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Welcome to Learn: How to Create a Comfortable Space for Growth

To create a culture of caring, Tamara Coleman, PhD, gets to know her anatomy and physiology students as more than physical beings.

Educator

Tamara Coleman, PhD

Professor of Biological Sciences, Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City

PhD in College Science Teaching—Efficacy and Place-Based Education; MS in Ecology, Fisheries and Wildlife Biology; BS and Secondary Teaching Certificate in Biology, Social Sciences, and Education

Professor Tamara Coleman may be teaching anatomy and physiology classes at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, but that does not mean she overlooks the emotional components of her flesh-and-bone students. In fact, for Coleman, effective education relies on personal connections.

This idea was sparked, in part, by her work at a nature center while pursuing her degrees. She had been teaching college students for a number of years as a TA and had been a science educator for nearly a decade. But she observed that, from the moment visitors walked through the nature center’s door, they seemed eager and open to learning. She asked herself, “Why are there certain things that we feel safe learning or want to learn in nature [but not] in a classroom?”

So when Coleman took her place at the lectern, she was determined to infuse her classroom with the positivity, comfort, and safety she saw naturally present in that outdoor “museum” setting. To that end, she focuses on providing plenty of individualized support and encouragement for each student. This includes learning about them as people, leading mind-body exercises, and providing one-on-one consultations about their expectations and goals. “I jump in. I get right in there, into the grill of my students,” she says. “For me, it’s not about test scores. It’s about the look in a student’s eye.”

Context

“We’re all little kids in big bodies. I want students to feel safe in my classroom. So I have candles going and music. I greet them at the door. I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in all of my assignments. I see great results from this type of personal-relationship building.”

— Tamara Coleman, PhD

Course: BIO 227 Human Anatomy and Physiology 1

Course description: This course includes an introduction to cells, histology, biochemistry, and homeostasis, along with discussions on the following systems: integumentary, skeletal, muscle, nervous, and special senses. Lab work and applications boost lectures, and stress the anatomy, histology and function of these organ systems.

See resources shared by Tamara Coleman, PhD

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Lesson: 7 ways to provide special support and comfort

Many of Coleman’s students work full-time and have family and other obligations outside of school. Understanding and having compassion for this (and for similar stressors among younger students) can help bring out students’ best work. It also recasts the classroom as a place to relax and recharge. Here, she shares her strategies for creating meaningful relationships and a safe space for students that can (and does) enhance their learning experience.

Get to know them as people

On the first day of class, Coleman asks students to make name tags. On the tags, they also write their educational goals, confidence level in biology, extra information such as favorite hobbies or music, plus “two truths and a lie.” This fun introduction allows Coleman to memorize students’ names and interests, and it makes them see her as approachable. At the end of the semester, she writes each student a thank-you note with their tag tucked inside.

Offer extra credit for goal meetings

During the first two weeks of class, Coleman arrives at her office early in the morning to make time for students who want to drop in. She offers 10-minute time slots for a small amount of extra credit to encourage students to come in to discuss with her ways they can accomplish the goals they stated on the first day. Though the point value is minor, she estimates that 99% of students take advantage of the offer. And the other 1%? She seeks them out in class. “You bet I find them!” she says with a laugh. “I touch base and get face-to-face with them to be welcoming.”

Ask about expectations and comfort level

During the extra-credit office-hour meetings, Coleman asks students these pointed questions:

  • How do you feel about your confidence in science?
  • How do you see yourself as being successful in this class, and what is my role in that?
  • What is your goal for this class, and how can I help you achieve it?

Some students are single parents or work several jobs and need help managing their time. Others want to make friends. With this context in mind, Coleman pairs students in study groups based on shared schedules, lifestyles, and goals.

Offer specific praise in person

As a former competitive runner, Coleman thinks of herself as a coach, offering ongoing encouragement. So, when she greets students during class, she points out something positive—particularly as it relates to an issue they once worried about. “I’ll say, ‘I noticed you did a great job on this, even though you told me you weren’t good at it,” she says. This means paying special attention to students’ class participation, test grades, and overall progress.

Provide study support via email

Sometimes Coleman sends inspirational emails, to individuals or to the whole class, with advice or study tips and tricks, such as how to make and use flash cards. “Some students are grade driven,” she explains. “They might juggle school with three kids, or think they don’t know how to study. I can address those personal issues with tips that apply to the whole class, and everyone benefits,” she says.

Lead students in relaxation exercises

Sometimes Coleman will kick off class with what she calls “brain gym” activities, such as specific right-brain/left-brain activities that help students learn to recognize symbols, or she will teach students self-massage of the same muscles they will learn about in class. Deep breathing exercises are another example. “I have a small handful of military personnel in my classes,” she says. “Before a quiz, we’d take three deep breaths. My soldiers would raise their hands and say, ‘You know what, Tammy? This is what we do in the military to stave off PTSD.’”

Create a comfort corner

Coleman offers a “comfort corner” with tissues, lotion, candles, and other amenities to make her space welcoming for students. Ultimately, Coleman hopes this helps them feel more relaxed and therefore better able to absorb the material she teaches.

“We’re all little kids in big bodies,” she says. “I want students to feel safe in my classroom. I see great results from this type of personal-relationship building.”

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