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How and what you communicate can have a profound influence on students’ achievement of the learning outcomes. Communication in the classroom happens at multiple levels, and with multiple purposes, both in our explicit language and interaction, and within implicit ideas and concepts. Communication also represents a fundamental component of most teaching practices, no matter what structure an instructor applies. In lecture-style classrooms, learning follows a transmission-oriented structure, with the instructor communicating key ideas, concepts, frameworks, and methods to students through speaking as well as visual and physical communication tools. In discussion- or group-oriented classes, communication is more dialogic — a back and forth between students as peers or between students and the instructor.

In more discussion-oriented classes, as the instructor, you may be seeking out and addressing confusion, or guiding student discussion in a particular direction. Or you may take a more exploratory approach in which you support students in developing their own ideas, values, and concepts, rather than having a single, expected solution or path. In these interactive discussions, it is important to develop awareness of who is and is not participating, and to develop strategies to invite participation in appropriate manners from all members of the learning environment.

Practices that support effective communication

Foster a growth mindset: It is important to fundamentally believe that all students are capable of not only passing, but thriving in a course, and this includes students who get off to a rough start for whatever reason. We need to ensure that our communication conveys this belief in their ability to succeed, rather than reinforces potential self-doubts, particularly in moments when students encounter a challenge.

Share information in multiple modes: It is common to begin and/or end class with announcements about logistics and upcoming assignments and activities. This is important information, but don’t limit yourself to these times. Incorporate reminders and mentions of upcoming assignments and activities into discussions during the class to help facilitate students making connections between their learning at the moment and other things they will do in the course. Also, put this information in emails and in Brightspace where it can be easily found and accessed.

Invite questions and confusion: Instructors often want to encourage students to ask questions when they feel uncertain, but instructor mannerisms, phrasing, and/or body language may suggest otherwise. Instead of asking, “This makes sense, right?” which assumes everything should make sense, try asking, “What questions do you have?” or “Where are you confused?” These approaches normalize confusion and questions so that they can be addressed. Additionally, after asking for questions, give students time to process and think of a question. This means waiting at least seven seconds (often more) and using your body language and mannerisms to invite those questions rather than imply a desire to move forward to the next topic. If you merely move on or ask and then quickly turn to prepare the next portion of a lesson, your actions may suggest a lack of interest in questions.

Be prepared to identify and address microaggressions: When students are concerned about their well-being in a classroom environment, they are unable to dedicate sufficient cognitive resources to learning. Students pick up on nonverbal cues — intentional or unintentional — that may be interpreted as bias toward or against a group of people. This means being aware of what your choices in examples and stories might communicate, as well as how statements from students in the class may affect others. As instructors, we strive to ensure that the environment is one that allows everyone to thrive. This also means addressing harassment in the moment with care for those affected.

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