Writing Activities to Establish and Improve Classroom Climate

Daniel Emery

In recent years, instructors have heard a great deal about the benefits of fostering a positive classroom climate. Not only does a positive classroom climate help boost students' performance in their assignments and assessments, but it can also encourage students' persistence with challenging courses and topics. Although much of the focus on classroom climate focuses on building effective course policies and managing our learning spaces, brief writing assignments can help to build classroom community, normalize struggle with complex learning, and improve students' self-direction and motivation.

What is classroom climate?

Piece of land breaking off into body of water on coastline.

In How Learning Works, Levitt et al. describe classroom climate as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which students learn” (165).  This includes the features of physical and virtual spaces, the content of classroom conversation, and the processes of recognition and interaction that occur when students are learning. While it may be new to some instructors, research into classroom climate has been around for nearly a century.  

“Climate” is an apt descriptor for the interplay of these dimensions, as it reminds us that different students will experience the same classroom environment differently. For some students, attempts to convey the importance of our subject matter might be perceived as arrogance or coldness. Conversely, efforts to help connect student learning to their personal experience might be perceived as intrusive, invasive, or anxiety-provoking.

Importantly, classroom climate is not reducible to the instructor's personality or extroversion. Our interpersonal experience may incline us to believe that more gregarious, extroverted instructors will be warmer, and that quieter, introverted instructors will be perceived as cooler. In reality, the content of interactions and affirmative steps to create community and belonging greatly influence students' perception of classrooms. Writing assignments, which allow both time and space for all students to contribute, can offer effective opportunities for asynchronous dialogue, which can benefit introverts and extroverts alike.

Writing activities to promote classroom community

Providing students with open-ended questions at the start of class can be an effective way to engage students with each other and promote classroom connections. Ideally, the open-ended question will foster opportunities for different answers, rather than a single correct answer, and will be based in students’ perception and understanding of the course content:

Weaker: How is “environmental protection” defined in Chapter One? (one correct answer)

Better: What are some examples of environmental protection? (multiple correct answers, but multiple incorrect possibilities)

Best: Where have you seen or heard mentions of environmental protection outside the classroom? (Multiple correct answers, but no incorrect ones)

Giving students a short time to answer open-ended questions and additional time to discuss them among classmates and peers (face-to-face or in breakout rooms) can help them build connections with their colleagues. It can be an accessible practice to make these short-answer questions available before class for students who require additional time to process questions and prepare answers. The goal of the small group communication is not to determine the best solution in these instances but rather to give all students a chance to connect to the topic and their classmates.

Writing activities to normalize struggle with complex learning

Our classrooms contain students with a broad range of experience and familiarity with our topics, but whether students are novices or advanced, complex learning can produce self-doubt and discomfort. Writing activities that promote reflection on error can help overcome some of the anxieties accompanying errors or mistakes. Students' beliefs about their limitations or capacity can be transformed through process-oriented reflection.

After an examination or assessment, instructors can introduce short writing activities that allow students to reconsider their wrong answers or errors. Ideally, students will reconsider the task or question, note where an error or misconception occurred in their reasoning, and offer a better response. Rather than a low score becoming evidence for a student’s belief that they “aren’t a strong writer” or “aren’t a physical sciences person,” the chance to revise and reflect will both allow students to see that errors are more common than they might imagine and that they have the capacity to find a better answer with support. For example, in response to a common misconception in chemistry, a student may write:

When contrasting oxidation and reduction, I wrote that reduction reactions result in the loss of electrons, assuming reduction must imply less of something. However, reduction/oxidation is about the gain and loss of oxygen, and fewer oxygen atoms in a reaction creates more available electrons to bond with other atoms. Oxidation occurs when oxygen atoms grab available electrons; its opposite (reduction) means these electrons remain free.

Concepts that cause struggle for most students, because they are counterintuitive, tricky, or complex, can be a source of connection and community as students build their competence. For experienced instructors, examining frequently misunderstood content or common sources of error can guide instruction and provide opportunities for the community.

For more ideas about small writing activities to promote classroom community, learning, and motivation, check out our previous blog posts on early semester writing, fostering classroom belonging, and student motivation.


Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Ambrose, S. A., & Norman, M. K. (2023). How learning works : 8 research-based principles for smart teaching (Second edition.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Further Support

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