Framing a Supportive Classroom Climate (Case Study 4)

Retaining Women through Inclusive Pedagogy

Professor Melissa O’Neill at Harvey Mudd College observed a vexing problem in her data structures course: a few outspoken students often created a caustic classroom climate. They would typically sit in the front of the class, shoot up their hands to answer every question, and blurt out comments. These displays of prowess made competition the norm — and made it harder for Professor O’Neill to get other students to speak. In course evaluations and during office hours, students said that class was dominated by “loud, pedantic” students and that they “felt dumb” asking questions. Yet conversations with the quieter students revealed that not only were they not dumb, they knew at least as much as their vocal peers. To overcome this problem, Professor O’Neill developed a method for explicitly framing a supportive classroom climate. From the beginning of the term, she makes salient what is important, what she expects students to feel about class, and how she expects them to behave. These expectations must be reinforced throughout the term, however, to avoid backsliding into old routines. O’Neill maintains the frame in her teaching choices, using a turn-taking approach for speaking, small group discussion and problem solving, and collaborative learning in labs.


An interpretive frame is a set of unspoken beliefs and assumptions for interpreting situations. A frame also implies that certain events can be expected, but not others. For example, at the end of class time, it is expected that even when the professor is still talking, students will (noisily) pack up their materials to leave, signaling the end of class to the professor. Yet this behavior would be considered odd (if not rude) when 20 minutes of class remain.

Framing is explicitly creating a perspective that will strongly influence how students interpret events in class. For example, faculty can say that students with prior knowledge of the content won’t learn as much in this class or can’t show as much learning as others. If reinforced, these statements can create the expectation that students should be more concerned with new learning rather than with what they already know, and that students’ prior knowledge is valued less.


Create a deck of “trading cards” with students’ names and photos. At the beginning of class, shuffle the deck to randomize it. When you ask a question of students, turn over the top card: it’s that student’s turn to answer. (Be sure to ask the question before turning over the card to avoid the perception that certain students are picked on.) The student has three choices: answer; ask a clarifying question; or “pass” (in this case, insert the card into the deck just a few cards down instead of putting it at the bottom). If a student gives a right answer, talk to them about why it’s right. If a student gives a wrong answer, praise him or her for trying and talk about why it’s wrong. Make your classroom a safe sanctuary for making mistakes by reinforcing a trial and error approach to learning.

Students report that this is an unbiased way of being called on. It also helps to minimize students “showing off,” since it’s not their turn, and can draw more reserved students into active participation.


Framing Goal

Beginning of Term: Set Up the Frame

Throughout the Term: Maintain the Frame

Expected Knowledge is Explicit

Make explicit what you expect students to already know and what you don’t expect them to know. Let students know that learning new things is valued, while parroting back what they already know is not.

Implementation Idea: O’Neill uses a pre-course survey on which students rate their knowledge about key course concepts (“know nothing” to “know a lot”). By presenting the survey results back to students on the first day, she can explicitly demonstrate the range of knowledge and comment on whether they are expected to know certain concepts or not.

Have a plan for dealing with vocal students who blurt out tangential or irrelevant comments or who try to answer every question.

Implementation idea: Talk to students outside of class when they are not following the “rules.” Remind them about your goals for the course. Make them your ally. Avoid embarrassing them in front of the whole class, since that might lead other students to distrust you.

All Students Speak in Class

Discuss your expectations about how vocal or reserved students should be. Explicitly state that every student is expected to respond to questions. Ask those who are typically reserved to be more vocal and those who are vocal to be more reserved.

Implementation idea: O’Neill asks students their usual style on the pre-course survey, shows them that they are part of a larger group of people like themselves, and then asks them to go outside of their comfort zone.

Use a turn-taking approach to reduce student anxiety about their status among peers. All students speak when it is their turn.

Implementation idea: see box “it’s in the cards”

Wrong Answers & Mistakes are Expected and Valued

Make the classroom a safe place to make mistakes and propose wrong answers.

Implementation idea: Ask students to think about whether they like making mistakes or hate it. This creates the opportunity to talk about the value of making mistakes for learning and to reinforce a growth mindset. It also creates the opportunity to remind students that everyone is wrong sometimes, and though they may be concerned with how they’ll look to other students, chances are that the other students are more worried about themselves.

When students give a wrong answer, be sure to explicitly state that it is wrong, but praise the opportunity to explore why it is wrong. Routinely reverse students’ beliefs that wrong answers are embarrassing; rather, mistakes are an important part of scientific discovery.

Implementation idea: Say, “that is not the right answer, but I am so glad that you brought it up, because it is a common misconception and gives us the opportunity to come up with the right answer.”

Students are Part of a Learning Community

Describe your expectations for students as learners (e.g., partners in peer learning, how to give you and each other feedback, etc.), and what they can expect from you. You can subtly imply that they want to learn rather than imply that there is material they have to learn.

Implementation idea: Ask students to write responses to “What excites you about taking this class?” and “What will you want help with?” in a one-minute paper in class or in a survey. Collect papers and randomly (and anonymously) present responses. Be sure to avoid judgments in discussing responses.

Use teaching approaches that require that students take ownership of their learning and co-learn concepts. Small group approaches can take the pressure off of students who worry about making mistakes in front of the class, can reduce their reliance on you as the source of all learning, and allows students to articulate their learning to classmates in their own words. Students will also implicitly gather information about “who knows what” in class.

Implementation ideas: Add structured, collaborative approaches like small group discussion to lecture or use peer-led team learning. Use pair programming in lab. At Harvey Mudd College, O’Neill found that fewer students came to office hours and had better-articulated questions when she required pair programming.



  • Barker, L., O’Neill, M., & Kazim, N. (2014). Framing classroom climate for student learning and retention in computer science. Proceedings of the 45th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. ACM, New York, NY. (pp. 319–324). doi:10.1145/2538862.2538959

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Authors: Lecia Barker and Christopher Lynnly Hovey

Case Study Contributor: Melissa O’Neill, Harvey Mudd College