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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. 

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Education Online Education

5 Tips to Avoid Online Classroom Fatigue

Improve your mental health and make your online classes more engaging and easy to digest

Let’s face it.

We are kind of getting sick of Zoom, or Teams, or whatever other videoconferencing tools we are using. It’s exhausting.

Being in front of a computer all day long is exhausting. But we were all used to that before Covid-19, sort of. But being in front of a computer with our camera and microphone on most of our day is exhausting to a whole new level. We are in the spotlight all the time, all of the sudden. 

Whether is a department meeting, or a research committee, or a virtual class, Zoom has become our ‘can’t live without’ app. And while there are many benefits we are for sure valuing — especially the convenience when it comes to unnecessary meetings — , it can be challenging and it can easily become a burden for both students and professors.

Zoom classroom fatigue is real and more common than we can imagine. In this post, I go through simple strategies that will help you and your students fight online classroom fatigue. Not only this will improve your mental health, but it will also make your online classes more engaging and easy to digest. 

Let’s start. 


1. Balance synchronous and asynchronous activities

When it comes to online classes, it is important to understand that time and pace have not the same connotations as in a traditional physical classroom. While you can plan for 3 hours of face-to-face teaching, you may not do so for online lectures.

Remote learning, to be effective, needs to rely on different activities that happen both during and outside the lecture hours. 

Being in front of a zoom conference for over 40 minutes straight is just unproductive. Students, no matter how engaged they are in your lecture, have many distractions at their disposal and easily space out from the conversation.

A great way to avoid the loss of your students’ attention and fatigue is to blend both synchronous and asynchronous activities all along during your lecture hours.

You can follow the flipped classroom approach, for example, and give your students material to read and analyze before the zoom meeting (asynchronous) and then conduct a Socratic seminar during the lecture time (synchronous). 

Not only this will make the zoom lecture more interactive and rich, but it will also give the opportunity to students with technical and technological issues to follow up with the class and not left behind. 


2. Plan frequent short breaks

Our attention span in online lectures is shorter than in traditional in-person classes. We receive stimuli from different sources and the opportunity for procrastination is vivid. 

If you want to keep the attention of your students and help them keep up with the lecture content is important to plan frequent brief breaks.

Imagine your lecture as a bunch of Lego blocks. Instead of having one big construction handed to your students, give them small chunks so they can assemble the pieces.  

A good idea to implement this is to break your slide presentation in small sections and inserting a ‘break alert’ between your sections. This will help you not forget having frequent brief breaks, even when you are in an inspiration zone. 

Planning the breaks when you are preparing your lecture is essential because it gives you better control over the amount of content you want to share. In this way, you make sure you finish a concept or topic before having a break and avoid the loose ends. Also, if your students know in advance when they will have breaks, they are more likely to put extra effort to keep focus until the next break. 


3. Assign discussion leader roles for each session 

Interaction can be challenging when you are conducting online lectures. And sometimes you may feel you’re talking to a computer and that no one is behind those black squares. 

You ask a question and an awkward silence takes over. It can be because students are shy, disengaged, distracted, or just have connection issues. Whatever the reason is, it is always a painful situation for everyone in the (virtual) room. 

An original way to prevent this from happening is naming discussion leaders among the students. At every lecture, you can randomly select 4 to 5 students to be the leaders and moderators for the discussions of the day. By assigning these roles, you are empowering students to voice their opinions and also inviting them to take ownership of their learning. 

In virtual classrooms, interaction is difficult because students don’t feel solicited to interact and they feel there is no implicit, nor explicit, request to take part. When you give them the responsibility to lead the discussion, they become accountable for their learning.

The leader roles are not only something beneficial for the students assigned with this mission but to class as a whole. Sometimes it is easier or more acceptable to be called out by a classmate than by the professor. Other students feel also responsible for their classmates’ performance as leaders and are keener to take part in the discussion and keep the interactions. 


4. Make space for fun

Teaching and learning can be fun. Games, energizers, and ice-breakers are a great way to break the monotony of a course. Not only they bring up some fun to the classroom, but they also increase focus and improve learning. 

If learning through games is effective in the physical classroom, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work remotely.

Like you plan for breaks and a blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities to do during your virtual classes, you may also make time for fun. 

You can, for example, start your class with a short fun warm-up game to set the ambiance.

You need not 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.

Another effective way to make learning fun is by instilling some gamification into your assessment activities. You can host fun quizzes or polls all along with the lecture by using apps such as Kahoot, Flippity, Playfactile, or Slido. You’ll be assessing student knowledge and guaranteeing some entertainment and diminishing Zoom fatigue. 


5. Use break rooms frequently 

It’s quite difficult to maintain student engagement and follow up on students’ learning when you have to give virtual lectures to a big number of participants. When your class size reaches 20 or more participants is hard to ensure everyone is keeping up.

To avoid losing your students to distractions, you can use break rooms to work with smaller groups. If you use the Zoom premium license you can create break rooms easily by setting them up on your account settings. If you don’t have the premium license or you use another videoconferencing system that doesn’t provide the breakout room option, you can program short slots to work with each group of students separately. 

So you can program the first 40 minutes to give your lecture to the entire class, and then have 10 to 15′ one-to-one group-meeting slots with each team to follow up on their learning and progress. With the breakout feature, you can assign students from the same group to different virtual rooms so they can work together without the distraction or mess of other students working in similar activities. Also, it is easy for the professor to identify students that are struggling with the course notions and provide more personalized support to each participant, without spending much more time in office hours giving help to students. 

Breakout rooms are also great for teamwork and to increase student participation. 


Final thoughts

We all hope we’ll be back to our physical classrooms soon. Everyone — students and professors — misses face-to-face learning. In-person classes will return, eventually. However, online will not go away.

Remote learning and remote work will be now part of our new normal. Hybrid, flexible, and flipped classrooms will become the new norm. The use of digital tools and online learning platforms will continue to speed up. And some meetings and other gatherings will continue to be held online. 

No matter what the future of education looks like, one thing is for sure, Zoom will continue to be part of our daily life. So, if we want to keep our mental health and prevent burnout and fatigue, we better start using strategies to make our virtual courses more energizing and easy to digest. 

Online teaching (and learning) need not be painful, we just need to reimagine our teaching approach and have the proper tools to make it memorable and rewarding for both students and teachers.