Building community in online or face-to-face modalities is a skillset some educators may not have formally studied in our coursework. Though building community may seem separate from teaching, a sense of belonging promotes class contribution, engagement, learning, and motivation for learners. Elliott, Gaminio, and Jenkins (2016) and Shadiow and Weimer (2015) described various elements that contribute to building community:
Shared Space - You might achieve this for both educator- and learner-led dialogue in a virtual environment by creating a non-academic or fun "getting to know you" discussion thread, by incorporating the use of video or audio components, or by encouraging learners to share their experience and passion. Likewise, within the face-to-face modality, it is helpful to allocate time to incorporate learners’ interests (e.g., local events, trending music) and to share what's going on in your life (e.g., research interests, new family adventures) to foster casual dialogue and community (Garibay, 2015).
Openness/Acceptance - Learners should also feel that their contributions, thoughts, and opinions are valued by their educator. Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer (1996) defined this connection as “swift trust” in brief or temporary settings (e.g., an 8-week, online course or controlled Tues/Thurs class times) where the educator affirms and validates their experiences to foster a climate of openness and acceptance. Open/accepting phrases might sound like, "That's a really intriguing perspective," "I appreciate learning more about you," or "I'd like to gather your thoughts and reactions on this."
Common Interests - In Elliott, Gaminio, and Jenkin’s (2016) study on building community, learners expressed the desire for informal opportunities to share common interests such as values, beliefs, worldviews, etc. Within both the online and face-to-face modalities, educators have countless opportunities. For instance, learners could be grouped based on interests or perspectives for small group discussions and activities or learners could be offered the opportunities to contribute or demonstrate learning through their preferred methods (e.g. choice in oral presentations, written products, graphic or media depictions, etc.).
Sense of Belonging - The three elements above: creating a shared space, modeling openness and acceptance, and seeking common interests among learners ultimately lead to a sense of belonging (Vesely, Bloom & Sherlock, 2007). An inclusive classroom is created through modeling behaviors expected of our learners, discussing diverse perspectives, recognizing and affirming differences, and ensuring accessibility in course content and room layout (Garibay, 2015).
Sense of Identity - To develop authentic community in the classroom, we, ourselves, must ensure a sense of identity, especially in the early years of one’s teaching career. Shadiow and Weimer (2015) described the value of developing a teaching persona as an authentic means of contributing to creating community: “How we define ourselves as teachers can help us thrive, and to become a conduit for connecting learners and content. Who we are when we teach can, for some students, convey messages more enduring than the content we teach.” This short video addresses ways to develop a teaching persona.
All four elements of building community can be infused into the online or face-to-face class through various techniques: group activities like "base groups," ongoing use of icebreakers, social media course companions, flipped classroom approaches, opening class with a question that leads to discussion, etc.
Part of building community also includes facilitating difficult conversations when they occur. In this video, we share techniques to prepare for and facilitate difficult, class-wide discussions.
Facilitating Difficult Class Discussions on Difficult Topics (5:07)
- To see what events we may be offering related to building community in your course, check out our CIS Events Page
- Schedule a time with CIS staff to discuss building community in your course.
Elliott, D., Gaminio, M., Jenkins, J.J. (2016). Creating community in the college classroom: Best practices for increased student success.
International Journal of Education and Social Science, 3(6).
Meyerson, D., Weick, K. E., & Kramer, R. M. (1996). Swift trust and temporary groups. In R. M. Kramer & T. R. Tyler (Eds.),
Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research
(pp. 166-195). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.
Vesely, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock, J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions.
Journal of Online Learning and Teaching
, 3(3). Available online at