Recommendation 4.1: Community & Presence
Build a learning community by encouraging students to introduce themselves and make connections.
Synopsis from Self-Review
Build a community of learners by providing places for social interaction to take place, to ask questions, and to interact with the instructor and other students. In addition to the social aspect of the learning community, new knowledge can be created as the result of collaborative learning among participants. Student participation is much higher in courses where a supportive learning community is intentionally cultivated
How to Put Into Practice
Building community in your course carries benefits that far exceed time and energy that it involves. Learning in any format is more engaging and involving when steps are taken to make the experience more collaborative and social, rather than competitive or isolated. For learners, expressing and refining ideas through group interactions leads to deeper learning and conceptual understanding.
Students feel more accountable about how their own actions affect the group when they know who is in the group. The work of managing a course and addressing problems is eased when students know and trust instructors and fellow students as people engaged in a shared project and shared space.
Consider ways to reward participation in community building activities. Make rewards transparent in your syllabus, grading policy, and communications with students. If participation in these efforts counts towards students’ grades, it will reinforce the value you place on building community.
Strategies for establishing and sustaining community in your course can be roughly divided into introductions and icebreakers, strategies for “closing” a classroom community at the end of the term, and strategies to facilitate collaborative learning and interaction.
Introductions and Icebreakers
While icebreakers and introductions may not seem worth the time if they are not directly tied to the content of your course, they can help lay the foundation for successful learning by giving students a feeling of connection with you and with classmates.
- Establish lightweight warm-up rituals to open synchronous sessions and prime students to engage in course content. “Zoom-friendly” community building strategies offer creative ideas in this vein.
- Connect warm-up activities to your topic by having students share something from the news, their community, experience, or goals that relates to what they are learning.
Use Writing to Create Community
Writing assignments are an especially effective way for instructors to get to know their students and for students to get to know one another, on any course. There are so many possibilities for connection through innovative writing assignments.
- Use low-stakes online writing assignments (e.g. Discussion boards, blog posts, reflections, Twitter, Padlet) to develop comfort and confidence in writing. The Writing Across the Curriculum program provides an Online Writing Toolkit with ideas and examples of how to create writing assignments that promote community.
- Give students options in sharing about themselves; carefully consider any required disclosure. For example, if an assignment involves public websites, don’t require students to post a picture of themselves. Instead, require they post either a photo of themselves or an image that represents them. This can include an image, drawing, object, etc.. Within the secure and protected LMS, requiring, or strongly encouraging, the use of a picture can contribute to building trust and community amongst learners.
- Talk about the distinction between what is personal and what is private as a way to encourage students to be intentional about what they share and about how they respond to what classmates share. The dividing line between the personal and the private is fluid but meaningful in that it varies based on one’s familiarity with a person or group, context, identity, and individual comfort levels.
- Use forums (e.g. a Canvas discussion board), to facilitate community building in asynchronous formats. For example:
- Create a digital forum for participants to introduce themselves, and model expectations by posting your own self-introduction and providing some personal information. Notify students that they should do so only to the extent they feel comfortable.
- Create an ungraded digital forum where participants can network and discuss topics unrelated to the course or post personal or anecdotal information.
- Use a course orientation module or other course orientation strategy to familiarize students with the location and purpose of such online spaces. See Recommendation 2.3 Course Orientation.
Take Time for Closing Practices at the End of Term
Student presence may diminish towards the end of the course as students work to complete final activities and projects; hopefully, however, they have formed a learning community and need time and space to share what they have learned and say “farewell.” Ways to facilitate this include:
- Allow time for reflection at the end of the course.
- Encourage students to share their class experience and say “goodbye” in a closing discussion forum.
- Encourage students to share about their final projects.
Facilitate Collaborative Learning and Peer-to-Peer Interaction
These strategies converge with a range of other topics that are useful for online, hybrid, and in-person teaching and learning. Refer to the linked recommendations for details.
- Set up small work groups of 4-5 students to meet regularly and discuss course work.
- Use discussion strategies that foster collaborative learning and communicate the value of sharing ideas with classmates. See Recommendation 4.3 Fostering Interaction.
- Use productive group work strategies to help students feel connected to and accountable for supporting their peers. See Recommendation 4.4 Group Work.
- Invite students to turn on video if they are comfortable doing so to facilitate peer-to-peer connections. Students report higher levels of engagement when they can observe peers also actively participating. Note this may not be an option for students who lack access to a strong internet connection or private study space where they are living.
- Read suggestions for Creating Canvas Profiles to Support Classroom Community.
- Use Piazza or Canvas Discussions to set up a community forum for frequently asked questions about course logistics. You can also set up a forum centered on questions about course content, such as a Muddiest Point forum.
- Create an online corkboard where students can introduce themselves and share ideas, questions & media using a tool such as Padlet: 30 creative ways to use Padlet for teachers and students (Links to blog post).
- For icebreaker prompts, see “Begin Building Community in Online Classes with an Icebreaker” (University of Michigan).
- See this introduction to using Zoom as the web conferencing platform within a Canvas course for links to support resources and training.
- A video tour of Zoom in Canvas: This video walks through questions such as: How do I turn on Zoom in my Canvas course?; What is my “personal room”?; How do I create class sessions and what do the setting options actually mean?
- If you are new to Zoom or are using it outside of Canvas, start with UW-Madison Zoom: Getting Started.
What is this?
Community is when learners benefit from frequent and meaningful opportunities to engage with one another and the instructor(s), as well as with the wider world.
Why is this important?
Students who form communities within their courses often have higher levels of success in their current course and the courses to follow. Care needs to be given to make sure that this is done inclusively. Online communities help build trust, alleviate student isolation, and promote a more engaging learning environment.
Where is this?
Community can be developed by participating in synchronous (such as Zoom) or asynchronous discussions (such as Canvas Discussions & Groups, Piazza) and other collaborative, technology-enhanced experiences.
Success Factor 4: Student-Student Interaction
The course is designed to include regular and substantive interaction among students. A fully-realized educational experience provides students with ample opportunity to actively engage and collaborate with their peers.