Psychological Safety in the Online Classroom

by Heather Brown


It goes without saying that all instructors, whether teaching in face-to-face, hybrid or online classrooms, have a vested interest in student engagement. What “counts” as engagement can encompass active participation in discussions, meeting with faculty, and — of course — submitting assignments and activities for feedback and assessment. If students are engaging, then they are full participants in the individual and collective project that is completing a given course of study. But what is the engine behind that engagement to learn? What does it take to activate meaningful engagement? In a word: motivation. 

In her theoretical framework of motivation, Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, explains that humans’ basic needs, including psychological needs, give rise to goal-seeking behavior. We all share the same three psychological needs: being seen, being heard, and being understood. It’s only when these needs are met that we have the space for motivation to achieve other goals— like learning. And if these needs are being met, then it’s because an environment of psychological safety has been established. 

Psychological Safety: Why We Need it Now  

In many workplaces, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a call for greater emphasis on mental and emotional well-being. At the same time, the need to quarantine and mask has required collective need to hide from each other in the name of preventing the spread of infection. For over two years, the need for physical safety has superseded psychological safety. Now that mask mandates are being lifted and more and more people are resuming more “embodied” social life, physical safety feels more possible. While many of us have been designing and teaching online since well before 2020, the context for doing this work has changed because we have changed, and we bring these changes with us into the classroom. An awareness of what psychological safety looks like can help us promote meaningful student experiences while sustaining a commitment to excellence.

Psychological Safety in Four Stages  

Timothy R. Clark, the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (2020), describes psychological safety as an environment in which vulnerability is rewarded. For this to be possible, Clark outlines four stages: 1) inclusion safety, 2) learner safety, 3) contributor safety, and 4) challenger safety. 

In inclusion safety, acceptance to the group is acknowledged repeatedly and informally. This can look like making an effort to learn the correct pronunciation of students’ names or affirming students when they share information about interests or values. 

Learner safety might seem like it goes without saying when it comes to online teaching, but it’s a precursor to feeling safe enough to contribute and challenge. This type of safety is fostered by reminding students that they are an integral part of the success of the course. 

Contributor safety occurs when individuals are empowered to fully embrace their role as full-fledged participants in a team setting. They are ready to meet the challenges set out for them because inclusion and learner safety have been established. In teaching, students who feel safe to contribute both fulfill and exceed course expectations. 

The final stage of psychological safety is challenger safety. In this stage, individuals feel free to challenge the status quo without retaliation or a sense that their personal standing or reputation will suffer. The hallmark of this safety is overcoming the pressure to conform, an all too common impulse in group settings that can often show up in the classroom. When learners feel emboldened to push their capacity to create, they are open to give and receive feedback that elevates their performance.

What Psychological Safety Looks Like 

If any of the above rings true with your experience as a teacher or learner, bravo! You are already “doing” psychological safety. If you’re still not quite sure what this might look like in an online classroom, here are a few easy ways you might moves these four types of safety to the center of your practice as faculty at SPS:

  • Inclusion safety: Integrate NameCoach in your Canvas classroom. NameCoach is a record-and-play tool inside Canvas courses that allows students and faculty to record themselves pronouncing their name for others to hear and practice. This tool promotes inclusivity in a diverse environment and helps faculty and students feel acknowledged and respected.
  • Learner safety: Create a module-opener video or post a narrative wherein you share a brief anecdote about a time when you modified a lesson or assignment based on student feedback. 
  • Contributor safety: Post a class announcement that calls out individual students’ contributions to open-ended discussion assignments as a way to highlight and celebrate the range of perspectives among members of the class. 
  • Challenger safety: Create a separate, ungraded discussion that is associated with a major course deliverable and invite students to post their questions and concerns. (You might even do this as an extension of the narrative you previously shared to create learner safety).

How do you take steps to promote psychological safety in your online class? Feel free to leave a comment!  

Further Reading 

Los Angeles Pacific University. (2021, August 2). Creating Psychological Safety in the Online Classroom [Video]. YouTube.

Harvard Business Review. (2021, December 20). Psychological Safety in Theory and In Practice. The Anxious Achiever [Audio podcast episode].

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