Categories
Education Online Education

How To Create a Sense of Community in your Classroom in 5 Steps

Create an authentic sense of community in your classroom, regardless of the pandemic

Building a sense of community in a classroom is crucial for learning. The sense of belonging increases students’ motivation to learn, willingness to help each other, satisfaction with their academic programs, and cognitive learning. 

The beginning of the year is the best moment to create a sense of community in your classroom. And while this year feels very different for many of us, there’s no reason we can’t create connections with our students.

No matter if our classes are 100% virtual, or hybrid, or blended, or in-person, creating a sense of community in your classroom is not that difficult, and it will always be beneficial. 

Researchers identify 4 essential elements that create a sense of community: 

  1. Mutual interdependence among members
  2. Connectedness & trust
  3. Interactivity
  4. Shared values and goals

In this post, I go through 5 simple steps that will help you forge bonds and create a classroom environment where every student feels safe and part of the community. 

No matter what’s the format of your course and what are the channels you’re using. Creating a sense of community is this simple, and the learning outcomes are worth it.

Let’s take a look.


1. Define a common goal

A shared culture is only possible when there are shared goals, values, and beliefs. 

The first step to creating a sense of community is defining common goals, values, and agreements. And I’m not talking about the intended learning outcomes you have listed on your syllabi. I’m talking about student’s shared goals.

These common goals are crucial to building trust and connections among students, as well as developing a sense of responsibility. The goals can be a mix of learning goals and life goals. They should be adapted to the type of course, the level and depth of study, the duration of the course, the maturity level of students, and the initial knowledge they have. 

The key idea here is to give students the opportunity to set up their own shared goals, values, and agreements at the beginning of the course. While it might be a good idea to have some outlines on these three elements to guide the class, students must reflect and work on building their own community standards. This not only will increase their motivation towards learning, but it also will hold them accountable for achieving their objectives and complying with the community agreements. 

Use the first half-hour of your lecture to work on the community goals, values, and agreements. Ask your students to work in small groups and reflect on what are the goals they should achieve at the end of the course, and have them classify by priority (top, mid, low). Then have them discuss with the other groups to determine which goals are common and finally have them vote. This activity can be done through a brainstorming session with post-its and voting stickers, but it can be also conducted remotely with tools like Mural or Miro.  

We can do the same to reflect on classroom values and agreements. For example, you can ask them to brainstorm on what are appropriate/inappropriate behaviors both in physical and virtual lectures, and then make them ‘sign’ the agreement contract.

Finally, you can ask questions such as “How will we help each other adhere to the agreements we’ve adopted? What forms of reminders will you prefer and allow?” This will help you and students take actionable steps to accomplish those objectives and keep up with the community norms.


2. Use a common reward system

Recognizing individual accomplishments is a great way to motivate learning. Positive psychology studies show that by creating positive affect —  like giving constant encouragement or focusing on students’ strengths rather than weakness —  improves students’ self-efficacy. Learners with higher self-efficacy are more likely to achieve their goals and overcome challenges.  

Also, gamification has been proven to be a great approach for teaching as it enhances students’ engagement and learning. 

However, relying solely on individual rewards and recognition might also have a negative effect on learners, as it can increase the feeling of isolation of some students, especially those who are less extroverted or who struggle with some topics. 

A great way to overcome the pitfalls of individual recognition is by building a common reward system. The principal aim is to increase connectedness, trust, and interdependence between students. 

Instead of working individually to achieve their personal learning goals and secure their reward, students work as a group to achieve the community goals and obtain a common (bigger) reward. 

There are plenty of ways you can set up a common reward system, but let me give you an example. 

You can imagine a set of badges that go in line with the class goals, like “Effective communicator” or “Amazing tutor” or “Math genius”, or whatever suits your class goals and content. The idea is to encourage every student to obtain one badge, of course, after accomplishing the task for it, and if at the end of the class every student has gained a personal badge a common reward is revealed. The common reward can be something like “One extra week to finish mid-term paper” or “no-homework for tomorrow” or “one point in the final exam for everyone”. The idea here is to provide a greater and more satisfying collective reward than just individual recognition.

You recognize individual progress (badges) but also collaborative progress (big common reward). This encourages students to work in cooperation rather than in competition towards their common goals, increasing their sense of interdependence, connectedness, and belonging. 


