While it can feel like there is not enough time in a course to build community, taking the time to build community is important.
Building community in a classroom can connect with our pedagogy or philosophy of teaching. Active, collaborative, and experiential learning activities often require students to work together or share openly with one another; such activities are far easier to navigate as the instructor and engage in as the student if there is a sense of community within the classroom. The University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning approaches the importance of building community from an equity lens with the resource Building community and Brace Spaces as a Foundation for DEI work.
How you create community in your classroom should be authentic to you, your content, and your modality. Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellent in Teaching and Learning provides a table of strategies you can use when considering activities for Building or Maintaining Community in an Online Environment. Similarly, Bickford and Wright’s chapter “Community: The Hidden Context for Learning” in Educause’s publication, Learning Spaces (2006), emphasizes the impact of space and technology when creating community in an in-person class. While class size can add challenges to fostering community within your classroom, it does not make it impossible. For community-building inspiration in a large-lecture class, visit The University of Waterloo’s Center for Teaching Excellence resource on Building Community in Large Classes. The Walker Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga identifies Seven Principles for Good Teaching, several of which directly correlate to building community, and share strategies and examples of applying these seven principles to classrooms in various modalities.
In essence, building community is important to all students in all modalities. Community can and should look and act differently in each class, but each class is an opportunity to connect ourselves and our students to a larger community of learners.
Belonging and Trust
Any journey people are being led through, whether it’s through the rugged wilderness or a journey through your course, will be most successful when those people feel they’re part of a larger community with a common purpose. People find value in the community because communities provide a sense of belonging and acceptance, feelings of trust, perceived mutual benefit, and a shared emotional connection in time and space. Teaching scholars defined four elements of classroom community: spirit, trust, interaction, and learning. Since the early 2000s, “spirit” has evolved into “belonging” as a way to describe feelings of group membership (Bryk & Driscoll, 1988; McMillan & Chavis, 1996; Rovai, 2001).
Belonging is the feeling of acceptance — of identification with a group that sees each person as a full-fledged member. It denotes recognition of membership in a community and the feelings of friendship, cohesion, and satisfaction that develop among learners (Rovai, 2001). We can begin to build this feeling of cohesion in initial resources provided with the Canvas elements of our courses, and also during our initial classroom sessions.
Building Belonging through Canvas-based materials
An "About your instructor" page can be one way you can begin to develop a feeling of belonging and acceptance in your students. The "About your instructor" page allows you to permit students a glimpse of you as more than the expert in the particular class you're teaching, but also better understand you as a professional and expert in your field. You might consider explaining why your field and particular area of study are fascinating, what is neat about the class your leading the students through, how does it fit into the program, general education, and contemporary society?
Building Belonging through Canvas-based activities
Icebreaker activities are an effective way to spur student collegiality. Distance education modalities might dissuade the incorporation of icebreakers, but that doesn't need to be the case. A person might argue that icebreakers are even more important in distance education because students may feel isolated learning in a separated physical environment or not part of the class. Here are some tips and examples of how you might include an icebreaker in your teaching modality.
It's easy to skip doing an ice breaker because they often seem "cheesy" and don't seem to add to the class; however, in addition to spurring the development of belonging in your class's community, they can also be useful in a pedagogically direct way. A selection of icebreakers assembled by Lansing Community College do both.
Sharing course trepidation: Through a Canvas discussion, have students share their trepidation about the course. This may be particularly helpful in a course associated with high anxiety, such as math or writing. As students share, the instructor can validate and address their concerns as appropriate.
If you'd like to collect this information and a discussion seems too personal, you may also try incorporating this question into a student survey in Canvas, which is an option within quizzes. This would allow for a private and/or anonymous collection of student feelings without the possibility of making a student uncomfortable with sharing their trepidation. The drawback of course is that the activity is no longer an ice-breaker and students would be missing out on the shared realization that their peers likely have the same concerns. If you prefer a survey, identify another ice-breaker option to utilize.
Common sense inventory: Assemble five to fifteen common sense statements directly related to the course material, some (or all) of which run counter to popular belief. Present the questions in a group discussion prompt, ask each student to mark each statement as true or false, and then share their answers in their small group discussion. Allow students to debate their differences. Instruct the groups to reach a consensus and have a presenter from each group post their response to at least one question in a class discussion. Either provide the correct answers or take the cliffhanger approach and let the class wait for them to unfold throughout the semester. If you take the cliffhanger approach, you might consider re-administering this inventory at the end of the semester as a method of reviewing and/or reflecting on the course.
Syllabus icebreaker: Assign students to Canvas groups of three to five people. Ask them to introduce themselves via discussion and ask them to generate a few questions they have about the class. Each group should compile a list of questions and post them in a class discussion. The class discussion serves as a place to address any concerns students have about the class that may not be clear.
Something: Have students complete a survey or electronic document with spaces for "something you already know about the subject," "something you want to learn," and "something that could happen in this class that would make it possible to learn what you need to learn." Have each student post to a discussion introducing themselves and share something from their document. Review the survey, if used, or collect their electronic documents to understand, and, when possible, address their needs.
Trust is the feeling that the community can be trusted and feedback will be forthcoming and constructive. Once individuals are accepted as part of a nourishing learning community, they feel safe and trust the community. With safety and trust comes the willingness of community members to speak openly. This candor is important to a learning community because with trust comes the likelihood that members will expose gaps in their learning and feel that other members of the community will respond in supportive ways (Rovai, 2001).
Begin by introducing course expectations, your expectations of students, and what they can expect from you. You are laying the groundwork for your commitment to the students, and the commitment to the class you expect in them as full-fledged members in the learning community. Here are some example course expectations taken from Michelle Pacansky-Brock's "liquid syllabus" (n.d.).
What you can expect from me:
- I will treat you with dignity and respect and be flexible to support your individual needs.
- I will provide you with a clear, organized course that is designed to ensure you meet our course outcomes in a meaningful manner.
- I will provide a variety of assignments to ensure your learning needs are met.
- I will be actively present in your learning.
- I will provide a supportive and safe environment for you to share and discuss ideas with your peers.
- I will reach out to you when I sense that you need support.
- I won't be perfect. I am human and will make mistakes at times. I will view mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow.
What I will expect from you:
- You will treat me and your peers with dignity and respect.
- You will strive to be an active participant in this course and aim to meet due dates.
- You will maintain an open line of communication with me so I understand how to support you.
- You will contact me if you have a concern with meeting a due date.
- You will strive to regularly contribute to collaborative activities to ensure the class community has ample opportunity to read/listen, reflect, and respond to your ideas.
- You will do your best to have patience with technology. There will be hiccups, expect them. We will get through them together.
- You will give yourself grace. Expect to make mistakes. You are human and mistakes are part of learning and growing.
Establishing classroom norms is also an important part of the class community. The syllabus might be a great place to include your classroom norms. A separate resource covering class norms is also an excellent choice. Discussing norms early in your course can also work well to bring them front-and-center for students.
- I will keep my comments and communications on topic.
- I will try to communicate clearly and avoid sarcasm, which can be easily misunderstood through typed communication.
- I will respect the opinions of others.
- I will communicate using professional language and tone.
- I will post questions that aren't private to the "Raise your hand" discussion.
- Is there anything you'd like to add to this list?
adapted from Introduction to Live Online Teaching & Learning, CVC-OEI
Humanizing your online teaching means ensuring that you intentionally support the emotional aspects of learning to ensure students feel validated, seen, and respected (Pacansky-Brock, et al., 2020). To mitigate threats, researchers recommend intentionally including kindness cues of social inclusion into your teaching (Estrada, Matsui, & Eroy-Reveles, 2017). Here are some key ways you can send cues of kindness of social inclusion in your teaching and instructional materials.
- Be flexible.
- Include your pronouns after your screen name in Canvas.
- Acknowledge difficult and stressful real-world events that may be affecting your students.
- Consider giving students the agency to influence their experience. Here are some examples of possibilities:
- A syllabus review activity allowing students to articulate either their understand of policies or recommend alternatives
- Assignment completion options: a web article or blog post in lieu of a short paper, a Twine story instead of a short story, etc.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the technical limitations of online learning.
- Realize that students may be joining over poor internet connections.