Improving course climate in online courses helps create a more equitable online space and plays a significant role in student success. Among other characteristics, equitable spaces: 

  • value diversity and foster safe, trusting environments (Gay, 2000; Hammond, 2014; DeSurra & Church, 1994);
  • emphasize relationships (Freire, 2005);
  • address equity gaps (Freire, 2013; Gay, 2000; Hammond, 2014; Mehta and Aguilera, 2020); and
  • move learners from receivers to co-creators of knowledge and collaborators in the learning process (Freire, 2013; McCulloch, 2009)

In online courses, where most if not all interaction is asynchronous, creating this space may prove challenging. Instructors may not readily observe student emotions or behaviors that indicate inequities or a chilly climate, and students may not share these experiences without prompting. Course surveys remove the burden of sharing this experience from the student and instead provide instructors with intentional opportunities to establish and evaluate course climate and if needed, implement changes that improve the learning environment.

Understanding Course Climate

Ambrose et al. (2010) define course climate as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn” (p.170), noting that courses exist on a continuum where climate ranges from hostile and unwelcoming to inclusive and centralizing of marginalized students and perspectives. A course may fall into one of the following descriptors:

  • Explicitly marginalizing – overtly hostile, discriminatory, and unwelcoming
  • Implicitly marginalizing – certain students or perspectives are excluded, often in unintentional and subtle ways
  • Implicitly centralizing – unplanned validation of student perspectives and experiences
  • Explicitly centralizing – intentional and overt inclusion of diverse perspectives and experiences

Instructors might consider the extent to which marginalized students are shouldering the responsibility of providing a diverse perspective; how they as an instructor are addressing hostile language such as microaggressions, offensive comments, or discriminatory actions; and whether or not assessments are varied to allow students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways. Identifying aspects of a course that may fall into the marginalizing end of the spectrum helps instructors create more inclusive environments that foster success for all students.

Improving Course Climate with Course Surveys

Course surveys are one way that instructors can engage with students to improve course climate because they allow instructors to take intentional steps to establish a welcoming climate from the very beginning and to evaluate climate throughout the life of the course. Depending on how they are structured, they can help humanize the course by demonstrating to students that the instructor values their identity and prior experiences.

Establishing Course Climate

Pre-course surveys, which can be distributed either before the start of the course or in the first week, are a great way to build connections early. Questions that invite students to self identify and share prior knowledge and experience demonstrate to students that an instructor values the diversity of students in the class which helps build relationships and create trusting environments. Further, they become great opportunities to include learners in the creation of the course for the semester. After learning more about student backgrounds and interests, an instructor might

  • Add readings that are more industry specific 
  • Create discussion posts that have students explore concepts they are hoping to learn in the course
  • Organize students into groups based on their interest areas and have them work on projects relevant to those interests
  • Provide additional scaffolded content to address learning gaps or concerns

Including students in this process increases engagement as they become co-creators of the course.

Valuing Identity

A typical course roster includes names and student identification numbers and may include the course credits and a student’s degree program, but this tells us very little about who students are. While it is important to be mindful of questions that may violate policy or be offensive to some students, instructors can gain a better understanding of who their students are by asking questions related to their personal identity. This provides an opportunity for instructors to learn students’

  • Preferred names, whether these are nicknames or affirmed names that align with an individual’s gender identity
  • Name pronunciation
  • Pronouns
  • Location, which can help when assigning groups or sending announcements and understanding the diverse cultures represented in the course
  • Contact preferences

Valuing Experiences and Knowledge

Each student brings their own experiences and knowledge to a course and each has their own expectations and goals that stem from these. Giving students an opportunity to share their experiences and knowledge helps instructors 

  • Prepare resources for students who may have knowledge gaps
  • Identify concerns related to technology or prior educational experiences
  • Address fears students may have
  • Invite students into the course design by identifying goals and desired objectives
  • Support students in a way that is meaningful

Evaluating Course Climate

Establishing a welcoming climate from the beginning helps lay the foundation for an inclusive classroom. Maintaining this environment is equally important in creating engaging learning experiences for students. A mid-course survey, which might be distributed numerous times by the instructor or left open for students to submit at any time throughout the life of the course, helps instructors perform climate checks that gauge how students are feeling about a course and their own experiences within it. Understanding and trusting this student feedback is an important step in addressing equity gaps and creating trusting learning environments. These surveys help instructors partner with students to build on existing knowledge, address student concerns, and engage learners as co-creators of course content. Designed to capture student experiences throughout the course, the survey may influence current or future instruction or course design.

