Building community and belonging

"When students experience a high degree of social presence in a class, they associate themselves as being part of a group. They experience a sense of belonging, they are aware that other real people with their own unique thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are involved in the learning process with them" (Pacansky-Brock, 2014). Being a part of a community with a shared identity allows members to develop their place in the group, clearly understand their role, and see how they fit into the larger class.

Conceptualize your course as a community

In this context, community is an organized group that brings people together and makes them feel that they belong; ideally with a sense of shared identity and the ability to develop trust, support, and meaningful relationships with one another (Pfortmuller, Luchsinger, & Mombart, 2020).

The Community Canvas framework provides three foundational components for building and running a new community: identity, experience, and structure (Pfortmuller, Luchsinger, & Mombart, 2020). Consider how these components figure into your course.

Pie chart showing identity, experience, & structure

Identity: What values, skills, and knowledge does this community aim to build? How does this course community define success?

Experience: What experiences do members share? What regular activities take place? What content creates value for members? What are the community‚Äôs guidelines? What roles can members play?

Structure: Who runs the community? How is it organized? How are decisions made within the community? What channels does the community use to communicate and gather? What is the community management structure?

These strategies and tips can help instructors enhance a sense of community and belonging in the classroom.

Establish the community tone/vision

Rationale

This will allow students to get a feel for expectations and the learning experience. It also immediately gives students an understanding of the instructor: one who demonstrates care for and commitment to the course and students. The vision also presents the course structure and organization.

Try

  • Describe the course vision on your homepage and syllabus. Find opportunities to explain it verbally
  • Share your teaching philosophy and expectations, as well as the reasons you are approaching the class in this way
  • Let the tone come through in class correspondence, discussion board replies, and assessment feedback
  • Allow students to create or provide input in some aspects of designing the community (e.g., preference on the weekly routine, ways the community communicates or shares work, etc.)

Tools / Apps

Build community agreements and values together

Rationale

Involving students in this process, even in a small way, creates a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for learning, success of the course, and contribution to the community. It starts to democratize the experience. In turn, it provides an environment for open discourse, shared decisions, and freedom of ideas, as well as an extra layer of peer accountability.

Try

  • All together or in small groups, have students suggest expectations for the course community and ways they will hold members accountable (after establishing a list, have everyone vote on the guidelines and sign off on the final set)
  • Post in prominent places
  • Small groups can also develop their own agreements, including plans for conflict resolution

Tools / Apps

Create a respectful environment

Rationale

Establish a respectful environment, and remind students of the shared values and expectations in your community agreement. A respectful environment allows for academic freedom and the sharing of ideas and perspectives. It also provides an opportunity for members to listen, grow, and expand upon their existing knowledge.

Try

  • Provide opportunities for you and students to learn each others' names
  • Have members outline respectful/disrespectful behaviors and ways to hold members accountable
  • Set up a culture of inclusion and encourage differences and opinions (reach out to students who appear withdrawn or excluded)
  • Acknowledge students who demonstrate kindness, respect, and thoughtfulness
  • Include respectful behavior as a criterion in rubrics or grading

Tools / Apps

Develop a communication plan

Rationale

A clear plan for community interaction can prevent issues and save time later in the course. Community members need to know exactly where to go in various circumstances. Otherwise, messages will all come to the instructor's inbox. Consider that members can have a stake in helping respond to each other. There will be a need for public and private environments for questions/comments related to classroom management, course content, and sharing resources, separate from individual grades, concerns, and student progress.

Try

  • Clearly identify communication channels
  • Provide spaces for open and private questions
  • Consider providing anonymous or private spaces for those who are nervous asking questions in front of peers
  • Clarify when and how you and/or your TAs will be available and how rapidly students can expect a reply (e.g., within 24-48 hrs)
  • Be approachable by encouraging students to bring any concerns to you as soon as they arise

Tools / Apps

Demonstrate that you care for the unique needs of your students

Rationale

To understand student needs early on, find out who they are as well as any issues competing for their attention. Demonstrate awareness of and sensitivity to the wide range of student circumstances and situations. Students are more likely to put thoughtful time and energy into producing work for an instructor and/or community who reads their work and responds in a thoughtful manner.

