In a psychologically safe environment, individuals feel safe to take risks to further their learning and thinking, to make mistakes, and ask for help and support when needed (1). If a learning environment feels psychologically safe, students will be able to publicly seek clarification or help and to answer questions, without fear of judgement or humiliation. Within such a culture, mistakes or incorrect answers will be viewed as a normal part of learning rather than as a sign of failure or lack of capability (1, 2). Undergraduate students we spoke to for this project highlighted that they appreciated a non-judgemental, safe and comfortable classroom environment to enable positive wellbeing.
Without psychological safety, students will be less willing to speak or ask for help (3, 4). Because of the powerful effects of humiliation, students in these classrooms may prefer underperforming academically to being embarrassed (1). [MM1] Students in our co-creation panel report that many will actually stop attending classes if they fear being publicly asked a question in situations where they do not feel psychologically safe. Anecdotal reports from academic staff suggest this may also be true of online classes where the different, mediated environment could make it harder to judge the safety of the social space (5). This can potentially strip students of the opportunity to receive feedback and have misunderstandings corrected. Being in a classroom (either in person or online) that feels unsafe can also raise anxiety which, as discussed in Anxiety and Learning, can reduce cognitive function and a student’s ability to learn (6).
Psychological safety does not mean that classes cannot be academically demanding. Rather, it provides an environment in which students can more confidently tackle academic challenge. This is important for learning and wellbeing, as evidence shows that students who actively participate in group discussions and activities, learn more and perform better (7-8). Taking an active role in discussions helps students to learn more deeply, improves understanding of the subject and increases ability to remember the content of the class (9). Psychologically safe classrooms also support the creation of learning communities and social connections between students and peers and students and academics. This helps meet underlying social needs, benefitting wellbeing and supporting cognitive function.
There is also an inclusivity aspect to psychological safety. Some students who feel a sense of difference, or increased risk in raising their profile publicly, are less likely to feel psychologically safe (10). Research indicates that this may be true for Black students and those from other Minority Ethnic backgrounds (11), LGBTQ+ students (12), mature students (13) and students who are first in their family to attend university (14). Without explicitly addressing the social and cultural aspects of the learning environment, there is also a risk that these students may feel excluded by the normative culture that otherwise may develop. Creating an environment that is safe for all students requires all students to feel, and to receive, a sense of value and respect (15) – an understanding that they have much to contribute of value to the class.
Addressing and creating psychological safety requires space in the curriculum and staff who understand its importance (4). Psychological safety must be created at the beginning of each module and actively maintained. Some students will only trust classroom culture and gain a sense of psychological safety when they have seen it consistently evidenced in practice e.g., that a student can get a question wrong without being made to feel humiliated or embarrassed.
Time must therefore be created to directly address and establish healthy classroom culture and establish psychological safety (4). This can be supported with materials sent to students before the course begins, setting the tone and expectation. These messages can then be reiterated and actively explored at the beginning of the module. Students may be used to performance-focussed learning which puts a premium on not making mistakes. Undoing these expectations may take time, conversation, debate and demonstration from the beginning of each module. It is then crucially important that any expectation outlined in these explorations is consistently delivered. Informal feedback should focus on learning, normalising mistakes, supportively encouraging student ambition and self-belief and setting an expectation that students can develop from their current knowledge and understanding (16). Classroom behaviour that is unhelpfully critical or problematic in other ways should be challenged and corrected.
Where possible, these steps can be reinforced by activities that can increase students’ sense of belonging, such as the use of student names and public recognition of their strengths and the benefits they bring to the classroom.
- In a psychologically safe learning environment, students feel safe to make mistakes, take risks to further their learning and thinking and ask for help and support when needed.
- Psychological safety makes it more likely that students will engage in classroom activities and debates - this supports learning and helps develop a sense of community and belonging.
- An unsafe environment can raise anxiety and lead to class avoidance and/or disengagement.
- Psychological safety must be planned for and time must be devoted to establishing and maintaining a healthy classroom culture.
- Students will need to witness a safe environment being maintained consistently before they will trust it.
- Use induction/orientation and/or the first class of term to focus on creating cohort identity, a safe social environment and social rules.
- Provide positive feedback to students who contribute early, encourage debate and be willing to show your own learning.
- Discuss your own mistakes and highlight them in class to show that they are a normal part of the learning process.
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