Student Engagement and Community-Building
Creating a Course Orientation
Orientations for distance learning courses have the same objectives as those for college: they can facilitate academic and social interactions, increase student involvement, create and enhance a sense of community and belonging in a virtual community and help with student retention. Like a helpful college orientation, a welcoming, well-structured and comprehensive distance learning course orientation can make students feel at ease and prepared to begin the semester with a sense of belonging and positivity. Several key components of an effective course orientation design include explicating course expectations, making sure that students are familiar with and able to use the instructional media used in the course and prompting students to begin to interact socially in the online environment so as to cultivate community building and social connections to one another and to the professor.The following suggestions offer ideas for creating a welcoming, interactive and engaging course orientation that provides students with initial guidelines for course communication and participation.
Guide to Creating a Course Orientation
Create a welcome to the course video (5-7 minutes maximum): Just as you describe your course on your syllabus and would discuss it during a first face-to-face class meeting, the course video should describe your course’s purpose, organization, schedule, key dates and assignments, important course policies and technical/access requirements for the course. It highlights the course’s main themes and the questions the course raises, outlines the course’s learning outcomes and discusses the main course assignments and expectations for doing well in the course. The course video emphasizes aspects of the syllabus that you feel are especially helpful to point out. Some samples are here and here. You may also want to include information on how to navigate the course website/Canvas site as exemplified in this short video orienting students to the structure of the online classroom.
Consider including a visual to complement the orientation course introduction in the form of an outcomes map (example below) that visually displays the course’s intended outcomes as they flow and relate to one another, rather than in the conventional form of a written list that less effectively conveys the relationships that they have to one another.
Create a professor welcome video (5-7 minutes maximum): imagine this video as similar to how you would introduce yourself on the first day of class and as a way to give students a sense of your presence in the course. The video gives students a concise idea of your research, your academic and professional background and may also include some more personal information such as interests and activities outside of academia. A helpful resource is here and another helpful link on professor and student introductions here. A course/professor introduction video that may help as a sample can be found here.
Create and ask students to fill out a Teaching Online Planning Questionnaire (an example is linked here) and schedule brief, individual conversations with each student (depending on your class size) to discuss their responses. The questionnaire poses a few key questions about students’ online connectivity and access to a computer and other devices and invites them to make you aware of any current or anticipated needs they may have. Because access to regular, dependable wifi, a laptop and a quiet place to participate in class may be sensitive for students, be very mindful of approaching these questions carefully and respectfully. Sample of phrasing:
This questionnaire will ask a few questions about your online connectivity and your computer and other devices. If you require any assistance with connectivity or devices, this will let your professor and the College know so that they can help you get the resources that you need.
Create a pre-course checklist to help students understand what’s important for them to know before the course begins. The checklist will help students to feel comfortable with the course structure and content, and familiarize them with how to navigate the course. The text below suggests a possible pre-course checklist with suggested explanatory text:
Sample Pre-Course Checklist
Get comfortable logging into our course and getting a sense of its online structure and content. Are there texts and/or images that pique your interest? Is there something (or more than one thing) that you have a question about? Spend a couple of minutes exploring and finding out.
Update your computer and necessary software
Be sure that your computer is running the latest versions of all of the software necessary for the course. Check that you have accounts for any supplementary media for the course (such as twitter, wikis or video sharing platforms). Also be sure to check that your browsers are up to date
Watch the course introduction video, read the course description, watch the welcome video
Take this opportunity to get better acquainted with your course and professor. Watch and read the introductory materials actively - take some notes and jot down some questions as you’re watching and reading to discuss with your classmates and professor during the first meeting.
Read the course syllabus and make notes
Carefully read the syllabus. Do you have questions about the course requirements? About the course content? Do you have concerns about online accessibility as related to course participation? Note down your questions to discuss with your professor.
Introduce yourself to your professor and fellow classmates
Go to the Introduce Yourself section in our Discussion Forum to write a few sentences introducing yourself and to learn about your classmates and professor. It is completely optional, but feel free to add a photograph of yourself or an image that you would like to share with us all that you feel represents yourself.
Review required course materials and download
Downloading course materials now will save time later and will also be helpful if there are any connectivity issues or geographical restrictions on materials at a later point for any reason.
Check the Course Announcements
Your professor [and Teaching Assistant] will be posting important information here on a regular basis. It is vital that you get familiar with this section and make a habit of checking it regularly.