Try

  • Survey students throughout the semester regarding needs, accessibility, feelings, aspects that are going well, suggestions for improvement, and other issues of which you should be aware. Consider using an anonymous survey to allow for more open feedback.
  • Incorporate students' backgrounds and experiences into class discussion and reference comments students have made in the past
  • Provide verbal and written feedback on their work
  • Check in with students who have missed class or assignment deadlines

Tools / Apps

Show the unique contributions each student brings to the community

Rationale

Clearly identifying students' roles and the ways they contribute to the community helps them recognize that their presence, skills, and ideas matter. This allows members to take ownership of their learning experience, moving from being passive learners to active ones. Over time, the course community will know what to do, requiring the instructor to provide less leadership.

Try

  • Positively reinforce those who are demonstrating valuable contributions to the community
  • Provide opportunities for students to recognize classmates' strengths
  • Assign student roles for different activities or semester-long groups to help each group build an identity
  • Incorporate points students make into instruction and activities; embrace student questions, curiosity, and interests, and use them to guide the curriculum
  • Create an assignment asking students to give each other feedback about their strengths and what they contribute to the group

Tools / Apps

Encourage student interaction and collaboration

Rationale

Forming connections and achieving common goals within a community requires various forms of interaction and teamwork. Members will have more difficulty thriving in isolated conditions where they know little about their TAs, instructors, or classmates.

Try

  • Have everyone creates a profile with a bio and picture
  • Set up frequent opportunities for open interaction (e.g., discussion activities, peer learning, social annotation, team building, group problem solving)
  • Provide specific and meaningful individual feedback using audio and/or video
  • Offer opportunities for students to collaborate in pairs and small groups

Tools / Apps

Offer opportunities for everyone to share something about themselves and their work

Rationale

Exposure to fellow community members' personalities, strengths, and experiences will allow students to gain ideas, insight, perspective, and understanding from one another. This will help both individuals and the community to develop.

Try

  • Provide reassuring, open environments and dedicated time for icebreakers and share/show-and-tell exercises
  • Ensure opportunities to share are accessible, equitable, and psychologically safe and are equally valued
  • Incentivize listening and quality responses
  • Allow students to display work to one another to give and receive constructive feedback. Take care to avoid creating a competitive environment where work is compared
  • Reach out to members who are missing or not participating

Tools / Apps

Use storytelling to connect

Rationale

During a story, listeners use emotional centers in their brains, which draws empathetic connections. Learning out loud helps us to get to know each other and it makes us more sensitive to one another's opinions and thoughts, which can lead to greater respect for each other.

Try

  • Develop activities and discussion prompts that create this experience among students as well as with the instructor, especially at the beginning of the semester.  It can be relevant to the content in some way to bring meaning to why we are studying this
  • Allow community members to share only what they are comfortable with and choose to reveal
  • Provide guidelines for listening and responding, such as length of time, classroom appropriateness, and respectful behavior

Tools / Apps

Provide opportunities to connect with the greater campus community

Rationale

This will add layers of belonging beyond your course community to the school, university and discipline. For those who do not live on campus, come from other countries, are older or younger than most students, are first-generation, etc., it is easy to feel like an outsider.

Their experience in your course can help to create a sense of identity, connection and personal value within the larger context. Feeling worthy and a sense of belonging within the larger context can, in turn, provide confidence to speak up in class, engage with classmates, and take initiative. Sense of belonging is linked to student success and satisfaction in courses.

Try

  • Let students know about university current events and activities/clubs that may be relevant
  • Connect students with campus resources
  • Encourage participation in professional groups or clubs within the major or school
  • Talk about ways you are involved in the Cornell community and ways previous students have been actively engaged; (identify the benefits of such participation)
  • Reference the history of the school including unique stories, and traditions in which students can take part

Tools / Apps

References

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2014). What is the value of social presence in online learning? Retrieved June 26, 2020.

Pfortmuller, F., Luchsinger, N., & Mombart, S. (2020). The Community Canvas. Retrieved June 16, 2020.