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- Community: The Cornerstone for Student Success
- Become a Community Manager
- Get to Know Your Students
- Establish a Sense of Belonging
- Incorporate Equitable Course Design
- Create Community—At Your Own Pace
- Download the PDF
Community: The Cornerstone for Student Success
Put yourself in the shoes of a college freshman starting classes in fall 2020. Your campus is likely closed and you’re learning online, perhaps for the first time. You can’t walk into a lecture hall and say hello to the students sitting next to you. You can’t linger after class to talk with your professor. You can’t exchange notes with friends or huddle together to organize a study group.
So much of what we take for granted as part of the higher ed experience now looks completely different. Absent opportunities to connect with peers and faculty on campus, the virtual classroom has become the place for students to find that human connection.
In the age of COVID and the shift to online learning, creating community has taken on renewed importance. So has knocking down the misconception that technology-mediated learning doesn’t lend itself to cultivating the all-important feeling of belonging students crave. It may not happen with the same spontaneity as it does in a traditional classroom. And it does require creativity, planning and nurturing. But fostering a sense of community is every bit as possible in the virtual classroom as it is in a physical one. And given the importance of community and connection to student success, it’s now more essential than ever.
Like any transition, creating an online learning community takes fresh thinking and the willingness to try new things. But with the right approach, you can turn your virtual classrooms into places of relevance, vitality and fellowship. Even if the semester is already underway, there are plenty of ideas and activities you can use to build the kind of connections that engage and motivate students and make the learning process meaningful for everyone.
We’d like to help you do just this.
In this guide, we explore the foundations for creating a vibrant online learning environment: How does your role evolve from instructor to that of ‘community manager’? How can you make learning more inclusive and accessible to ensure every student participates? And most important, what are the tools, activities and approaches you can use to get students working and collaborating together?
We’ll answer these questions and more to help you create an online learning environment that is more accessible, more empathetic and ultimately more human—one that will enable all students to thrive.
In the spring 2020 shift to remote teaching, 86 percent of students said they missed the social experience with other students while 84 percent missed face-to-face interactions with faculty.1 Looking toward the fall semester, almost nine out of 10 faculty members rated the importance of fostering community as moderate to high.2
Motivate and Engage Every Student—By Becoming a Community Manager
Creating a sense of community is important to the success of any classroom. The challenge for educators this fall: cultivating the social experience that is so vital to the post-secondary journey, but in a virtual environment. The good news is that community building online doesn’t have to be difficult. To set yourself up for success, start thinking like a community manager.
Be an Empathetic Leader
Creating meaningful interactions with students will make them feel a sense of belonging—though doing so can be difficult in online teaching. Follow these best practices to ensure you’re able to bring your empathetic self to the virtual classroom.
01Be Sincere and Candid
Start class with a personal story or anecdote to help students relate. Balance emails and course communications with passion and, if possible, connect the material to what’s happening in the world and students’ backgrounds. Allow your personality to shine through in the content you share.
02Act on the Interests of Students
Take the unique circumstances of students into account when designing learning activities. For instance, gauge what students want to learn about through frequent discussions and connect course content to their passions. Material that is relatable will motivate students to continue engaging.
03Be Radically Available
Offer virtual office hours by appointment to ensure students get timely answers to their questions. Better yet, consider calling these ‘student hours’ to make it clear that you’re there for them (more on this in chapter 4). During live classes you can also arrive 10 minutes before or stay 10 minutes after to have informal discussions and learn names and backgrounds.
Try it in your class
Help Students Feel Comfortable Around Each Other
“Students are given assignments completed by 10 of their peers, as a peer review mechanism, and identify micro-themes that they share in common. The point is that no matter who they are or why they’re here, they should see that there is someone else who is like them, even if the class has 70 or 1,000 people.”
Craft a Meaningful Teaching Presence
An inviting teaching presence helps form and strengthen bonds between you and your students. The three pillars of a strong teaching presence are course design and organization, sparking discussion, and humanizing teaching. The following are some best practices for each of these categories.