3. Keep the discussion going

Most of the learning happens outside the classroom when students are home and have to prepare assignments. Keep the conversation going even after the lecture, and provide a space where students can ask, comment, and give feedback regarding the lecture material, their struggles, and their learning experience. 

Backchannel discussions are a great way for learners to have an on-topic conversation during and after the lecture. Having a Backchannel is also an effective way to maintain a connection with students in hybrid and online lectures. 

There are several ways to keep the conversation going either through collaborative spaces, blackboards, blogs, chats, wikis, or forums. The fundamental idea behind these Backchannels is that students can log in questions, comments, feedback, doubts, or even learning notes, both during and outside classroom hours. 

Think of it as a specialized Wikipedia for your own class with a complete FAQ section. Every student will contribute to the discussion and will have access to answers and feedback given to their peers. So, instead of answering the same question to every student that sends you an email asking about reports deadlines or precise guidelines, you can have them all go to the same wiki where all these questions have been already answered. 

Another outstanding feature of Backchannels is that you can ask students to moderate the discussion, provide feedback, and answer their classmates’ questions when they know the solution. This opportunity to give feedback encourages peer learning, but also improves learners’ self-confidence and helps them build trust. 

As a professor, you benefit also from it, as you spend less time answering the same questions repeatedly, and you delegate some of your responsibilities to the learners. Your job here is only to verify that the feedback given by other students is appropriate and accurate. 

If you want to learn more about Backchannels, you can look at some digital tools I recommend for creating beautiful and organized backchannels. Remember to reward students for participating in the discussions by both asking and answering questions.


4. Encourage peer learning

As I mentioned before, peer-learning is an outstanding approach for inspiring responsibility and motivating students to take ownership of their learning. 

When students are given the opportunity to teach and tutor other classmates, they’re not only revising their knowledge and own understanding, they’re also building self-confidence and trust in their community.

Peer learning activities are a powerful way to create a sense of interdependence, connectedness, trust, and shared goals between individuals.

You can easily implement peer learning through Backchannel discussions. But you can also imagine asking students to evaluate and give feedback to their peers after performing an assignment or class activity. You can give them instructions on how to evaluate and give feedback to others, and provide them with an evaluation grid so they can appreciate the work of their colleagues. 

Another example of peer-learning is pairing students with different skills and backgrounds, but that share common learning objectives, for in-class activities. You may give them specific goals to focus on for the class and challenge them to achieve them through collaboration. 

Other than learning and gaining a better understanding of the topics seen in class, students develop practical work skills such as teamwork, time management, organization, effective communication, and constructive feedback. 


5. Reflect on the journey

The most effective way to enhance learning is to learn about how we learn. Every individual is different and their learning journey is unique. 

However, we hardly ask students to reflect on their learning journey or give them enough space to think about what they’ve learned, how these match their goals and expectations, and how they felt during those lessons.

The agile method for management and innovation uses “agile retrospectives” as an opportunity to learn and improve by reflecting on past events and behaviors. The idea of retrospectives is to have participants share their thoughts after each lecture on the following questions:

  • What I’ve learned?
  • What worked well? What did I enjoy?
  • What didn’t work well? What did I find challenging?
  • What are we going to do differently?

When students answer these questions, they actually are thinking about how they think and learn. This encourages them to look closer at their learning journey, adjust and adapt goals, and take the actions to achieve those goals. 

You can for example dedicate the last minutes of your class to wrap up on retrospectives by having an open discussion on what they liked, how they felt, and what could be improved. 

There are plenty of retrospective activities to derive the lessons learned, and you can carry out them remotely by using a visual collaboration platform. It can also be an asynchronous activity. Students can rely on original formats to share their retrospective lessons. Blog entries, 1-minute videos, mind maps, picture collage. Apps such Flipgrid, Wakalet, Instagram, or Pinterest work great for this kind of activity.

Retrospective learning highlights the importance of honesty, transparency, and the concept of impostor syndrome for self-assessment. 

This exercise also helps learners to build connections and interact with each other, as they might discover they are not alone in their struggles and feelings. 

They’ll feel more empowered to work as a community, to meet their common goals, and to take action to solve potential conflicts or disagreements between them. 


Final thoughts

Creating a sense of belonging and a safe, nurturing, supporting environment is crucial for learning. Learning is mainly a social and emotional activity. 

