Building a Community of Learners

How do you create a strong and committed community of learners? The resources below highlight several synchronous and asynchronous strategies for fostering productive and collegial student-instructor and student-student connections in face-to-face and online courses.

For a more in-depth look at many of the strategies highlighted below, check out this recording of a presentation to CCAS on Building Community.

Structure: Inclusive Teaching 

Strong classroom communities are learner-focused and welcoming to all students. Check out our inclusive and anti-racist teaching landing page for strategies to make your classroom welcoming to all, to help discuss sensitive topics with students, and to respond to challenging moments.

Intake: Setting the Tone

These resources can help you set a productive tone, learn your students' needs, and help your students learn from each other as a semester begins:

  • Student intake questionnaireuse a Google Form or Blackboard survey to learn about your students' interests and needs.
  • Accommodation Policies: every unit at GW has its own requirements for syllabi, so please check with your program or department. While standard syllabus language refers students to campus resources such as Disability Support Services, you may wish to go beyond legal requirements in thinking about how to support students. This template can help you think more broadly about connecting students to resources.

Student Presence And Engagement

How can you ensure that students' personalities and interests emerge in your course? You might consider:

  • Icebreakers: Icebreakers don’t have to be groan-inducing—and they're not only for the first week of class. Think about how to vary the format. For instance, you might asking students to share a "small victory" from the previous week. Or you could ask them to share a recommendation—for a piece of music, a restaurant near campus, or a TV show or movie. Consider this resource for warmups and icebreakers especially suited to synchronous online teaching, many of which can be adapted for face-to-face classes as well.
  • Group work: for helpful strategies for group work, look at this resource from Carnegie Mellon, which includes sample skill inventories, contracts, and peer assessments to improve communication and keep teams on track.
  • Assessment strategy: Students will focus on what they are being graded on. This can be an opportunity to work backwards from the dreaded question, "Is this going to be on the test?" How can you design your assessments so that they pick up on what you most want students to learn or practice?
    • When building your assessment strategy, think not only about high-stakes assessments such as papers, projects, and exams, but also about how to incorporate practice and feedback through smaller exercises or check-ins. In order to decrease your grading burden, you might evaluate some of these opportunities on completion alone. 
  • Looking for even more strategies? Student Engagement Techniques, a book by Elizabeth Barkley, and Dynamic Lecturing by Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek are great resources, and they are both available online through Gelman Library. 

Instructor Presence

Humanizing yourself is one of the best ways to build community with your students in both face-to-face and online courses. You might:

  • Promote transparency and share your scholarly journey with students by highlighting the choices you made in constructing the course syllabus and assignments.
  • Come to class a few minutes early or stick around afterwards to chat informally with students.
  • Elicit feedback frequently. You could ask students to complete a brief exit ticket at the end of class or a more sustained survey at mid-semester. Then, summarize the feedback and let students know what adjustments you've made in response. 

Low-Stakes Exercises

Giving students opportunities to practice new skills individually or in small groups can reduce pressure, enhance creativity, and foster stronger relationships between peers. Some ideas include: 

  • Collaboratively annotating a text, video, or audio clip: 
    • See these strategies for face-to-face and online activities
    • In addition to Google Docs, Perusall, which is integrated into Blackboard, can be a great tool for collaborative annotation. Check out some ideas for using it, and contact ITL for help setting it up
  • "Gold star sentences": if students are reviewing peers' writing, ask them to pick out an exemplary, or “gold star,” sentence where they thought the writer did really great work with language or ideas, and explain why. In addition to creating a positive peer interaction, this can help students develop meta-language about what, specifically, good writing looks like.
  • Teaching Techniques Video Library, from the K. Patricia Cross Academy: this comprehensive resource contains detailed instructions for dozens of active learning and assessment exercises in all modalities. Looking for inspiration? Start here!

Teaching and Learning in the Present Moment

The continuing pandemic, the current political climate, the ongoing racial justice movement, and many other circumstances continue to affect teaching and learning. Some students may want school to be an escape that helps them tune out the reality outside the classroom; some may be using coursework to think through what’s happening in the wider world; some may struggle to focus amidst health concerns, economic precarity, and the constant drumbeat of news. Acknowledging these challenges can help students feel more comfortable asking for help or dealing with burnout. Consider adding language to your syllabus that reflects the current moment and drawing from work on humanizing online teaching.