Developing an effective learning environment in a highly diverse classroom


Last week I shared the first of my three case studies from my FHEA application, “From micro-management to effective supervision”. This week I want to share my second case study from that application, which discusses some of the challenges present in today’s highly diverse university classrooms and how I tried to address them. While the case study I’m sharing here focuses mainly on my experience as a module convenor with overall responsibility for the content, delivery, and assessment of a sequence of modules that were delivered to a mixed undergraduate and postgraduate cohort, similar challenges actually permeate most if not all areas of academic practice.

Personally, I first became interested in this topic during my first year as a teaching assistant, and I actually wrote one of my case studies for my Associate Fellowship application back in 2016 on facilitating active tutorial participation from conversion MA students with different academic and cultural backgrounds. Back then, I felt frustrated, because despite my best efforts at being engaging, encouraging, and supportive, there was a subset of students in all my tutorials whom I seemingly couldn’t get to fully participate, which I felt negatively affected both their own achievement on the module and the experience of the other tutorial participants.

Nowadays of course my responsibilities and areas of activity are far broader and so it is perhaps no surprise that the strategies I employ now and the way in which I engage with this are quite different from what I did as a teaching assistant focused almost entirely on small group tutorial teaching, but I think that observation in itself is quite important: the particular issues that a diverse student body raises and how we best address them don’t only depend on the actual characteristics of the student body, but also on the particular circumstances under which we engage with them and on the possibilities we have to enact change. For me, the transition to online teaching brought about by the pandemic has only underlined this. Even though I had already delivered a module as a flipped classroom, where students watched pre-recorded lecture videos before coming together for an in-person discussion and practice session and exercise-focused small group tutorials, I found that few of the strategies that I had been able to apply successfully to either the flipped classroom with in-person follow ups or the more traditional face-to-face lecture setting translated well to pure online teaching without much face-to-face interaction (something I will reflect on a little bit in my third case study on transitioning to online teaching during the pandemic next week).

Essentially, reflecting upon my experience so far leads me to believe that developing an effective learning environment catering for a diverse group of learners has to be a continuous integrative processes. As a leader of an educational activity, at whatever level, my responsibility then is to first be actively on the lookout for potential areas of improvement (through good staff-student rapport, but also through keeping track of learning outcomes and through self-reflection), second be prepared to dynamically respond to changes in the cohort and the context in which learning takes place (e.g. changes in cohort composition, class size, facilities, mode of delivery, and perhaps even the general state of the world(!)), and third acknowledge the agency of the students as an integral part of the learning environment (for example through soliciting their view on issues you notice, sharing the rationale behind decisions you take, and genuinely engaging with their feedback).

As with last week’s case study, the labels in square brackets below (e.g. [K5]) are references to the dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). Hover over them to see a short description.

Case study: Developing an effective learning environment in a highly diverse classroom

This case study focuses on the challenge presented by two modules with particularly diverse student bodies. It demonstrates my commitment to developing effective learning environments respecting individual learners and diverse learning communities.

In 2019/20 I took the lead for a sequence of two introductory modules in Phonetics & Phonology [A1, A2, A3, K1, K2], with respective enrolments of 93 and 70 students. Roughly half the students were first year undergraduates, and half were from our conversion MA. A majority were international, hailing from over 20 different countries. A significant proportion were from East Asia, particularly China. Students ranged in age from 18 to their early 50s. English language ability also varied, with some students stronger orally, and some stronger in written communication. This highly heterogeneous student body presented particular challenges because, in addition to significant differences in their experience levels as HE learners, students also had different expectations and predispositions regarding communication [V1, V2]. For instance, it is well known that Asian students are often more reluctant to speak up during class or tutorials, and less likely to openly challenge their peers’ and teachers’ opinions (cf. Liu 2001, Tu 2001), particularly due to the importance of face in many Asian cultures (Wu 2009). Of the four types of face identified as relevant to classroom interaction by Wu (2009), two seemed particularly relevant and addressable based on my past experience as a teaching assistant on the same course sequence a few years prior. These were low-risk face, in particular uncertainty avoidance and waiting-time, and harmonious face, particularly conflict-avoidance.