It doesn’t take the latest technology or complex activities to build a positive learning community. And it doesn’t matter much whether your courses are online or in-person. Creating a sense of community is way easier than you think and is full of benefits for both learners and educators. 

Remember that community is built over time, and mutual sharing and trust are essential. Physical distancing need not mean social distancing. 

With a little creativity and willingness to create a positive environment for learning, we can create an authentic sense of community in our classrooms, regardless of the pandemic. 

Categories
Education Online Education

5 Ways To Make Your Online Courses More Engaging

And how not to get shadowed by TikTok

We are going through uncertain times, and uncertainty creates anxiety and stress. Students are feeling it too. They might be going through difficult circumstances. Probably quarantined far from home, far from their friends. They are left alone to deal with remote internships, thesis deadlines, and much other homework.

Many students and teachers are eager to attend to their online classes at least to cope with the boredom and isolation of being under quarantine. We miss our students, and they miss us — I think.

But let’s get real, remote live classes can be boring, and TikTok is probably shadowing our awesome content.

Whether you are using Zoom, BigBlue Button or any other videoconferencing software, there are few simple tricks you can try to make your live classes more engaging, and actually memorable.

Here is how.

1. Start with a warm-up

Again students are anxious, stressed out. And nothing is worse than starting a class right away with the course topics.

Illustration by Icons 8

Students — and everyone else — need some minutes of warm-up to get into their focus zone. It’s like exercising, you can’t start running a marathon at your full speed and with no initial warm-up, you’ll breakdown.

Warm-up activities are essential for kicking off any good lecture, online or offline.

But, how can you do that online?

Start first with a kind welcoming. Yes, it might sound obvious. But we are so caught up by the routine and obligation that we might forget the essential: caring for others.

Dedicate the first five minutes of your class to ask your students how they feel, how they are dealing with the current situation, what are the difficulties they are facing. These will make participants more at ease and keen to interact.

Once everyone shares how they are and feel, you can pass to the short fun warm-up game to set the ambiance.

You don’t need to prepare a complex ice breaker. Something as simple as doing a gif contest will do. You can ask your students to share a gif that represents their current state of mind — and body — at then have them vote for the best one. Everyone would have a laugh and will get energized to start the lecture.

You can try also an emoji tournament or a show and tell. 10 to 15 minutes is enough to get the ambiance going and give students time to energize and get ready to absorb new knowledge and stay focus.

2. “Cameras and mics on” rule

One of the many issues of giving class through videoconference is that you have much less control over students’ attention.

Illustration by Icons 8

The fact that they have to be in front of the computer screen to receive the course makes it almost impossible to keep them away from distraction.

Most of them have multiple windows open in their devices while receiving the lecture. Facebook, Tiktok, Whatsapp, Instagram, everything is at their reach, keeping them from actually listening to and interacting with the class.

While we cannot completely avoid this, we can minimize the risks of procrastination by establishing the “camera and mic on” rule. The goal is to ask every participant to turn on their cameras and mics during the lecture unless there is a good explanation of why they can’t.

Turning the camera and the mic on gives the conversation more fluency and encourage participants to be more present during the lecture and get more involved in the discussion.

Zoom, Meet, and most of the videoconference apps have the option to view participants’ display on a one-screen grid. Zoom, for example, lets you see up to 49 participants display on one unique screen that updates automatically when participants enter or leave the room.

To avoid messy conversations and background noise, you can ask participants to mute their microphone only when you, or someone else, is presenting. Then ask them to leave the mic open when it’s time for group talk.

If you still struggle with students’ participation and attention then you can shout out their names and invite them to take part in the conversation.

3. Use visual collaboration

Active learning is essential for improving student engagement and ensuring student learning.

Illustration by Icons 8

Conducting remote courses should not be a limitation for encouraging active learning. But for sure just sharing a slide deck will not do.

There are plenty of apps for team collaboration that you can use with your students to create and manage knowledge together.

By dividing the class into groups you can have them work on different topics and give feedback to each group separately. Zoom has an easy to set up functionality where you can break your class into different rooms so that each team has its own workspace. Google Meet doesn’t provide this functionality yet, but there is a way to hack this with just some preparation.

Then, you can use an app for visual collaboration and create dedicated spaces for each team to work on. The most simple way to do it is by using google drive and google docs. Students can easily create their own collaborative documents in no time.

