Community: it’s what unites us and makes us feel connected with one another—even if we’re not physically present in the same space. With online education becoming the new normal, the need for community among students has soared. An online learning community doesn’t only reap academic advantages, it can also lend itself to social-emotional benefits. Research shows that course design created to foster community may reduce student burnout associated with the pressure that comes with online learning.1

Further, community membership encourages commitment to group goals and satisfaction with communal efforts.2

Students may be hit particularly hard by the lack of socialization that can result from an online learning environment. Gone are the days of turning to the next seat in the lecture theatre to discuss content with a partner. The pandemic has deprived students of socialization and collaborative learning that formed the basis for in-person course design—and recent statistics show for it. Eighty-six percent of students miss socializing with other students and over 25 percent of students are questioning their return to higher education in the fall.3

It’s clear that blended and online courses are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, higher education professors and instructors must fuel online learning communities to provide students with a sense of belonging. Here are some steps to guide your approach to creating camaraderie in your virtual class.

1. Cater your course design to your students’ needs

Professors who excelled in creating online learning communities ensured their course materials resonated with their class by understanding students’ needs in this new teaching realm. With face-to-face classes, it was a privilege for students to freely voice concerns and receive feedback in a matter of seconds. It can be hard to gauge how students truly feel about both academic and non-academic matters without them being in front of you.

Examples of diagnostic exercises include KWL charts—where students state what they already know, want to know and eventually learn from a topic—and informal writing prompts can give you an idea as to how your students stand academically. These assessments can also indicate students’ technology preferences, their schedules and accessibility concerns, and may inform whether you adopt a synchronous or asynchronous method. Icebreakers, like two truths and a lie or connecting stories—where one member of a group starts telling an unknown story and another student continues midway through—are another key way to encourage peer learning virtually while injecting some fun into your curriculum. Group work instructional strategies such as debates and role play exercises can help students get to know one another and emphasize the importance of social learning.

Adapting your online course delivery to give students a measure of control can put them in the driver’s—as opposed to the passenger’s—seat. James Lang, Professor of English and Director at the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, finds that class constitutions encourage community building among students.4Students are prompted to contribute to decisions made around assessments, technology and other course policies that would have otherwise been solely determined by an instructor. Providing students with buy-in as to what, when and how they learn can strengthen feelings of community in your online course.

2. Authentic presence is a must

Building rapport with students in a virtual learning environment doesn’t have to suffer. Ensure you establish social presence as an instructor from day one. This doesn’t just entail how and where students can contact you, but it may include sharing fun facts about yourself, how you got into your field of study and finding ways to further humanize your curriculum. With so much going on in students’ lives outside of your course, adding humor, flexibility and autonomy can help students see the value of their online program.

Personalizing your course and adapting—not translating—your material from your traditional classroom can be an empowering experience for students. Once students are comfortable and feel like they know you well enough as their instructor, they may be more likely to contribute in class. You may wish to use a discussion forum to share a fun fact about yourself and encourage your students to do the same if they wish. Discussion forums can also act as a venue for students to share information outside of class time that they didn’t understand. You can then leverage this information to form your next lesson plan based on students’ needs.

3. Encourage conversations both in and out of class

Without having students physically in front of you, questions can easily get lost through chat screens or discussion forums. Try and set a dedicated time slot each day to respond to students’ inquiries before an upcoming class or after a class ends. Students are more likely to feel like active community members if you address their concerns in a timely manner.

Along with academic factors, social and emotional components to online discussions shouldn’t go overlooked. It’s a good idea to create a discussion climate early in the semester, setting the foundation for the remainder of the term. Rewarding students for their contributions to online discussions can boost their extrinsic motivation—behavior that is driven by external rewards such as grades. After students start to see the value of online community and social learning, they may be intrinsically motivated to continue engaging with the material5—whereby students will naturally participate without any incentive since this contributes to an internal goal.

4. Let students learn from one another

An important component of an online community is peer learning. As you may have done in your traditional classroom, let students discuss new material in small groups before reconvening as a class. Think-pair-share is a classic example of peer interaction. Learning is broken down into bite-sized pieces where students work with a partner, which in turn helps to solidify concepts and improves retention. Data from the State University of New York (SUNY) shows a positive correlation between higher levels of interaction with classmates in online classes and higher perceived learning.6You may wish to leverage breakout rooms to provide students with time to debrief in small groups. This can also create a more intimate space for quieter students to converse with each other.

Collaborative learning can inform the path your course travels down. A creative approach to forming your final exam is to let students draft questions based on what they think the key takeaways from your course are. The concept of a fishbowl debate 7 can also strengthen learning outcomes among students. Here, students work in groups of three, where one person takes notes, another takes one position on a topic for debate and the third person takes the opposite position. The student taking notes then decides which side is the most convincing and provides their rationale.

5. Foster non-academic communication

Socialization shouldn’t have to suffer with an online learning experience. Since there is no concrete ‘before’ or ‘after’ class time, informal discussions may no longer take place among students. Ensuring students have spaces outside of your virtual course to chat with one another can boost feelings of camaraderie. Social media is the optimal tool for ensuring students can have ‘water cooler’ moments online. Although your students may already have this in place, you may want to suggest forming a group Facebook page where students can discuss what’s on their minds beyond school. On other platforms such as Twitter, you may wish to create a hashtag for your course and invite students to share any material they find compelling—academic or otherwise.

As an instructor, you may also alert students to resources and activities related to mental, economic and social wellbeing. This is inevitably a challenging time for students and knowing that they can lean on you for support can help ease anxiety. Empathetic teaching must go beyond academics. You may wish to post announcements regarding campus resources and incentivize attendance at campus-run webinars or events by rewarding students with one or two bonus points. In a period of uncertainty, faculty must be ambassadors for online learning communities to remind students that they are never alone.

Champion your online learning community in Top Hat, where collaborative and social learning thrives. Get started today.


  1. Shea, P., Li, C., Swan, P., & Pickett, A. (2005). Developing Learning Community In Online Asynchronous College Courses: The Role of Teaching Presence. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 9, 59-82. doi:10.24059/olj.v9i4.1779
  2. Ibid.
  3. Top Hat Staff. (2020, May 1). Adrift in a Pandemic: Survey of 3,089 Students Finds Uncertainty About Returning to College. [Blog post].
  4. Lang, J. (2016, April 3). Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  5. Eberly Center, Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Discussions.
  6. Hiltz, S. R., & Turoff, M. (2002). What Makes Learning Effective? Communications of the ACM. 45(4), 56-59. doi:10.1145/505248.505273
  7. Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell University. (n.d.). Examples of Collaborative Learning or Group Work Activities.

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