Building and Sustaining Community

Building and Sustaining Community

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.

Try This


  • 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.’”
  • 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.