It can be a challenge to engage, motivate and communicate with students—especially if learning takes place online. In virtual classrooms, an educator’s value is no longer just derived through the delivery of content. Rather, their new focus is on designing student-centered learning experiences. To support you in this endeavor, we asked educators from our #ProfChats panel for their most valuable advice and tips to build community in online courses. Here’s how nine educators are helping their students thrive through thoughtful and flexible course design.

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1. Be thoughtful with your tech use—both in and out of class

Some students may be learning online for the first time. Ensure you create ways for them to comfortably communicate with their peers during and beyond class time, writes Viji Sathy, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Consistency is a must with distance learning. Tazin Daniels, Assistant Director at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, suggests a strategy to build upon your proposed learning outcomes.

Media is an appealing engagement strategy—especially for Generation Z students. Here’s how to humanize your lessons, with advice from Karen Freberg, Associate Professor at the University of Louisville.

How do you maintain engagement in large class sections? Amanda Haage, a professor in the Anatomy department at the University of North Dakota, and Karen Costa, Co-Founder of 100 Faculty, offer ways to do just that through surveys and your learning management system (LMS).

2. Ensure student-student community is also top of mind

Dedicate a portion of your live classes to group work, which may replicate the informal conversations students once had on campus—as offered by Derek Bruff, Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Help your students invest in one another by using icebreakers—especially at the start of the term. Here are a couple of ideas to get the conversation going, suggested by Tazin Daniels.

Peer engagement doesn’t just occur during class time—it’s equally important beyond your classroom. Karen Costa stresses the value of spaces solely dedicated to student communities.

Group work can help students get to know one another, but ensure you provide flexibility as to how collaboration takes place. Sharon Mitchler, Professor of English and Humanities at Centralia College, provides more context below.

Asynchronous classes can still allow for a degree of connectivity among students. Tazin Daniels shares an effective strategy for instructors to consider.

3. Minimize inequities in course delivery

Students are now separated by time zones and continents. Jenel Cavazos, Associate Professor and Master Teacher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma, emphasizes the importance of optional real-time classes.

Not everyone feels comfortable joining discussions in a room full of unfamiliar faces. Viji Sathy advocates for student engagement strategies beyond participating in live lectures.

Semi-synchronous activities are an equally accessible engagement strategy. Just ask Amanda Haage, who uses the Top Hat Community app for group work.

One high-stakes assessment at the end of the term is no longer an effective indicator of student comprehension. Karen Freberg found success through multiple check-ins and low-stakes solutions instead.

Sharon Mitchler finds that the moments before and after live classes can help facilitate informal conversations with students. Plus, this technique can make learners feel comfortable voicing concerns before the larger group arrives.

4. Incorporate and listen to student voices

Informal polls or surveys can spotlight what’s working in your course and what’s not. Jenel Cavazos also finds that teaching assistants are an invaluable resource when planning course delivery—given that a majority of them are students themselves.

Cathy Davidson, a Distinguished Professor in the PhD program in English at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), writes that student buy-in can come in the form of student-designed lesson plans.

Surveys dedicated to community building and a sense of belonging may provide eye opening results. Tazin Daniels provides further suggestions below.

Derek Bruff suggests letting students weigh in on how a sense of community can be strengthened and what resources they need in order to feel connected with their peers and you.

5. Re-think your pedagogy—and be sure to measure its effectiveness

It’s time we rethink grading strategies—which Sharon Mitchler does by shaking up the traditional assignment due date philosophy. Mitchler also shares a resource on ungrading: a grading technique that emphasizes constructive feedback over letter grades.

Some educators like Karen Costa use data on who receives a D or F grade or withdraws (DFW) to determine student success. Others like Viji Sathy have helped build a campus dashboard for measuring these statistics.

Students shouldn’t be penalized for incorrect responses, but instead given a second chance—as advocated by Derek Bruff.

Implicit goals are just as valuable as assignment due dates. Tazin Daniels offers best practices for how to incorporate these in your course.

Cathy Davidson takes a collaborative approach to brainstorming community goals. As the co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC), she also shares further tips for faculty development and teaching strategies here.

Follow @TopHat on Twitter for more tips and strategies related to online learning and teaching.

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