Tips for Building a Sense of Community in Online Learning Contexts

Written by: Christie Forgette

College and university instructors have always known the importance of building a sense of community in their traditional face-to-face courses. Sustained opportunities for students to solve problems, learn about each other, and construct knowledge together create a greater sense of community and richer learning experiences for students. A 2007 study on community building in higher education found that in cooperative classrooms, students report a higher motivation for achievement. Small-group work, project-based learning, think-pair-share, and discussion are common strategies used. 

Now instructors are seeking ways to build community in online higher ed environments, whether those are face-to-face courses that depend heavily on courseware or fully remote or asynchronous courses. Several frameworks (notably the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which is organized around social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence) encourage instructors to think theoretically about fostering a community of engaged learners. 

Along with frameworks, instructors need practical everyday methods that blend digital learning technologies to cultivate a sense of community in their courses.Below are several practical ideas for higher ed instructors to build community in all modalities. 

Start with the Syllabus

Community building can begin even before the course officially starts. Share your syllabus early, and describe course expectations transparently; demonstrate a commitment to your students’ success. Include your teaching philosophy in the syllabus, and inform students of your office hours and course communication channels. 

Establish Teacher Presence Before the Course Begins

In addition to building community through the syllabus, reach out to students before the first day of the course in an email, the course LMS, or the courseware messaging system to introduce yourself and provide your background. This early gesture sets up an environment of communication, openness, and trust. 

Include Opportunities for Students to Get to Know Each Other

Students may feel nervous at the start of the course. Use social icebreakers on the first day to help build rapport and foster a sense of community among students. The Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning offers a page with several icebreaker activities suited to both virtual and face-to-face environments. 

Invite Students to Co-Create Community Norms

The Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation suggests students build community agreements together to create a communal sense of ownership over the learning that takes place in the course. 

Embed Community-Building Activities Throughout the Course

The same small-group work, project-based learning, and think-pair-share activities that work in face-to-face classes can be adapted to online learning. Browsing resources from college and university teaching and learning centers surfaces activities like these: 

  • Have students share a map and use the annotation feature on Zoom or other mapping feature to let students pin themselves on it and discuss the similarities and differences between their communities.
  • Create opportunities for students to teach each other. For example, design review sessions in which students comment on each other’s writing or quiz each other for upcoming assessments. 
  • Incorporate co-creation tools–such as Google Docs, WordClouds, or Padlet–that allow students to generate ideas and suggestions collectively. 
  • Allow students to create online profiles with biographies and pictures.

Prioritize Communication

Open communication is the bedrock of community. Make sure the course content is communicated effectively. Ensure that students understand upcoming assignments and why they are important by providing class agendas or weekly overviews. Check in with students throughout the week with reminders and invitations to ask questions.  

Make sure that students know how to communicate with you and that they feel comfortable doing so. Clearly identify communication channels, and provide instructions for where students should check when problems arise. Additionally, regularly ask students for feedback.. The University of Queensland Australia Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation suggests these check-in prompts:

  • What is your biggest challenge or success this week?
  • What should we stop, start, or continue doing to help you learn? 
  • How are you progressing in your assessment?

Students need opportunities to communicate and collaborate with each other. Use the practices listed in the section above, but also encourage students to get to know each other outside of class time. Set up opportunities for study groups. Alert students to opportunities for supplemental instruction. Initiate a group chat feature where students can remind each other of deadlines or course requirements.

Provide Flexibility and Support

Offering multiple paths to achieving course outcomes gives students a greater sense of belonging by enabling them to find the entry point that suits them. Flexibility can be achieved by providing diverse assignment types, establishing elastic deadlines, varying modes of participation (e.g., journaling vs. speaking in discussions), and designing alternate assessments to allow students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. 

Recognize That Every Student Is Unique

Communities are made up of individuals. Demonstrate sensitivity to students' individual needs, backgrounds, and circumstances. Get to know your students’ lives outside of the classroom, and check in with students who may need help or have been missing assignments or deadlines. 

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