But there are more interesting apps in the market that as an educator you can access for free. My favorite one is Muralbecause they have plenty of built-in and ready to use collaborative canvas and spaces and because it’s super easy to use.

But there are many other apps like MiroConceptboard or Jamboard from google that are also great alternatives.

Choose the one that suits best.

4. Interactive quizzes

Hosting interactive quizzes during your online sessions are a great way to evaluate student knowledge and engagement.

Illustration by Icons 8

The idea of hosting interactive quizzes during your lectures is not to increase students’ anxiety but to break down the monotony and keep with the good vibe.

Here again, there is a wide range of possibilities. But these two are my favorite ones: Kahoot and Factile.

The most famous interactive quiz platform is Kahoot, a free student-response that uses all sorts of gamification techniques to engage students’ participation and enhance learning. With Kahoot, you can both host live quizzes as well as self-paced challenges for out-of-class review. Kahoot games can be played in single mode or in team mode and offers plenty of fun features to stimulate students to play and learn.

Another great platform for live learning games is Factile. Have you ever played jeopardy? Well, Factile is a free learning platform that lets teachers create engaging Jeopardy-style quiz games for the classroom. You can create and personalize your own game boards or use premade quizzes shared by the community. With Factile you can either host jeopardy games, regular multiple choice quizzes, memory games, and create study flashcards to improve students learning proficiency. As Kahoot, Factile can be played in teams or individually.

5. Wrap up with 1-minute video posts

The best way to finish every lecture is with a wrap up to summarize what has been discussed and learned during the session.

Illustration by Icons 8

The agile methodology for management and innovation uses “agile retrospectives” as an opportunity to learn and improve by reflecting on past events and behaviors.

The idea of retrospectives is to have participants share their thoughts after each lecture on the following questions

  • What I’ve learned?
  • What worked well? What did I enjoy?
  • What didn’t work well? What did I found challenging?
  • What are we going to try to do differently?

There are plenty of retrospective activities to derive the lessons learned, and many of them can be done remotely through a visual collaboration platform like the ones presented earlier in this post.

But the one I prefer, because it takes place after your lecture is a 1-minute retrospective video.

It’s being a will since I been using Instagram as a teaching tool, and especially as a platform where students can share their “What I’ve learned” retrospectives. You can create a private Instagram account for the class where they can share class-related content. The activity then consists of each student posting a 1-minute retrospective video where they share their answers to the 4 questions detailed before. Then classmates get to like and give feedback to other student videos.

An alternative to Instagram, and probably more suitable if you are concern about privacy and security of personal data, is Flipgrid. Flipgrid is a social learning free app to create and share short awesome videos. As an educator, you have free access to the app and you can create different grids — classrooms — and topics of discussion. Each grid has a unique code that you can share with your students so that they can access the topics and the videos being posted by the professors and classmates. It is a great tool for reflective learning and for building solid learning communities within your classes.

Instagram, Flipgrid, or even youtube are great platforms to share retrospectives, even when you are not teaching remotely. Students love to record videos and they have great skills for editing, so why not capitalize on those capabilities?

But please, please, avoid using TikTok for this. Call me old-fashioned, but crazy things happen on Tiktok and we want fun but not crazy.

To wrap up

So, after two months of forced remote teaching, this is what I’ve learned.

Students are not happy to miss classes, the enthusiasm for skipping lectures only lasted two or three days. They are stressed out, anxious about the future, and many on the edge of depression, and it’s not just that they are making a scene.

We don’t need to make it harder for them by giving them tons of work and overweighted lectures and presentations. We can’t blame them for complaining, it is not that they are lazy — not all of them.

We can’t pretend that everything it’s ok and that nothing should change. Because it’s not.

We are not ok. They are not ok.

Illustration by Icons 8

So, instead of contributing to their — and ours — anxiety let’s make remote learning more enjoyable, more memorable by just adjusting a few things. But mainly by remembering that even remotely we can be kind humans.

And after all, in times like this, there are more important and urgent things than learning about theorems, corollary, or postulates. So it will not hurt anyone if we give some time for mingling and having fun.

I would love to hear how you are dealing with your online courses and what you are doing to keep your students engaged. Keep me posted 🙂 !


If you want to know more about the tools you can use for free to create beautiful and engaging online courses, you can read my following post here: The Ultimate Guide to Online Resources for Educators