Creating a Positive Learning Environment

January 6, 2016
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Regardless of where they are set – an evening class, school, university, workplace or anywhere else – positive learning environments share the same characteristics. Together, these characteristics add up to more effective learning and happier, more productive learners.

Six Elements to a Positive Learning Environment

  1. Comfort
  2. Teacher/Student Ratio
  3. Attitude
  4. Variety
  5. Debate
  6. Structure

1. Comfort

First things first, learners need to be comfortable. If they’re too hot, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, or surrounded by distractions, they’re not going to be able to concentrate on what they’re learning. To that end, creating the right physical learning environment is essential.

  • Temperature

The temperature should neither be too hot nor too cold; the World Health Organisation recommends indoor temperatures of between 18°C and 24°C, but the upper end of this range may prove sleep-inducing and the lower not quite warm enough, so aim for somewhere in the middle and experiment.

If your learning space tends to experience extremes of temperature, invest in extra heaters or fans as appropriate.

  • Furniture

Next, turn your attention to the furniture. Seating and desks should be comfortable, with plenty of space for learning materials to be spread out. The best furniture for learning may not necessarily be the traditional desk and chair; depending on who you’re teaching (university students or professional workers, for instance), comfy sofas or armchairs might create a more comfortable learning environment.

Primary school children discuss heated topics in the school library

  • Lighting

The optimum learning environment is well-lit, with minimal contrast, ensuring that learners can read without straining their eyesight. Plenty of natural light is desirable.

  • Inspire

A positive learning environment should be an inspiring space, and this is rarely achieved by an unattractive or noisy learning environment. Clutter should be kept to a minimum, though it should be well-equipped with the necessary books and materials for the subject being taught. When not in use, such materials can be stored away in cupboards to keep them tidy. The room should be quiet, with distractions kept to a minimum.

Different people are inspired by different things, and a positive learning environment should therefore be tailored to the group of people you’re working with. For example, university students might feel inspired by a scholarly atmosphere created by shelves full of academic books; children by having their own work displayed on the walls.

2. Teacher/Student Ratio

There’s a reason why Oxford and Cambridge Universities have stood by their one-to-one tutorial system for centuries. It’s because a low student to teacher ratio means that students get more personal attention and can’t just hide behind other students when they don’t feel like answering a question.

There’s more interaction between teacher and learner, and among learners, in groups with a low teacher/student ratio, and greater scope for personalising the learning experience. What’s more, a low student to teacher ratio eliminates possibilities for students to talk among themselves at the back of the classroom, creating a better learning environment in which everyone is required to contribute.

3. Attitude

Perhaps the most important positive learning environment trait of all is the positive attitude of the teacher, which leads to a greater relationship between teacher and learners. ‘Wrong’ answers are never ridiculed in a positive learning environment; students should feel able to ask questions or even challenge the opinions of the teacher, thus rewarding and building on the intellectual curiosity that leads to excellent learning outcomes.

Students must feel that the teacher cares about them, values their opinions, and views them as capable. Perhaps most significant are teachers’ expectations of their learners; students tend to fulfil teachers’ expectations, so expect great things of them and the theory goes that they will achieve great things.

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4. Variety

Within this structure, there should be scope for variety. There’s no quicker way to bore students than applying the same predictable format to every single learning session. Optimum positive learning environments make use of a variety of learning techniques so that learners stay interested and focused.

One session might centre on peer-to-peer learning, with the group divided into pairs working together; another might get learners out into the field. Related to this is class length. Optimum class length depends on the age of the students, but a great positive learning environment takes this into account, finding the ‘sweet spot’ for that particular group – not too short, not too long.

5. Debate

In the optimum positive learning environment, curiosity is encouraged and healthy debate is the order of the day. Debate is a great way of stimulating curiosity, boosting learners’ confidence and building on knowledge, as it means they need to think through their arguments carefully in order to defend them. This also means that they need to dissect and understand the opposing opinions, which leads to a more well-rounded knowledge of the subject in question.

In an optimum learning environment, the teacher ensures that all learners participate, prompting with questions and drawing quieter learners into the debate. This way, a group of learners can arrive at a deeper understanding of the topic in a much more stimulating way than simply reading about it in a book.


6. Structure

Effective positive learning environments need to have some structure to them – a lack of it means that learning is aimless. Teaching should be provided in a clear framework with well-defined goals, both for individual learning sessions and for the longer term.

Tying in with this is defining outcomes and, if applicable, assessment; learners need to have a clear understanding of what they’re working towards and how the outcomes of their learning will be measured.

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