One step I took from the very start was to strongly encourage use of the modules’ moodle forums (moodle is the virtual learning environment used at UCL) as a means to ask and discuss questions [A4, K4]. I had made positive experiences with this approach in the past, as it not only helps with uncertainty avoidance as it gives students additional time to prepare and check their questions/answers, but also has the added benefit of allowing students who are less socially confident overall or stronger in written communication to take a more active role in discussions [V1, V2]. My policy was to answer such questions swiftly (usually within 24 hours), and I often drew on these in class, and vice versa, drew on class discussion in my forum answers, thereby creating an integrated, continuous learning space. This worked well, with quieter students making ample use of the forum, and over time some of these began to become visibly more comfortable speaking up in class especially after discussing their questions there.

For tutorials, my TAs and I decided to organise tasks in such a way that they would emphasise small group work (2-3 students) followed by a communal discussion of results. This allowed us to pre-verify and positively reinforce students’ solutions in the small groups, which often was enough to encourage otherwise reluctant students to present their solutions to the larger group, overcoming uncertainty avoidance and facilitating students’ growth as communicators [A1, A4, V2].

Waiting-time presented an interesting challenge. Tolerance for post-interrogative silence is highly culture-sensitive (cf. e.g. Sifianou 1997), and following peer observation the year prior [K5, K6] I became aware that I often left very little waiting-time during lectures [A5]. To mitigate this, I adopted a strategy of following oral questions by drawing on the whiteboard a skeleton to fill in with possible answers (e.g. an empty table with space for various arguments that can be juxtaposed). This increased the waiting-time without overt discourse silence and additionally provided further assurance in the area of uncertainty avoidance because it outlined a range of possibilities for answers [V2, V3]. Again this seemed to work well in practice, and would help elicit answers and opinions in addition to those of the few students with a tendency to dominate discussions (almost invariably home students).

Despite things going well initially, I noticed that a subset of students gradually became more passive and disengaged. After liaising with course representatives, it became clear that there were a number of issues that students felt reluctant to raise, e.g. undergraduates felt intimidated by the MAs, classes were too big, the teaching space was acoustically unsuitable for phonetic ear-training. Students were initially reluctant to directly raise these issues with me because they wanted to avoid disharmony and were not sure whether I was even in a position to address them. To create a positive dialogue and mitigate some of these issues, I focused on creating a strong student partnership (Cook-Sather 2002, 2006), with emphasis on the student as a driver in Dunne and Zandstra’s (2011) model [V3, V4, K5, K6]. This involved openly addressing issues before the class, exploring options for change/mitigation at present and for future iterations of the module, and letting the students take an active part in decision-making. This process was well-received and productive, helping us to find some immediate mitigation strategies and implement future changes to improve the module (e.g. we have subsequently introduced split discussion sections for BA and MA students and found an acoustically more suitable venue for the coming year). This was evidenced by positive feedback from students, e.g. “[the lecturer takes] the persona of a doctor that only wishes to help his students improve […]. No emotional tantrums, no split decisions based off of what ‘he feels is the right thing to do’. Florian discusses changes to the lecture through democratic process and data analysis. Sometimes he critiques himself without us having to tell him, because of the logical basis by which [he] analyses his lecturing, which takes into account student response more than his own gut feeling.”


Cook-Sather, A. (2002) Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational Researcher, 31(4): 3–14.

Cook-Sather, A. (2006) Change based on what students say: Preparing teachers for a more paradoxical model of leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 9:345–358.

Dunne, E. & Zanstra, R. (2011) Students as Change Agents. Bristol: ESCalate, HEA Subject Centre for Education.

Liu, J. (2001) Asian students’ classroom communication patterns in U.S. universities: an emic perspective. Wesport, CT: Ablex.

Sifianou, M. (1997) Silence and politeness. In Jaworski, A. (ed.), Silence: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 63–84.

Tu, C. (2001) How Chinese perceive social presence: An examination of interaction in online learning environment. Educational Media International, 38(1): 45–60.

Wu, X. (2009) The dynamics of Chinese face mechanisms and classroom behaviour: a case study. Evaluation & Research in Education, 22(2-4):87–105.

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