- Dedicate the first couple classes to building trust through interactive activities and icebreakers
- Monitor discussion boards and take notes during live conversations to ensure equal participation and effort among students
- Encourage students to share any thoughts they have around course material and reward them with participation points
Course Design and Organization
- Share an inviting message at the start of your course before the course overview
- Create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning outside of class time through group projects and by having students respond to one another via discussion boards
- Comprehension checks distributed throughout lessons allow students to reflect on what was covered—and indicate the areas that you may need to review
- Ensure you correct common misconceptions early on through diagnostic exercises, formative assessments and pre-tests
- Make abstract concepts more digestible by using analogies, multiple examples, visuals, personal stories or even pop culture references
- Incorporate additional subject matter experts into your classroom through course readings, case studies or guest lectures
Put Community at the Center of Your Curriculum
According to Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, building community isn’t just something you do in the first 10 minutes of class. It’s the product of good course design. Discussions, activities, how learning materials are presented—each ingredient in your course should be planned in a way that connects students to each other and to the instructor. As fun as an icebreaker might be, group projects, assignments and active learning exercises can be even more effective in getting students to connect and work together by creating a shared sense of purpose.
Incorporate Active Learning Into Your Course
These active learning strategies—which are grounded in learning science principles—will help you and your students learn from one another.
01Space Out Deadlines and Tests
Frequent small assessments can be more beneficial than a longer form paper. Weekly quizzes help students apply what they have learned in small chunks, improving knowledge retention and confidence.
Low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes help students recall information from previous modules without students feeling overwhelmed. An alternative option is to have students compare what they have learned today to concepts from earlier in the course.
03The Minute Thesis
Similar to an exit ticket, students state the most important or challenging thing gleaned from a synchronous class. Students have a chance to voice confusion with course material allowing you to use these insights to tailor your next class.
Time set aside for reflection at the end of a real-time class can help students link ideas in the classroom to other avenues of their lives. Consider having students answer: “why does the concept matter in the world outside the classroom?” Doing so will help students realize what their academic and social communities have in common.
05Student-Generated Exam Questions
Give students a say in the testing process by letting them share ideas for exam questions. Not only does this help students reflect on what they have learned through the course, it also solidifies connections between concepts.
Get to Know Your Students
Knowing your audience is arguably the most important step in building connections with your students. What are their goals for choosing this course? What lights them up outside of class? How has their lived experience shaped their journey to higher ed? And, more tactically, how well-equipped are students to become active members of the learning community?
Understanding what interests and motivates students allows you to connect course concepts in more meaningful ways. It also makes learning more relevant and engaging.
Conducting a student inventory is about more than just understanding the people who fill your classroom—virtual or otherwise. It can help you prioritize what matters most. As an instructor, you cannot be all things to all people. But by having a command of who your students are, how they like to learn and any issues that may prevent them from participating fully, you can hone in on what is most important.
Leverage Your Student Inventory to Build Connections
The results of your inventory don’t have to be for your eyes only. Consider sharing them with the entire class to help students get a better understanding of those around them. This can be done live through video conference or by using a discussion board. If you have a large class, pairing up students to discuss the results and then sharing their insights with the rest of the class (think-pair-share) is a great way to break the ice and get students reflecting together.
Spark Great Discussion
Discussion forums are a powerful way for students and faculty to build community in online learning environments. Well-planned discussions create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, provide constructive feedback and create in-depth reflective responses. Here are a few ways to create more engaging discussions in your classroom.
Make Discussion Moderation Every Student’s Job
According to Kathleen Ives from the National Laboratory of Education Transformation, instructors who encourage students to act as stewards of online discussions often end up seeing higher levels of engagement. Sharing accountability—and making this expectation explicit—ensures that everyone has a stake in making discussions meaningful and productive.
Include Multimedia Elements
Adding videos, GIFs and images for your class to react to helps students reflect on course content in different ways. Not only are these great ways to stimulate discussion, by diversifying how students learn, you are more likely to maintain engagement and attentiveness during class.
Have Students Submit Their Own Discussion Questions
Sarita McCoy Gregory from Kennesaw State University recommends having students submit ideas for discussion questions along with their responses. This can make the process more fun and engaging while helping students develop higher order thinking skills.
Encourage Students to Comment on Their Peers’ Answers
By asking students to reflect on their peers’ answers, you give them the chance to learn from each other. Providing a framework for this is important in keeping things on track. For example, you might ask students to identify the strengths of a peer’s response and what they could do to make their argument even stronger.
Make Discussions Inclusive
Jesse Stommel, a Digital Learning Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Mary Washington, emphasizes the importance of building a ‘community of care.’ This involves prioritizing relationships and wellbeing over compliance or having the correct answer. Modelling the right behavior is paramount. Stommel recommends asking genuine, open-ended questions and not being afraid to let the conversation wander. Celebrating risk-taking and modelling “what it looks like to be wrong and to acknowledge when you’re wrong” can build a more trusting environment.