The first few weeks of classes are always an exciting time for me because the semester seems full of possibilities and students are eager to engage with new people and ideas. However, this initial excitement can slow as instructors and learners settle into the routines and rhythms of teaching and learning. Creating intentional and reflective classroom communities can make our teaching more inclusive, encourage engagement, and maintain momentum.
Beyond a positive affective relationship to the classroom space, intentional community building can support our pedagogical strategies and help students to meet learning goals. Research shows that classroom climate can positively affect cognitive learning, engagement, and learning outcomes. Furthermore, a sense of belonging and connectedness (student-instructor and student-student) is linked to strong communication and positive learning outcomes.
Though we often think about this on the first day or while creating groups, building classroom community is an ongoing process of relationship building. Consistent attention to climate, peer interactions, and engagement can help to create and maintain classroom community.
- Set the tone: Model actions and attitudes you want to cultivate in the class.
- Co-create expectations: Facilitate a discussion with your students to identify behaviors and expectations that will help students feel safe, accepted, and valued. Revisit these throughout the semester and make adjustments as necessary.
- Foster Accountability: Encourage students to hold each other (and you) accountable for working toward shared goals and supporting each other through self- and peer-assessment and consistent course feedback. Promptly respond to questions and concerns
- Use Icebreakers: Though these work well on the first day, we can use them throughout the term to encourage students to get to know one another in a low stakes way. For large classes, students can still introduce themselves and get to know those who sit around them.
- Build interactivity into learning activities: Working collaboratively keeps students engaged, but also allows students to learn more deeply, provide one another with feedback, and challenge one another.
- Build interactivity into assessments: Would your students benefit from providing one another with feedback? Collaborating on a group presentation? Tapping one another’s experiences? Create opportunities for your students to work together to create something great.
- Build structure and expectations for interactions: Encourage students to take advantage of office/student hours by setting up appointment slots and/or making conferences part of student participation. Let students know how they can contact you. Chat with your students before/during/after class. For larger classes, consider fire-side chats or open student hours for conversations with small groups of students.
- Use student names: Ask for their preferred name and pronunciation. Learn and use them regularly. Consider using name tents to learn student names. Even for large classes – try to learn a few names each class.
- Accept questions: Make space for your students to ask questions and take action to respond to these questions. Consider creating a forum on Canvas where students can ask questions and receive a response from you or their peers. For a larger class, use exit tickets, polls, or clickers to gauge where students are struggling, and come back to the next class with extra support.
Early in my teaching career, I received mid-semester feedback from a student who mentioned that they enjoyed small group work and think-pair-share activities, but couldn’t remember the names of their classmates and felt too embarrassed to ask after the first few weeks of class. Now I routinely include re-introductions as part of instructions for informal small group and partner interactions. This helped to reduce awkward or embarrassing interactions while also reminding students that they are interacting with real people and their identities matter beyond the structure of the activity. Small, consistent interventions like these can shift the classroom environment and promote inclusion. If these efforts are part of a reflective and intentional practice of community-building they can also improve student learning.