Be intentional about fostering relationships in online classrooms
For many students, the only time they interact with other students outside of their immediate friend group is during online classes. This makes synchronous classes a powerful time for building classroom community and helping students connect with one another. Online classes can feel colder and more distant than in-person instruction, with fewer opportunities for chatting with peers or instructors; deliberately fostering a sense of community will help students feel seen and valued.
Instructors can build community through many means, including techniques to show warmth during live Zoom calls, providing an online casual social space (a Canvas discussion or a text chat) just for socializing, using breakout rooms both for quick social check-ins and ice-breakers and for more substantive discussions, and even assigning collaborative projects to give students an excuse to work together and get to know each other.
This guide walks you through building class community at every stage:
Use the week before classes start to allow students to introduce themselves to one another and to you. This time can be crucial for building relationships and ensuring students know you are thinking critically about how to organize an online class.
Reach out to students via email prior to the first class.
Introduce yourself and your background. Consider talking about how you and your family are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak. Openness on your part early on will help students feel like the classroom is inviting. Address concerns you have about the online format and make it clear that you want to work with the students to mitigate these. Send out Zoom links, and upload these to Canvas and encourage students to populate their calendar with the links. Populate Canvas with assignment due dates.
Create a way for you or the TA to get to know students prior to the first class.
You might want to survey students to give them an opportunity to let you know their backgrounds, where they are in the world, potential internet problems they may have or their concerns about online learning. (See Canvas Templates to easily import a survey into Canvas.) Ask if there is anything students would like you to know about their home environments. Many students are living in crowded homes with families or their own children and may be concerned about interruptions during class. Knowing that you are aware and accepting of these will put them at ease.
Encourage students to get to know one another prior to the first class.
- Start a Canvas Discussion Board – have students introduce themselves and provide a brief bio, answer questions, and respond to classmates
- Cultural Basket – Students take a photo of an object/artifact that has significant meaning to them. Post with an explanation. Example
- Small Group Intros – Group students into 2-3 and encourage them to reach out and get to know one another prior to class.
The first class is key for setting norms, making expectations clear, and building classroom culture. Use this time to clearly outline your expectations for respectful, active participation, and to allow students to begin getting to know one another and make connections.
Set Norms during the First Class
Set the norm that it is okay for students to appear in comfortable clothing or messy backgrounds, and to have videos off if needed for privacy and/or Internet connectivity reasons. Explain protocol for when interruptions or technical challenges arise.
Describe your expectations for how and when students should participate verbally and nonverbally, when breaks will be given, and provide guidelines for how students should handle interruptions. Consider using chat and "Participant" features such as thumbs up/down or the coffee cup. Also discuss expectations for other technology during class, and set norms for all types of activities you will do in class, such as discussion, small groups, etc.
Build Classroom Culture
Start class, perhaps using PollEverywhere, to ask for students to share about themselves or to set norms as a community. Share results via ‘Screen Share’. Bring up concerns you have about online classes and ask students to give suggestions.
Have students submit recommendations for how they can (non-verbally) acknowledge other classmate’s points, or how they would like participation to flow. Ask students to keep the chat open during class time and be explicit about the purpose of the chat during class, whether it’s for questions, share outs, etc.
Share your own cultural basket or a story about yourself. Allow students to ask questions.
Build Relationships with One Another
- Teach Something – Ask students to come in ready to teach a classmate a 1-minute skill or mini lesson. At the start of class, put students into pairs and have them teach one another. Then, share out to class
- Small or Whole Group Discussions – Students are put into small groups to talk about questions that were sent out prior to class. These can be on the course (why did you take this class) or more personal (what was your favorite academic experience). Suggested Questions
Building culture and relationships is an ongoing activity throughout the quarter. Structuring classes to maximize learning and to foster relationships is key to ensuring students and teachers get as much as possible out of this class.
Structure Class to Build Rapport and Maximize Learning
Expect students to complete work outside of class, reserving video conferencing for richer discussions, Q&A and active learning. Limit video conferencing time to ensure maximum attention.
Before any class, post the agenda ahead of time, along with any links that students may need during the class. Post slides and materials in advance so students can follow along and/or return to materials during lecture and discussion.
Throughout video conferencing time, build in multiple avenues for small-group discussion, such as a regular check-in and icebreaker at the start, small group discussions in the middle, and a wrap-up discussion to allow students to stay online and work as long as they want.
During class breaks, send students to breakout rooms to allow them to chat with one another as they might during a coffee break in regular class.
Use outside of class time, such as written journals or discussion boards with regular participation, to allow students to be in written dialogue with one another and you.
Build in Regular Community-Building Activities
Build in avenues for students to have discussion with you outside of class, through 1:1 meetings in office hours, pre-set places for students to submit questions on material, or interactive Canvas Discussion Boards with both you and other students responding.
Actively encourage students to schedule appointments to meet you for Office Hours, and use this time both to get to know the student and to provide feedback and support. Use interactive ways to give feedback or present material, such as recording assignment feedback on your computer, or Screencastify which also allows you to record lectures (example of feedback).
Encourage Students to Get to Know Another Outside of Class
Encourage students to get to know one another outside of class. Assign small group work that encourages them to work on class assignments together, and also encourage them to create an all-class Whatsapp or Slack group. Encourage them to have virtual Happy Hours or discussion groups to continue getting to know one another.
Used with permission from Stanford GSE's Teaching Resources.