How to build classroom community to increase student learning (opinion)

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We’ve all seen the posters throughout our campus buildings: “Face coverings required.” “Maintain distancing.” Masks and physical distancing were two of the many disruptions to learning posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid expansion of online and hybrid courses that arose in response to the pandemic brought other significant challenges.

In the face of such massive changes, and as this year’s classes conclude, how should we think about our teaching going forward? To answer that question, we as educators must consider the factors that most contribute to a meaningful educational experience for our students. And one of the most crucial is a sense of belonging.

The significance of belonging for college students is well documented, but it has become increasingly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic. After having to leave college and study from home, many students eagerly awaited a return to their campuses. The most important aspect of campus life that they felt that had missed since the beginning of the pandemic was not the quest for knowledge or attending in-person lectures by distinguished faculty but rather their friends and social life.

This raises an essential point for recalibrating college teaching in the future, even after the pandemic is well behind us. Whatever the modality, we must remember that learning is a social process. A student does not learn alone. Students need teachers. And students need other students.

As such, we write this piece to propagate a simple sentiment: students learn better when they learn together. That means that we as educators must embrace our implicit roles as community builders and focus on socially connecting students in ways that build community in our classes.

The Contours of Community

In his classic book The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer instructs, “Good teaching is always and essentially communal.” A communal approach to teaching involves reimagining our classes from a collection of independent learners to a community of interdependent ones.

Communities have a number of characteristics, and we should bear them in mind when we think about our teaching, regardless of how the content is delivered.

  • A sense of belonging. Members of a community recognize themselves as part of something bigger.
  • Interdependence. Members of a community feel they matter, and others in the community matter to them. They come to depend on one another.
  • Mutual respect. Members of a community treat each other with care and courtesy, even if they have differences of opinion.
  • Engagement. From belonging, interdependence and mutual respect come motivation to participate in community life. We contribute to groups that are meaningful to us. These actions reflect and reinforce our commitment to the community.

When a class becomes a community, students change from being passive learners to active learners. Building community also changes the class experience from impersonal to personal. A hefty amount of educational research highlights the benefits of collaborative learning. For example, a national study of more than 80,000 first-year and senior college students found that participating in a learning community, where a group of students takes multiple classes together, was associated with higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and assorted learning outcomes. Experts in higher education recognize shared first-year experiences, learning communities and collaborative projects as high-impact practices.

Building Community in Classes

In a trend accelerated by the pandemic, instructors now teach and interact with students through a number of modalities. Numerous forms of synchronous and asynchronous online instruction extend learning beyond the traditional classroom. How do we effectively build community in such courses—often characterized by disembodied students online—as well as in the future?

The single most important thing an instructor can do at this time is recognize their role. Beyond being content experts, faculty members must step into their often-unspoken roles as community builders. We must actively adapt and improve the ways we help students learn together.

Based on our own experience, we offer suggestions for connecting students socially to build a class community. These tips generally apply regardless of subject matter or course format.

Be intentional. As you plan your courses and daily lessons, intentionally incorporate ways to build community with just as much effort as you put into selecting content. For example, Neil begins a new organic chemistry course by giving each student the chemical structure of an organic molecule. Each student then has to find classmates who were given the same molecule. The newly formed team collaborates to identify the molecule, learn more about it and give a brief group presentation to the class. The activity enables learning and community building, and it sets a collaborative tone for the rest of the course. Intentionality about community building also applies to the choice of technology—you should work to learn about new technologies and prioritize the incorporation of tools that enhance student learning as a shared, social experience.

Take a personal interest. Of course, you can greatly improve a student’s sense of belonging by just taking an interest in them as an individual. A basic starting point is addressing students by name. Even in our classes of 300 to 400 participants, we try to learn student names. You can convey your personal interest in students in other simple ways, including replying to their emails in a personal and timely manner, offering to meet with them (online or in-person), congratulating them on their effort and accomplishments (even those outside your course), or reaching out to students when they’re in need. Care and support are essential components of any community, and something magical happens when students feel their instructor cares about them: they are more motivated to learn.

Provide ample opportunities for meaningful interaction. For classes to be communities, student interaction is essential. That interaction can take many forms. Instead of a one-way flow of information from you to your students, focus on instructing through discussions, widely recognized as a potent means for students to learn, as they promote interdependence, engagement and critical thinking. Discussions can involve all class members, whether in a classroom or on a digital discussion board or social networking site. Discussion can also occur in pairs or small groups. Think-pair-share is a popular learning activity applicable in a classroom or online via breakout rooms.

You should also explore some of the new tools that are emerging that employ artificial intelligence to moderate and evaluate student participation in online discussions. For several years, Kevin used a Facebook Group in his large introductory course. Discussions in class continued online. In addition, students shared stories, photos and videos pertinent to course material, sparking comments and likes from classmates. Tellingly, students who voluntarily participated in the Facebook Group learned more in the course because they learned together.

Incorporate students’ experiences and expertise. Students come to our classes with a wide range of knowledge and experiences. They are not experts in our subject, but they have insights to share, and you should encourage them to make use of their experiences and expertise to advance learning for all. For example, Kevin invites students in his Introduction to Sociology course to speak on topics such as arranged marriages in their family or the challenges of attending a Christian university as a Muslim student. Neil routinely invites students, independently or in small groups, to solve organic chemistry problems in front of their peers and explain their solutions. Involving students as teachers heightens interdependence, mutual respect and engagement—all of which are valuable in community building.

Encourage group creations. Another effective aspect of community building in classes is to give students opportunities to create something together. Creative group projects enable students to teach one another in ways that cultivate interdependence, mutual respect and often high levels of engagement. An example is the University of California, Los Angeles, organic chemistry music video extra credit assignment, which Neil initiated more than a decade ago and which is mimicked extensively. Students create short music videos that apply course concepts in entertaining ways. They learn not only by making their own videos but also by watching the videos of their peers during class time or online, further contributing to community building. Demonstrating the global reach of social media, the videos now have received hundreds of thousands of views worldwide.

Model joy. Our final suggestion may sound trite, but it is worth repeating especially amid current circumstances: students need to be reminded of the joy of learning. College is stressful even without a deadly virus and its prolonged variants. Under the dark cloud of COVID-19, rates of depression have soared among college students. We all need an infusion of joy. Expressing excitement and enthusiasm, as part of an intellectually fulfilling course, is a wonderful way to build community. Genuine enthusiasm can be infectious—and bonding.

Also, make no mistake: it is OK to laugh together in a college class. Students will be quick to develop a shared vocabulary and inside jokes, which provide a sense of belonging. Not surprisingly, enjoyment has been shown to positively impact learning. So we heartily recommend that you smile (masked or not), laugh and exude joy while teaching. It will help students do the same while learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for instructors and students. As is often the case, challenge comes with opportunities. The pandemic offers the chance for us to embrace fundamental aspects of learning that transcend any particular subject matter or teaching modality.

So while the topics or modality by which we teach may have changed—and will continue to change—we must consider human nature and the fact that most students yearn to feel a sense of belonging. By focusing on community building as much as course content, we have the opportunity to do right by our students at a time when they need it the most.

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