Students continue to juggle professional, personal, social and academic concerns while learning remotely. Instructors need to be mindful of how they can form their classrooms where all students can thrive. However, online learning environments raise some new challenges for instructors: How will you get to know your students? How will you create personal connections with them? How will you ensure your course is tailored to their needs? Here are 11 ways to do just that.

Make your classroom a place that fosters belonging for all students

1. Start every class with an icebreaker or informal check-in: As students enter the classroom, consider displaying a slide with a personal question: “What is your favorite class you’ve taken so far?” or “What’s one question you have for the professor today?” This is a great way to build more casual connections and get students interacting before the lesson begins. Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, encourages students to doodle on their virtual whiteboards together.

2. Play music as students arrive: Playing music adds a little levity, particularly during midterms or finals season. It also gives students a peek at your passions outside of academic life. Take it a step further by asking for song suggestions for the next class.

3. Give students insights into what makes you tick: Sharing short stories about your family, weekend experiences, hobbies or showing your pets on-screen helps students feel more comfortable. It can also make students more likely to reach out when they need help.

Take time to set the right expectations

4. Set high standards for your students: Maintaining high standards for your students helps encourage active engagement. While it is important to be flexible while teaching during a pandemic, course standards can be empathetic while still maintaining academic rigor.

5. Put time into thoughtful feedback: Giving personalized feedback beyond a letter grade can help build rapport. While this can be difficult in large classes, consider choosing 10-15 students per assignment to provide more in-depth guidance on their work.

6. Ensure assignment instructions are clear: Walk-through assignment details, how to submit them, by when and what resources are available to ensure successful completion. You could also share the criteria or rubric that will be used to assess student work.

Build flexibility into your classroom

7. Provide multiple means of engagement: Some students love a good debate. Others prefer to share their thoughts through online discussions. Offering more than one option ensures all students feel engaged in your course. Take it a step further by asking students to co-design assessments and for input on learning activities. You can also encourage individuals to take the lead in a group discussion to build a sense of ownership over their own learning.

8. Share additional resources: Share real-world case studies, short videos and other support materials to add variety and reinforce learning outside of class.

Respect individual differences

9. Be inclusive of different learning circumstances and abilities: Accommodate all learners by offering synchronous and asynchronous assignments and activities to give them the flexibility they need. Consider providing closed-captions of lecture recordings and provide verbal descriptions of any images, charts or visuals to lower obstacles in learning.

10. Create a syllabus that is as diverse as the students in your classroom: Discussions and activities should reflect the make up of students in your classroom. Consider diversifying your syllabus or asking students to share resources they find online that connect with course content.

11. Acknowledge barriers to inclusion: Not all students have access to reliable internet or quiet study spaces. Try offering flexible alternatives for students to access materials online, like sharing PDFs instead of videos that require more bandwidth.

As learning communities adjust to online and blended courses, maintaining feelings of community and connection are all the more important. Creating flexible and empathetic learning environments help to best set students up for academic success. While the definition of success looks different for every student, feeling part of a vibrant community will help them get there.

Access The Ultimate Guide To Creating Community In The Virtual Classroom and learn how to build an online learning community that will motivate and engage students. Download the guide, here.

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