Including links for key communication in the course and key resources will help to make the students comfortable with communicating and with accessing course materials. Examples of possible links to include are below:
Communication Tools: Quick Links
- Email your Professor
- Email your Teaching Assistant
- Email for Technical Support
Course Resources: Quick Links
- Course Syllabus
- Course Materials
- Course Announcements Section
- Course Discussion Board
Create preliminary working communications etiquette to create a classroom community based on open, honest and respectful communication online with the professor, teaching assistant and classmates on discussion boards and for Zoom synchronous sessions. When the course begins, discuss them together and modify as necessary with students and teaching assistant
Provide students with some key internal and external links to academic resources on your course/Canvas site to make them aware of the support available to them. Barnard specific links could include information about the Speaking and Writing Fellows; examples of external links could be learning resources for Hyflex synchronous courses provided by other academic institutions.Include guidelines for downloading Zoom and provide the email contact information for technical support for students.
Suggestions for Community-Building
Fostering student engagement and building a sense of community within the classroom are processes that go hand in hand. Engagement involves much more than simply being present in class; meaningful engagement occurs when students are focused, interested, and motivated. Students tend to learn best when they are not only invested in the course content and the learning process, but also feel connected to others in the class (peers, instructors, and TAs). The interpersonal and social aspects of pedagogy, which often develop naturally in in-person classrooms, can feel particularly tricky to facilitate online. How can meaningful community building occur in an online environment? This section offers suggestions on how to build and foster community in online courses.
Since meaningful interpersonal relationships can be strong motivators for students, the following offers suggestions to enhance instructor-student interactions in your course. These practices will help you get to know your students, build rapport, and cultivate a feeling of connectedness between yourself and your students.
Making meaningful first impressions are especially important for cultivating community online. Welcoming students to the course and letting students get to know you (and their peers) can help students feel immediately at ease. Take time to think through your first interaction with your students, whether it is in the form of an email, a course orientation, Canvas announcement, video introduction or something else, as the first interaction can have a lasting impression on students. Find more information about creating a course orientation at our course orientation page.
Model the quality of engagement you’d like to see in your students. Build presence in the course and stay in contact with students. You do not need to respond to discussion posts and emails immediately or constantly; however, if your interactions with students are impersonal, rushed, and/or infrequent, then you may be less likely to see students making quality contributions to the course. Inform students of the general time frame in which you will respond to emails and discussion posts.
Sharing your background with your students and your own personal experiences and connections relevant to your course can help your students get to know you better and show that you are enthusiastic about the course. For example, you might share your own academic and/or professional background, related pursuits, personal interests, hobbies, etc.
Consider incorporating brief check-ins throughout the duration of the course to show students that you care about their learning process. Interactions with students that occur outside of class time demonstrate that you are present and active. Possible options: weekly announcement or reminders via email or Canvas, ask students for feedback about the course on a regular basis, pose questions in the discussion boards. While announcements are often used to remind students of upcoming deadlines or changes to the course, you can also utilize announcements to share a highlight from a class discussion, share an article or upcoming event related to the course, or additional resources.
Reaching out to students, whether individually or in group settings, can positively impact student motivation and engagement. Expressing concern about the barriers students might be facing and offering compassionate guidance and support can motivate students to re-engage with the course. Sometimes, just feeling noticed is enough to motivate a student to re-engage—most students want to feel seen by their instructors and their peers. Options include: Scheduled first week and midterm check-ins, dedicated time for check-ins during class sessions, individual office hours.
For larger classes, consider using a questionnaire to check in with students halfway through the semester in order to get a sense of how they are feeling, their level of engagement in the course, and whether they need additional support. If your class is supported by TAs, they may be able to offer check-ins with students in their discussion sections as well.
Student feedback from Spring 2020 expressed that students appreciated instructors who set aside specific time during class (the first or last 10 minutes of class, a 10 minute break during class) for check-ins and casual conversations. Students can talk about how they are feeling and how they are doing. This dedicated time signals to students that their instructors truly care about their well-being both within and beyond the classroom.
Fostering Active Listening in the Classroom
The classroom is a highly communicative environment, meaning it is as important to facilitate listening as it is to facilitate spoken conversation. Active listening is the practice of focusing completely on a speaker, taking clarifying measures to understand their message, comprehending the information they have shared, and responding thoughtfully. Communication exchanges are a collaboration between all involved parties, regardless of who is speaking at any given moment. Therefore, fostering an environment that emphasizes active listening is key to engaging students in interpersonal communication, self-disclosure, and classroom collaboration.
