9 Ways to Help Students Develop Psychological Safety in Your Course

Photo credit: Paul Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

The term is almost over and Vania has only spoken a few times in their biology course. While there has been a lot of opportunity for student interaction through group work and class discussions, Vania decided early on that it was just easier to stay silent.

Vania identifies as gender non-binary and on the first day of class did a quick look around the classroom but didn’t see anyone they knew or anyone else who appeared to be gender non-binary. When the instructor asked students to form groups that day, Vania was apprehensive but eventually found a group to join; however, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. Vania was misgendered several times by their group members and by the TA that came by to check on the group, and when Vania tried to offer answers to questions on the worksheet assignment, they were ignored. Vania continued working with the same group throughout the course, but didn’t contribute much after that first day.

Vania has struggled with extreme test anxiety throughout their life—even if they know the material well, their mind goes blank and they aren’t able to come up with the answers during the exam. Vania didn’t do well on the midterms and is now struggling to stay focused and motivated to study for the final exam. They wish that they could do a project instead of taking a test, but that isn’t an option. Vania is feeling increasingly stressed and hopeless and is thinking about changing their major after this term because they don’t think that they belong in science; it’s not feeling like a good match for them.

Vania is showing clear signs that they lack psychological safety, which is getting in the way of their engagement, participation, and performance in the course, and may ultimately lead to them leaving the discipline.

So, what exactly is psychological safety, and what can we do to help students like Vania develop psychological safety in our classrooms? Let’s explore these two questions below.

What is psychological safety?

In the book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy Clark describes psychological safety as “a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”

Psychological safety reflects the needs of individuals in social situations (like classroom environments) and involves the following four stages:

  • Inclusion safety – Feeling like a validated member of the group
  • Learner safety – Feeling supported to learn and grow
  • Contributor safety – Feeling empowered to perform
  • Challenger safety – Feeling confident to share divergent ideas

Attending to psychological safety is important because how we feel influences what we think and do. When students feel safe, then they are able to focus their energy and mental capacity on learning and performing, leading to improved academic achievement, self-confidence, and well-being.

What can we do to help students develop psychological safety in our classrooms?

While you cannot force students to experience psychological safety in your course, you can set up conditions that will enable students to feel included and safe to learn, grow, share ideas and take risks without feeling fearful or insecure. Taking into account the four stages of psychological safety listed above, here are some ways you can create a safe and supportive classroom environment for all students.

Get to know your students

Taking steps to intentionally get to know your students will send a message to them that they are valued and important members of the class community, making them feel included and accepted. Learning about your students will also help you build empathy and care for them as fellow human beings, making it easier for you to genuinely welcome and include them into your classroom. Looking for ways to get to know your students? This article offers 12 strategies you can use.

Build classroom community

When students feel connected to others in the course, they are more likely to feel valued, cared for, and included. They are also more likely to feel supported and invested in their own learning process and comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. There are many ways to build classroom community, including using icebreakers, creating opportunities for students to talk with one another, and co-creating classroom guidelines.

Showcase people that students can relate to

When students see others who share their identities and backgrounds, they are more likely to see a place for themselves and feel included in the class. Some ways to do this are by intentionally choosing images, names, and examples of scientists that reflect your students’ identities, using Scientist Spotlight assignments, and inviting scientists into your course as guest speakers to share their own personal stories.

Normalize failure

When students are afraid to fail they tend to self-censor, disengage, and rely on external direction, effectively shutting down the learning process. You can help students view failure as acceptable and develop learner safety by doing things like using a productive failure approach, offering multiple opportunities to improve work, modeling how to appropriately respond to failure, and sharing stories about the failures of successful people (including your own personal stories of failure).

Cultivate curiosity

Getting students to ask questions can be a powerful tool for promoting learner safety. When students ask questions about something, they get to stimulate, motivate, and direct their own learning, and it becomes more personal and relevant to them. You can cultivate curiosity by providing students with opportunities to ask questions in your course and setting up the conditions that will make it easier and more comfortable for them to do so.

Provide formative feedback 

Giving students opportunities to practice using their knowledge and skills and to check their understanding helps students feel in control of their own learning and promotes learner safety (e.g., clicker questions, worksheets, etc.). However, avoid situations where students receive recurring negative feedback; too much negative feedback can cause students to feel unsafe, discouraged, and unable to control their own learning process.

Give students choice

Every student is unique in their interests, strengths, preferences, and goals. Allowing students to contribute in ways that feel comfortable and align with their personal situation will help them develop contributor safety and feel more in control of their learning experience. Some ways you can do this are by letting students choose the topics and activities they engage with and how they will demonstrate their learning in the course (e.g., presentation, project, exam, etc.).

Provide complex problems

When students are too concerned with getting the “right” answer, they tend to hold back, become self-conscious, and develop a more shallow approach to learning. By providing students with “messy” problems that don’t have a simple answer, you create space for diverse perspectives and grant students permission to be creative, think expansively, and offer divergent ideas, helping them to develop challenger safety.

Establish a collaborative classroom culture

Providing collaborative learning opportunities and helping students learn to work with one another in productive and respectful ways can reduce competition and improve students’ sense of peer support, making it safer for students to put themselves out there and share their ideas with others. To ensure that students have a positive experience working with their peers, be intentional with setting up the design and structure of group work.

When students have psychological safety, they can learn better and do better. The above tips provide general direction for creating psychological safety in your course, but how you implement each of them will depend on your specific course context and the needs of your students. Therefore, the most important thing you can do is to get to know your students. As you learn about them, you will develop an understanding of their unique backgrounds, situations, identities, and needs so that you can better meet them where they are and provide the necessary support for their success.

In the case of Vania, here are some things that likely would have helped them to develop psychological safety in the course:

  • Including gender non-binary people in course materials (Inclusion safety)
  • Offering opportunities to correct missed answers on exams (Learner safety)
  • Giving students the choice to complete a project in place of a final exam (Contributor safety)
  • Creating expectations for how students will work with one another in respectful ways by co-creating classroom guidelines or group contracts (Challenger safety)

If you’re interested in helping your students develop psychological safety, I encourage you to try out one or more of the above tips. And if you’d like support in implementing any of these tips, please reach out—I’m happy to help in any way I can!

Looking for additional ways to support gender and sexually diverse students? Check out these 7 recommendations that were generously shared by UBC students.

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