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Building Inclusive Community

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Research into the social and emotional dimensions of learning suggests that a sense of social disconnection from instructors and peers can impede learning and that this disproportionately impacts underrepresented students. Deliberately fostering a classroom community and helping students connect with one another can help students feel seen and valued which can have positive impacts on learning.

Representation matters

Research on stereotype threat and online learning environments indicates that visual and other cues that send implicit signals about who belongs and who can succeed can negatively impact student learning.

  • Represent individuals of varied races, gender, religion, ability, and so on in your course slides, course site, and other course materials.
  • Avoid using symbols or imagery that might trigger stereotypes or be perceived as exclusive.
  • Diversify your curriculum so that students can see themselves reflected in the researchers, scholars, practitioners, and other figures upheld in the discipline. 

Build opportunities for student choice and agency

Giving students some choice and control over how they encounter, engage, and express their learning can be motivational and deepen learning.

  • Allow students to choose how to demonstrate their learning, for example choosing between writing a written essay, a slide presentation, or an oral presentation.
  • Allow students to influence instruction and course content. For example, have students contribute readings, lead discussions, or select from assignments, topics, or assessment options. 
  • Empower students to connect their learning to the issues and communities that they care about. Leverage SPARQ toolkits to spark psychological, behavioral, and societal change.
  • Solicit frequent feedback from students on their course experience.

Adopt caring practices 

Demonstrations of caring from instructors can enhance student motivation.

  • Build flexibility into your course design and course policies (e.g., provide due date ranges, offer multiple avenues for getting points and credit, and allow for a certain number of absences or late submissions without requiring explanations or imposing penalties).
  • Include statements that acknowledge that students might find coursework challenging, express confidence in their ability to succeed, and commit to supporting students.
  • If you notice students who stop attending class or submitting work, take the initiative in reaching out and expressing concern for their well-being and your willingness to help.
  • Familiarize yourself with signs of student distress and the steps you can take to help.

Foster community and connection

Consider these strategies to actively foster and sustain a sense of community and connection among your students.

Before the course begins

Use the week before classes start to allow students to introduce themselves to you and one another. This time can be crucial for building relationships and ensuring students know you are thinking deeply about how to effectively organize the class. 

Communicate with students prior to the first class

  • Send a welcome email or welcome video to introduce yourself and share your background. Openness on your part early on will help students feel like the classroom is inviting.
  • Address concerns you may have about the class and make it clear that you want to work with the students to mitigate these. 

 Get to know one another prior to the first class

  • Survey students to learn about any potential barriers to succeeding in the course, such as access to technology, their learning environment, and family or work obligations.
  • Create an activity that gives students an opportunity to share something about their personalities, backgrounds, motivation, and goals. For example, start a Canvas Discussion Board where students introduce themselves and provide a brief biographical statement and respond to an engaging prompt.

During the first session

The first session 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 and commitments

Do an ice-breaker activity

  • Use small-group discussions or breakout rooms if online to have students share their backgrounds and feelings with each other. You might also include a creative ice-breaker prompt.
  • Facilitate an activity or use a tool like Poll Everywhere to ask questions about the students and their backgrounds and view the results as a class. Poll Everywhere is particularly useful for large audiences.

Ongoing culture-building

Building culture and relationships is an ongoing activity throughout the quarter. Structuring classes to maximize learning and foster relationships is key to ensuring students and teachers get as much as possible out of the class.  

Create community rituals and routines

  • Create a class music playlist on a streaming music provider that students can directly contribute to or submit songs to be added to. The teaching team can use the playlist during class sessions.
  • Create a routine of regular communication with students with a weekly email or video with a supportive, humorous, and motivational message. 
  • Explain to students how to benefit from office hours and encourage them to schedule one or more one-on-one office hours meetings during the quarter.
  • Create regular asynchronous activities, such as weekly written journals or discussion forums, to encourage students to be in written dialogue with you and one another.
  • Create a routine for each class session, such as a regular check-in or icebreaker at the start, short breaks of play, movement, and levity in the middle, and a wrap-up discussion or reflection at the end.

Create opportunities for informal community-building

  • Come to the classroom or open web meetings early, and wait several minutes after the scheduled class has ended before leaving the vicinity or closing the web meeting to encourage students to informally connect with you and each other.
  • Encourage students to chat with one another during class breaks.

Encourage students to connect outside of class 

  • Create Canvas discussion forums and encourage students to post messages about their interests and invite their classmates to contact them.
  • Consider creating an all-class Slack group.
  • Encourage students to share contact information with each other and self-organize into study groups.

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