As an instructor, you cannot realistically control all communication dynamics in the classroom. We all have un/conscious biases that can affect how we listen, how we demonstrate our listening, and to whom we choose to listen. While you have control over your own decisions in the classroom, you cannot control how others in the space react to them. Therefore, it can be helpful to think of your classroom as a garden and yourself as a gardener. While you cannot control how the plants grow and interact with each other, you can provide conditions to foster optimal growth in the space; similarly, your listening facilitation can encourage students to better support one another. Recognizing, questioning, and confronting your biases will also make you more adept at listening to a broad range of people.
Many of the listening techniques on this page come from crisis response training, which focuses on high stakes situations. However, these tools also make everyday communication much more effective. These are strategies that you can use to strengthen your listening skills in a variety of settings, and they work particularly well when used together. We’ll touch on more strategies later that are specifically geared toward fostering an active listening environment.
When you paraphrase, you present the speaker with what you heard, and give them an opportunity to clarify that you are on the same page. Paraphrasing is not verbatim repetition, but rather a statement that echoes key descriptive words/phrases the speaker used meshed within your own words.
Tentifiers are tentative, responsive statements that demonstrate active listening and strive to confirm what the speaker is expressing. Examples of tentifiers include, "It seems like... I wonder if... It sounds like... I’m hearing that...I hear you saying that... If I understand you right, you... Let me see if I’m with you so far; you… What I’m learning is…," etc. By allowing space for the speaker to correct us, these statements keep us from making innacurate assumptions (which, according to cognition, is normal). Tentifiers help to align what students are expressing with what you think they are expressing, and give them the agency to confirm or deny your impression.
Validations are expressions of empathy; they let the speaker know that you've given thought to how their experiences may have led them to express certain opinions. By using validations, you can communicate to the speaker that what they're saying and feeling makes sense, and that you intend to make space for both of your views throughout the conversation. Examples of validations include, "It’s understandable that …. I hear that… I can imagine that … It’s totally fair that … It must be really challenging to... It makes sense that you think/feel.... I’m curious about … I care that you… I value that you…," etc. These statements allow you to empathize with the speaker without necessarily agreeing with their point. Additionally, it's important to remember that validations are not statements that start with with, “I understand” or “I know.” These statements undermine the expertise a speaker has about their own life and experiences. Even when we practice active listening, we have no way to "know" someone else's perspective; all we can do is reflect on the parts of it that they have chosen to share with us.
Asking questions expresses curiosity in the speaker’s message, encouraging them to continue sharing. Questions are open-ended if they prompt sentences, lists or stories, or otherwise cannot be answered in one word. They often involve a who, what, where, when, why, and how.
- Clarifying questions invite the speaker to define terms the listener did not understand
- Examples: “Can you say that last part again?” “I’m having a hard time understanding your metaphor–could you tell me again in other words?” “Can you give me an example of___?”
- Probing questions invite the speaker to elaborate more deeply on their story
- Examples: “What was ___ like for you?” “What led up to ___?” “What’s on your mind now, after ___?” “Could you tell me more about ___?” “What is important to you that we take away from your story?”
Amplifying acknowledges the ideas and participation of speakers in the space. It helps us offer recognition to speakers—especially in a setting where multiple people are in discussion with one another—and listen while remaining aware of our own biases.
You don’t need to be in a position of authority to amplify within a conversation: consider role-modeling or directly encouraging students to extend this courtesy to one another.
Amplifying could look like:
- If someone lays out more than one point, and you just want to focus on one/reroute the conversation from what the person’s intention was, acknowledging that verbally (“I hear a lot of useful information in Ella’s comment– I’m first going to respond to [describe one point Ella made] and then return to [describe another point Ella made], if that’s okay.”)
- Providing callbacks in situations of interruption, which gives the interrupted speaker an opening to jump back into the conversation (“Thank you for that clarification, Riley. I know we jumped ahead but I want to acknowledge the comment Mel started making earlier; is there anything you’d like to add or emphasize, Mel?”)
There are two main types of interruption, each of which serves a different purpose and has different effects. One is meant for switching speaking turns in a conversation (cutting in to say something else), while the other serves as an interjection of enthusiasm and participation (saying “Yes!”, “I feel that," clapping, etc). While interruptions are often vilified in classroom dialogue, they are not universally harmful. Many cultural communication norms encourage interruption as a form of communal participation in a conversation. Additionally, power differences in a space between students and educators will also dictate how interruptions are received: while students may not be able to interrupt educators without it coming across as rude, educators often feel they can interrupt students whenever they wish because of their position of relative power. It’s most useful to observe when you’re interrupting, why you’re interrupting, and who you’re interrupting, and reflect on how the person you’re engaging with responds to being interrupted. Encourage your students to do the same!