The Power of a Positive Online Classroom Culture
Do you believe it is possible for an online classroom to be exciting, intellectually stimulating, emotionally engaging, and a meaningful environment to work in? The field of positive psychology has been focused on helping organizations create a highly functioning culture that is supportive of employees’ well-being and those same principles can also be applied to the online classroom. Even with the use of technology to enable this environment there is no need for distance learning programs to feel distant to students. There are strategies that instructors and students can utilize to create a positive classroom culture that allows students to flourish.
Positive Psychology and Workplace Culture
Sarah Lewis, associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and the managing director of Appreciating Change – a business psychology change consultant group – authored a new book, Positive Psychology at Work. Within this book, Lewis presents basic elements of positive psychology as applied to the workplace culture and includes flourishing, positive thinking, appreciative inquiry, work performance, and teamwork.
Flourishing: Lewis describes positive psychology as a “science-based approach interested in understanding how people and institutions achieve a state of flourishing.” Flourishing is a state of equilibrium that is consists of higher levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being (Snyder & Lopez, 2007). When a person feels a balance of positive emotions (emotional well-being), is allowed to experience personal growth (psychological well-being), and has positive interactions with others (social well-being), they will ultimately experience greater happiness in their environment (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
Positive Thinking: Initially it may seem that positive thinking ventures into the realm of feel-good pop psychology; however, it informs the work of positive psychologists because there is a mind/body connection. How we think and feel often determines and guides how we act or respond to circumstances and the environment we work in. Dunn, Beard, and Fisher (2011) noted in, On Happiness: Introducing Students to Positive Psychology, that “although being happy all the time is an unlikely goal (and one we might not want, anyway), we may be able to shape our lives so that we can derive psychological benefits by being happy most of the time” (p. 212).
Work Performance, Teamwork: Lewis makes a connection between how employees feel and their performance on the job through her positive psychology research. Lewis explains that “when we experience positive emotions—excitement, amusement, awe, passion—our brains are flooded with serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters. What this means, in effect, is that our brains are able to work better, faster, deeper.” Employees that experience positive emotional reaction to their work environment will likely become more productive. This also explains how relationships among employees can be enhanced – through interactions that produce positive emotions. It involves much more than just getting along – employees are able to relate to one another and feel good about their interactions.
Creating a Positive Online Classroom Culture
The online classroom can also be a place where students flourish and experience positive emotions that influence their performance and working relationships. What can you do as a student to help create a positive culture?
Embrace Diversity: The online classroom has become a melting pot of diverse cultures and that diversity can enrich discussions and interactions. As noted in 8 Rules For Creating A Passionate Work Culture, “if you had students who were from the same socio-economic background and the same geographical area, you might not get much in the way of interesting debate or interaction.” As you interact with others who you perceive are different from you, use that opportunity to expand or broaden your worldview.
Maintain Civility: In my post, How to Ensure Civility in the Online Classroom, I indicated that as an online student you are going to interact with students who have diverse opinions, beliefs, and backgrounds. If you want to work effectively with your classmates you need to be civil and avoid inappropriate behavior. Incivility not only violates school conduct policies, but can permanently damage your future interactions with students and your instructor. The goal is to interact with others in a positive manner.
Develop Emotional Intelligence: Instead of setting a goal to “get happy,” try to develop your emotional self-management. Conduct a self-check to determine how you are feeling as you interact with others so you can manage your emotions. While there may or may not be an immediate resolution available for the cause of those feelings, you can prevent it from interfering with their work. As an example, if you have received a grade that you believe was unfair – a strong emotional reaction can disrupt your concentration, communication, and meaningful collaboration with others if it is allowed to continue unchecked.
Build Productive and Meaningful Relationships: UNC/Chapel Hill Professor Barbara Fredrickson found that “positive emotions broaden our receptivity toward other people and experiences, and build psychological and social resources that lead to productivity and achievement.” As you learn to manage your emotions you become more aware of how you perceive others in class and that focused attention will help improve your communication. The result of effective communication is enhanced working relationships because you are collaborating with your classmates in a meaningful way.
Learn to Be Engaged in the Class: Engagement is an action-based state that consists of the time, energy, and effort you devote to your classes. In other words, it’s what you are doing in class. You take action to be engaged in the class when you believe your emotional needs are being met, you’re interested in the class, and you are motivated to do so because completing the class will help meet your goals. Your active involvement is critical for the successful development of collaborative efforts in an online environment.
Positive psychology has made an impact on how organizations develop a supportive culture for their employees. The same foundational principles can also be utilized to inform the interactions between students in an online classroom. You can manage your emotions and consciously work on the development of your relationships to promote a meaningful learning culture. While it is up to your instructor to create and promote conditions that allow you to flourish, you can also contribute through your positive actions, carefully cultivated interactions, and managed emotional reactions.
You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.
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