Checking on whether my students in a recent class were understanding some thorny content, I did a quick survey and was heartened to receive engaged feedback from class participants. For this particular session, the participants included nine students, two babies, and a rambunctious puppy. Permitting such an array of “unofficial” members to join the class would have been unthinkable in years past, but a deepening understanding of how community can make or break a learning environment, particularly in the fraught moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant a new understanding of class protocols.
Teaching during the pandemic meant harnessing the power of community to build a classroom in which students could succeed, because they understood that a caring attitude was at the heart of such an endeavor; this lesson carries on even as we move forward. Crafting a community is as essential as providing high-level content and goes to the heart of successful pedagogy. In fact, relationship building is a key determinant of classroom success, according to researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Mehta, 2020). A feeling of belonging can mitigate fears and counter the isolation that can take hold of students trying to navigate college. Community is also correlated with an enhanced level of engagement (Borup, Graham, West, R.E. et al, 2020). The more instructors are willing to formulate a foundation of belonging and shared mission, the more students will be inclined to participate.
Emphasizing community as a cornerstone of strong pedagogy is one of the most effective ways to deepen learning and is something that helps all members of the classroom. Moving forward the classroom setting may be somewhat different from how we are used to, but building a caring community can soften those rough edges and bring to the fore what is most important in all instructional endeavors: Building a learning environment in which students can succeed. For faculty seeking ways to enhance the learning taking place in their classroom, regardless of modality, community building can be the difference between success and failure.
Here are five strategies to get started on community building in the classroom:
- Cultivate instructor presence. Build a community of caring by making yourself visible and available. For online sessions, consider harnessing the power of video presence, whether in a quick instructional overview of course material, or a recap of the weekly content and expectations. Hearing and seeing an instructor can enhance learning for students and encourages participation (Skurat, 2020). The same idea goes for blended and/or face-to-face modalities.
- Build trust. Getting to know your students by name and story is a key step and will lead to dialogue. But trust is a two-way process, so be willing to share information about yourself, which will model to students how community is formed through the process of shared information and trust. If possible, open a virtual session of an online synchronous class a few minutes early for students to drop-in and check-in individually and informally.
- Assign group work with oversight. Collaboration can be an effective way to build classroom community, but approach group learning strategically. That means limiting groups to three or four; monitoring progress by checking in on breakout sessions for online modalities; and setting intermittent deadlines for group projects that require team members to provide timely feedback. Group sessions can also be cultivated by having students input work on a shared document in real time. This allows the instructor to see immediately the areas which will require reinforcement.
- Be sensitive to cultural differences. Group dynamics among a diverse cohort can ebb and flow according to the cultural norms that each member brings. The goal of an instructor is to create an environment in which all voices are supported, so think about the value of creating an environment in which different values are supported and not judged. Researchers in the field of organizational culture describe this as creating a cultural island (Schein & Bennis, 1965), in which members can suspend the defense armor we all carry when interacting with the world. Put another way, your students should feel safe within the learning environment you are creating.
- Survey early and survey often. Formative assessments are one of the most effective ways to build a community because they allow an instructor to understand the process of learning on an individual basis at a time in the semester when course design can be adjusted for stronger outcomes. Rely on technology tools such as Padlet, which allows students to post anonymous electronic feedback on a community board on what is and what is not working.
Juli S. Charkes is an instructional designer at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mercy College. Dr. Mitch Fried is the interim director at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mercy College. Together they have led multiple trainings on community-based learning spaces as part of their roles at the Center for Teaching and Learning. They have also had the pleasure of presenting on this topic at this year’s AAC&U Annual Meeting.
Borup, J., Graham, C.R., West, R.E. et al. Academic Communities of Engagement: an expansive lens for examining support structures in blended and online learning. Education Tech Research Dev 68, 807–832 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09744-x
Knowles, M. S. (1967). Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach. By Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis. New York: John Wiley & Son, 1965. 376 pages. $8.25. Adult Education, 17(2), 126–128. https://doi.org/10.1177/074171366701700211
Mehta, Jal. “Make Schools More Human.” New York Times, 23 Dec. 2020.