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Weekly Tip: Combating the Silence by Building a Culture of Safety – Part II

Welcome to Part II of a multi-part Weekly Tip, where we share tips from Dr. Janet Peters, a WSU Scholarly Associate Professor of Organizational Psychology, on how to Combat the Silence in synchronous Zoom class sessions! In “Combating the Silence through Zoom Chat – Part I” we discussed some of the challenges that instructors faced following the abrupt transition to synchronous class meetings on Zoom. Dr. Peters told us how she uses the chat component of Zoom to provide a space for her students’ voices. In this part we will continue that conversation and discuss her methods of building, what she called, a “Culture of Safety” in her classes.

Here are some of Dr. Peters’ suggestions for building a Culture of Safety:

  • It is okay for students to take risks. Dr. Peters lets students know that it is okay to take risks without the fear of being penalized. She recommends that instructors create opportunities for students to engage in ways that are not evaluated; where students feel permitted to fail. To do this, she tries to create “lots of formative, developmental, open-ended opportunities so they have that chance to take those risks – to know that it is okay and it’s safe (and they won’t fail the course if they are still figuring things out).”
  • Create a culture of discussion. Dr. Peters emphasizes the importance of creating a culture of discussion and normalizing that discussion and questions are part of learning. Experts aren’t people who know all the answers, and Dr. Peters wants students to know that asking questions is an essential part of the learning process; to grapple with the material and figure out the holes in our knowledge. Dr. Peters cautions faculty against unintentionally dissuading students from asking these questions. She advises us that when students ask questions, we should try to “answer with alacrity. We can’t react poorly to a student’s question and then be surprised when they don’t want to talk about it or ask questions later.”
  • Normalize a growth mindset from the first day of class and make what you want explicit.  Dr. Peters is a big fan of “making the implicit explicit.” Beyond trying to encourage students to develop a growth mindset, she defines what that means and tells students why it is important to her. Regarding teaching through Zoom, Dr. Peters explains, “A big part of creating that positive online environment is making what you want explicit.” Because students sometimes mistakenly believe that intelligence means understanding difficult concepts easily, Dr. Peters shares her own observations with students. “I explain to them that I know many smart, talented, wonderful, successful people… and yet I’ve never met any of those people who have never struggled – everyone faces setbacks. Success is NOT the result of doing something easily or effortlessly.” That is why Dr. Peters says on day one of her classes she tries to “normalize that growth mindset.”
  • Create a “positive gain spiral.” Dr. Peters tries to identify the students who are taking risks and bolster them. She refers to this bolstering as a “positive gain spiral,” explaining, “Those students will be visible to other students. When they take risks and benefit from them, and they see other students take risks, it helps the other students by learning from example.”
  • Help students to become more reflective and metacognitive about their learning. Dr. Peters also noted how giving students a chance to reflect on their own learning can be a powerful tool in having them engaged in class and increase their ability to transfer their knowledge outside the class. “Students can learn lots of facts and knowledge, but if they can’t see those facts around them, it’s not going to serve them in life after graduation.” Using reflection is one of the ways to create a multi-dimensional learning experience for students. “Getting students to be metacognitive about their learning is an important learning tool we often neglect.”

This concludes our multi-tip series on Combating the Silence based on our interview with Dr. Janet Peters. Thanks to Dr. Peters for her time and her commitment to student engagement, we hope these tips have sparked some ideas for promoting student engagement in your course. To hear part of our interview, check out the audio clip below. 

This series of videos and teaching tips is presented by Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI). We invite you to join the conversation. Share your tips and ask questions through this blog. If you would like these posts to be sent directly to your email each week, subscribe to the listserv by emailing

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