8), e0220900.

Wubbels, T., & Brekelmans, M. (2005). Two decades of research on teacher–student relationships in class. International Journal of Educational Research, 43(1), 6-24.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *