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Classroom Community

It may seem intuitive that creating community in your classroom is useful. Research bears this out and details the specific benefits of doing so: students who feel that your classroom is a welcoming place where they belong and have the support of peers and the teacher are more likely to learn more, persist in their studies, and report higher levels of satisfaction with their education overall.

Creating community is thus not just a ‘feel good’ goal: when you are successful in creating your classroom community, your students are fixed on common academic goals. Their peers are seen as ‘academic friends’ whom they can trust to ask for help and offer support to as needed. They will perceive the classroom as place that allows them to take risks and explore new ideas.  And their confidence will grow because they are not alone against all odds, but rather accepted for who they are and what they bring to the table.

This sense of belonging and confidence leads to a new ownership of their own learning:  rather than learning to ‘please the teacher’ or ‘defer to the smart student’ or ‘to get an A’, they focus more squarely on what they are learning for themselves. Adopting such an attitude leads to a mindset that allows for life-long learning. In other words, the successful classroom community you create can affect the lives of your students beyond their academic studies.

How do I begin to create community in the classroom?

Let students get to know you

Obviously, a teacher is not the same thing as a friend.  But often, the distance between teacher and student gives students the idea that you aren’t a whole person with a life of your own. This distance can make students hesitant to connect with you when they need help.  

You’ll have to decide how personal to get—sharing truly intimate details of your life is counter-productive.  But sharing what brings you joy, your excitement about what you teach, why it is important, and your hopes for your students is a good way to combat their “paper cut-out” impression of you and give your class a more personal touch.  This can be done (whether online or in person) with a self-introduction that begins to answer those questions. Such a self-introduction might also include messages of your openness to student questions about the class, how you hope they will communicate with you about their learning, the kinds of support you provide and a list of University-offered supports they can use to succeed.  

Learn who your students are—and act on what you learn

You can ask students to answer some questions as a way to get to know them and welcome them to the course.  The questions might include things like:

  • What is the name and pronoun you want us to use?

  • What brought you to this course: what do you hope to get out of it?

  • What are your previous experiences with the content—either academic or out in the world?

  • What are the academic things you’re good at?

  • What academic or other skills do you want to strengthen?

Such questions welcome the students into the course as themselves. They can help you to see where they already are in relation to the course learning outcomes, to make groups or teams based on diverse skills and assets, and give relevant and personalized feedback throughout the course.

Build Community between Peers

Interaction and small group work

Ensure that students solve problems together on the first day of class and throughout the semester.  Make those problems hard enough that it takes more than one brain to solve them.  Students learn the difference between “what the teacher says” and “what the teacher does” in the first few hours of a course: if you just talk about your course and go over the syllabus on the first day—even if you plan a lot of interaction later in the semester—they will assume you will talk at them for the next 15 weeks.  Their assumption will make it much harder to engage them in activities later. On Day One of your course, give students direct experience of the kinds of interactions you plan for them throughout the semester.

Students come to us with existing experiences and knowledge: leverage their experience to solve complex problems even if they do not know anything yet. They can speculate, imagine solutions, come up with hypotheses, make recommendations, etc.  Once they’ve tried to solve a problem, what you tell them next becomes much more relevant to them because they have already exercised their intellect and imagination. 

Frequent small group learning where the questions posed are hard enough that no one brain can easily get to an acceptable answer helps students see that they are an asset to the discussion, and that they can learn from and trust their peers.

Develop a Class Contract

For small and large group discussions and activities to be successful, students need to buy in to the ‘rules of conduct’ for successful interactions.  Put students into small groups within the first week of class, and ask them develop a set of rules they wish to live by for small or whole group discussions.  Discuss the various options the groups come up with: have the larger class winnow them down to a manageable number (3-6) of the most important rules that then become the class contract.  Because the students have had a chance to design the rules of conduct, they are much less likely to see them as a power play by the teacher, much more likely to abide by them, and have a handy tool to use if a peer does not abide by the rules.

Introduce Structured Peer Feedback

Students can learn a lot from their peers, either through direct feedback or by comparison of their own work with others’ while they are giving feedback. Offer opportunities for peers to give feedback on drafts or early versions of significant assignments.

Guide peer feedback. Students often do not initially know how to give effective peer feedback, either because they do not understand what is meant by ‘quality’ in an assignment or because they do not trust that peer feedback has value. Many students may still identify the teacher as the one who dictates what quality means. Many may have had negative experiences with peer feedback. To convince students of the value of peer feedback, several elements must be in place:

  1. Students must have a shared definition of the criteria and ‘quality’ expected in an assignment. Peers need instruments such as a rubric or a set of guiding questions to steer peer feedback on specific work. Ideally, any rubric will be co-designed with the class so all students are aware of the expectations for the assignment and have had a hand in determining what quality means. 

  2. A clear process for co-creation/mutual understanding of a rubric must be in place: for example students may be asked to evaluate three submissions for a particular assignment of varying quality and decide which is best, worst, in the middle and why.  Such a class conversation can then become the basis for the rubric students will use with their peers. Alternatively, a set of 3-5 ‘guiding questions’ can be devised (by the teacher or by the class) for the actual peer review of work.

  3. Students should do structured reflection on the peer feedback they have received, deciding which parts of the feedback are relevant and how to adopt those suggestions; and which parts of the feedback they will not incorporate, and why.

  4. The expectation should be in place that peer feedback will be actively incorporated into future drafts, with justification if the student has chosen not to incorporate specific feedback.

Build student confidence in themselves and their relationship with you

Delay Grades and Enhance Practice

Grades are perceived by students as a kind of power the teacher holds, and they often create fear, distress and lack of self-confidence, none of which help with students’ learning in your class.  Becoming more of a coach than a judge can help you build their confidence before it’s time for a graded assignment.  Ensure that students have the chance to practice skills or apply concepts without the threat of grades.  Institute times/areas of your class where experimentation and curiosity are valued and rewarded, rather than rewarding the ‘right answer’. Allow students to submit multiple drafts for feedback (either by you or by peers) as they refine their ideas. Exploration of this kind should be part of any course as students expand their understanding of what the key concepts mean and how to use them in the world.  Set the expectation that your and their peers’ feedback will be integrated into a final submission for a grade.

Use Multiple Avenues for Regularly Communicating with Students 

  • Use VIULearn’s announcements feature which makes it easy to send a message to the whole class. It can be used for announcements, but also for general feedback on an assignment or activity for all students.  

  • Use VIULearn’s class email list, to send a message to each student individually or all of them in one message.

  • Clarify assignment due dates and readings or homework by using checklists in VIULearn at the beginning of each module of your course. 

  • Schedule regular and flexible office hours.  Office hours are excellent for fostering interaction and personalization of learning. Once you’ve set a schedule of office hours, express your enthusiasm for seeing students there regularly. Encourage them to visit you in small groups or teams for discussion. Include the option of making extra appointments for those students who cannot attend regularly scheduled office hours. 

  • Use your synchronous (face to face or Zoom) sessions to give feedback and respond to student thinking rather than as an opportunity for information transfer.  Your expertise shines most brightly when you are responding to students’ specific questions and struggles.  Most information transfer can be taken care of outside the time you have to spend directly with students.

Contact us at learnsupport@viu.ca if you want to schedule a consultation around building community in your particular classroom!

Kangas Dwyer, K., et al., (2004). Communication and connectedness in the classroom: Development of the connected classroom climate inventory. Communication Research Reports, 21(3), 264-272.

Liu, X., Magjuka, R.J., Bonk, C.J. & Lee, S.h. (2007). Does sense of community matter? An examination of participants' perceptions of building learning communities in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 8(1), 9-24.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Sense of community, perceived cognitive learning, and persistence in asynchronous learning networks. Internet and Higher Education, 5, 319-332.

McKinney, J.P, McKinney, K.G., Franiuk, R. & Schweitzer, J. (2006) The college classroom as a community: Impact on student attitudes and learning. College Teaching, 54, 281-284.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Wilcox, P., et al., (2005). ‘It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’: the role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707-722.