Research has shown what most of us already know, deep in our bones: Students learn best when they’re able to come together with their instructor and peers to create a sense of common cause — the sense that “We’re all in this together.” Under the best circumstances, creating and cultivating a sense of community in the classroom is hard work. Whether we undertake this work consciously or not, it tends to remain largely invisible, unspoken. But when we pull it off, we know it, and so do our students.
In the shift from in-person to remote learning, the need for some kind of “glue” that holds classes together is greater than ever, regardless of class size, level, or discipline. To feel as if they play a necessary role in the class — as if they’re connected to the spine of things — students need to feel both seen and heard. Failing that, the ones who already have a tendency to be disconnected or unsure of themselves may give in to distractions, even dropping off our radar entirely.
Building and sustaining a sense of community in the virtual classroom may require us to flex muscles we didn’t know we had. It’s likely to require us to become more intentional — more explicit, even — about what we do and how. We may have to plan ahead to create time and space for the kind of connective moments between students that usually occur naturally outside the classroom — in the quad or the dining hall, in study spaces or the library. Finally, we may have to think more creatively than usual in order to replicate our own in-person interactions with students — the quick “hello” in the hallway, the back-and-forth before class begins, even the end-of-semester dinner in our home.
What follows is a list of strategies, tips, and resources that are meant to help you cultivate community in the virtual classroom. In compiling this list, we combed through faculty and student responses to interviews and surveys, and we consulted other colleges’ websites. It’s a living document — meaning new ideas are always welcome.
Get started early
Before the semester begins, send an email introducing yourself to the students and invite them to do the same by hitting “reply all” or posting to a discussion thread. Attach a list of readings, or even the completed syllabus, for students who might be keen to get a head start. Collect their phone numbers. If you’re feeling ambitious, schedule a pre-semester Zoom session structured around a common question or activity.
Create opportunities for casual interaction
Give students a few minutes at the beginning of class to check in with each other about how they are doing, or ask questions to help students better orient themselves to what’s going on in class (“What are you going to write your midterm paper on?”). Use breakout rooms in Zoom to pair up students, or ask them to respond in the Zoom chat. Also consider using a group messaging app like Google Chat for asynchronous informal sharing of course-related information between students.
Develop a communication strategy
Let students know how to best communicate with you (e.g., via email, Google Chat, Slack, or another channel). Be clear about the hours you are available and how long students should allow to hear back from you. Build in opportunities for informal connection as well as for class “housekeeping.” Create a GroupMe or Slack for the students to communicate with one another.
Ask for student input on a classroom code of conduct
Early in the semester, ask them to reflect on the question: How do we want to be, together? Use a collaborative Google Doc or other platform to co-create standards for the class community (e.g., etiquette during Zoom meetings and other interactions in the course, what will participation in class discussions “look” like online). You may wish to use this boilerplate syllabus language as the basis for your conversation.
Talk with students about their role in the larger community
What do they think of the enhanced code of conduct they were required to sign in order to return to campus? Are they and everyone they know abiding by it? What do they feel are their responsibilities to members of the Colgate and Hamilton communities? How are they upholding those responsibilities? Do any of these responsibilities feel excessively burdensome? If so, which ones, and why? To what degree is each of them obliged to be their “brother’s keeper,” confronting peers or even friends whose behavior might endanger others? What skills do they bring to bear to prevent such encounters from looking or sounding like bullying?
Help everyone be a part of the learning environment
While we typically focus first on making sure the students can see and hear the instructor in Zoom, it’s equally crucial that students themselves are seen and heard. Even if you’re reluctant in your face-to-face class to structure student contributions (e.g., by going around the room and asking each student to make a comment), you might think of doing so in the remote environment. It helps to ensure that each student feels connected to the spine of the class. This might be accomplished synchronously, in a Zoom live session, or asynchronously, through a Moodle discussion, but by a due date.
Think about ways you can be inclusive to all learners in your course
Zoom offers a suite of feedback icons that can help you determine engagement and give your students some choice on which way to proceed or which topic to talk about next. For example, there is a “raised hand” icon as well as a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The “no” icon might be used by students to indicate to you that they are not yet ready or able to speak. The live polling options offer rich possibilities as well.
Encourage students to work together outside of class
Increase comfort levels and reduce anxiety by creating assignments that require students to collaborate closely or that reward them for working in parallel, as if they were sharing a table at the library. Establish a student-only virtual workspace on Zoom at scheduled times. Consider providing a virtual space where students can practice speaking up in the virtual classroom.
Loosen up a little
Students who are now learning remotely are likely to be missing the near-constant interactions with their peers. When using breakout rooms in Zoom, give them a few extra minutes to chat. Reach some kind of agreement on how to get everyone back on topic if casual chatter goes beyond a few minutes. In larger classes, you may consider setting up breakout rooms with consistent membership. This could help students develop smaller community groups within your class.
Show students you are actively engaged in the class
Merely posting recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams and quizzes, does not meet minimal federal guidelines for distance education. To maintain an active online presence, monitor activity frequently to ensure that students participate fully and discussions stay on topic. Give frequent and substantive feedback. Pose questions in the discussion boards that encourage various types of interaction and critical thinking. Create a forum for questions about course assignments. Inform students immediately if the course format needs to change (from a hybrid version or in-person structure to remote, for example) or if you are going to be absent for any reason.
Nurture community at the department level
Provide students with a listing of faculty office hours, Zoom links, study groups, and other events. Schedule guest speakers and colloquia, if possible. Provide virtual tours of relevant locations (theaters, labs, field sites, etc.). If your department has a student lounge, replicate some of the regularly scheduled activities there. Create mentoring opportunities by introducing current students to recent alumni.
- Michelle Pacansky-Brock writes about how to keep the human element in online classes and summarizes some practical tips in an infographic.
- In Sections 1 and 2 of the How to Be a Better Online Teacher advice guide, Flower Darby describes the importance of showing up to the online classroom with your students and being yourself while teaching.
- In How to Build an Online Learning Community: 6 Theses, Jesse Stommel pushes back a bit on using digital tools like Zoom and learning management systems to build community. He speaks about letting the community develop organically in online settings, and also about trauma-informed teaching during the coronavirus pandemic, which is important for acknowledging that all students are under various levels of stress right now.
- Melissa Wehler offers Five Ways to Build Community in Online Classrooms. She offers advice for building relationships between students and their peers and between instructors and students, “hoping to turn ‘I’m sorry to bother you’ emails into ‘I’m glad I have someone to reach out to.’”
- In this YouTube video (10 Online Teaching Tips Beyond Zoom), Michael Wesch describes multiple ways to build community in online teaching.
- As this UC Davis article explains, the U.S. Department of Education distinguishes between distance education courses and correspondence courses based largely on the instructor’s online presence. The article offers tips for how to achieve and maintain that sense of presence.
- It turns out that personal essays can help build community in the remote classroom, a professor explains in this Chronicle article.
- Here is some boilerplate language about how to protect privacy and behave like a human being over Zoom. Feel free to add or adapt it for your remote-learning syllabus.
Content on this page was adapted from Dartmouth University’s Remote Teaching Good Practices: Beyond the Tech, (which was adapted from Indiana University’s “Keep Teaching” page) and from the Digital Learning and Inquiry group at Middlebury College; All these pages were published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 license.