Valuing Identity

Even the best-intentioned instructors may not realize aspects of their course that are not inclusive. While potentially difficult to ask, questions that ask students to share these moments help instructors identify their own instructional gaps and implement changes that can ensure all students feel welcomed and valued. Some potential questions might elicit feedback on

  • Accessible materials (for all students, not just those with accommodations)
  • Microaggressions/macroaggressions that occur in the course
  • Lack of representation in course content

Valuing Experiences and Knowledge

Asking students to reflect on their own learning can identify spaces where the instructor can leverage what students bring to the course to improve knowledge acquisition and can even add to a course’s design and content. These questions may ask students to share

  • What they are most proud of accomplishing at a given time
  • Where they are still struggling
  • How they might improve an instructional activity for future courses
  • What content they feel is missing from the course

Best Practices for Using Course Surveys

  1. If you have never used course surveys, start small. Try a pre-course survey just to learn more about student demographics and experiences with technology.
  2. Begin by asking, “what do I want to know about my students?” Then build a survey that asks these questions in an approachable, inviting way.
  3. Give students the freedom not to answer a question. Make questions optional or include a “prefer not to answer” option.
  4. Consider collecting anonymous responses from students on the mid-course survey if the platform allows. This can encourage more authentic and meaningful responses.
  5. Keep surveys ungraded. Canvas’s survey tool let’s instructors set up ungraded surveys to collect responses. 
  6. Consider using an external tool like Google forms to remove the “quiz” look from the survey. Google forms can be set up to collect email addresses or remain anonymous and can also be embedded directly into a Canvas page for a course. 
  7. Access survey analytics to easily see how students responded and identify themes in those responses.
  8. Consider sharing some of the general results with your class, especially if there is similar feedback from multiple respondents. This can facilitate meaningful conversations that include students in finding solutions.
  9. Be open to feedback and unexpected criticisms. There is a level of vulnerability for students who share their experiences in your course. A willingness to lower defenses and truly receive their feedback is crucial to improving classroom climate.
  10. Commit to reading the survey results and implementing changes. If possible, make changes within the existing course. Even small changes make big differences for students.

For ideas on how you might create your own course surveys, take a look at these samples. These are just examples of the types of questions you might ask. After viewing them, reflect on your own teaching, what you may want to know about your students, and how you can design your own survey in your own courses.

Pre-Course Survey

Mid-Course Survey


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Lovett, M. C. (2010). How learning works: 

Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass

Center for Teaching innovation. (n.d.). Classroom Climate

Desurra, C. J. & Church, K. A. (1994). Unlocking the classroom closet: Privileging the 

marginalized voices of gay/lesbian college students. (Conference Paper).  80th Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, LA, United States.

Freire, P. (2013). Pedagogy of the oppressed (50th Anniversary). Bloomsbury.

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers : letters to those who dare teach (Expanded 

ed.). Westview Press.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: 

Teachers College Press.

Guide for inclusive teaching at Columbia. Center for Teaching and Learning, Columbia 


Hammond, Z. L. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic 

engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.

McCulloch, A. (2009). The student as co-producer: learning from public administration 

about the student-university relationship. Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames), 34(2), 171–183. 

Mehta, R. & Aguilera, E. (2020). A critical approach to humanizing in online teaching and learning. The International Journal of Information and Learning Technology, 37(3), 109–120.

Dig Deeper

Fedesco, H. N., Brockman, A. J., & Hall, E. Assessing student needs in your course. Online 

Course Development Resources. 

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies : teaching and learning for 

justice in a changing world . Teachers College Press.

Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Inclusive classroom climate. Yale University.

Tsukada, H. (2016). CLASSROOM CLIMATE. Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, 

The University of British Columbia. 

Special thanks to Meredith Savvides for the brainstorming session and to Maryrose Chaaban for numerous reads and feedback.