As you begin your semester, you should be thinking about how trust matters in your classroom, and how to build it. Trust in an academic setting may be defined as “a perception that the instructor understands the challenges facing students as they progress through the course, accepts students for who they are, and cares about the educational welfare of students” (1). While your own definition may differ slightly, it likely will contain a description of a classroom dynamic that most instructors will find worth pursuing.
Is “trust” an important factor in learning outcomes in STEM classrooms? In a word, yes. Research from Wang et al. suggests that high degrees of trust in classrooms with high levels of evidence-based teaching practices was predictive of student buy-in and commitment, which in turn was positively associated with a student’s final course grade and persistence in science (2).
If trust is a critical part of your inclusive learning environment, how do you know whether your classroom is a high-trust one? One way is by surveying your students early on in the semester – which in itself is an opportunity to build trust with your students. Fortunately, relatively simple surveys for assessing inclusive learning and trust are readily available (see Ref. 1; supplemental materials). If you are already taking the temperature of your classroom via early-semester anonymous student surveys, consider asking your students whether they feel understood, accepted, and cared for – in other words, whether you have their trust.
What can you do if you realize that your commitment to an inclusive learning environment is not being reflected by high levels of trust? One recommendation is to consider various aspects of your course structure and consider a) whether they benefit students, and b) whether students realize that this is the case.
There are many ways to consider course design, though you may find it helpful to consider three distinct components of your learning environment:
Content and Pedagogy: Are my expectations realistic? Do I provide clarity, transparency, and opportunity to practice and reflect on learning progress?
Assessment structure: Do I assess early and frequently? Do I use criterion-reference assessments? Is there appropriate flexibility in how the grade is being determined? Do I offer opportunity for practice and revision, if appropriate?
Class climate: What am I doing to make sure students understand I am in their corner? Do I obtain anonymous student feedback? Do I engage with students in discussing the feedback I received?
If this sounds like too tall a task, fear not: Even small changes in your course can lead to meaningful improvements. And fortunately, there is no need to re-invent the wheel: The new APS Center for Physiology Education offers a wealth of information and is frequently updated with new materials. As you reconsider your course with a renewed focus on trust, you are sure to find a wealth of peer-reviewed and -tested resources to guide you in your ongoing growth as a teacher.
- Cavanagh AJ, Chen X, Bathgate M, Frederick J, Hanauer DI, Graham MJ. Trust, Growth Mindset, and Student Commitment to Active Learning in a College Science Course. CBE—Life Sci Educ 17: ar10, 2018. doi: 10.1187/cbe.17-06-0107.
- Wang C, Cavanagh AJ, Bauer M, Reeves PM, Gill JC, Chen X, Hanauer DI, Graham MJ. A Framework of College Student Buy-in to Evidence-Based Teaching Practices in STEM: The Roles of Trust and Growth Mindset. CBE—Life Sci Educ 20: ar54, 2021. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-08-0185.