Establishing a sense of community is important whether you are teaching in-person, hybrid, or online this fall. It helps students develop a sense of belonging, improve their academic experience, and boost their performance and chances of graduating . A “sense of belonging” is defined here as a perception of inclusion, connectedness, and integration in three primary dimensions: social, academic, and institutional. A large body of research has demonstrated that students
who feel a strong sense of belonging at their institutions are more likely to persist and graduate, especially students whose backgrounds and identities vary from the majority of the rest of the class  . Feeling connected with others is vital for students to enable learning in any context. Given this, it’s important to implement strategies that strengthen bonds between students and promote a sense of belonging in our classes.
The following practices are drawn from recent research and the insights of the administrative staff at higher education institutions during the early pandemic.
Meet students’ needs first to foster equitable participation
Whether you’re teaching online, hybrid, or in-person, access to high-speed internet and capable digital devices is vital for students to fully participate in most courses and to access academic resources. At the beginning of the semester check in on students' access. Does anyone in your class have difficulty accessing a digital device, internet connection, or a quiet space to work? Are there any ways you can provide support or any resources you can point them to? . A brief survey using Google forms or Canvas quizzes to assess student needs can be helpful to understand the basic needs of your students. The LSA Canvas templates created by LTC all have such a quiz in them, ready to be used or tweaked for your classes.
Demonstrate care and compassion
Your students might come to your class uncertain or worried about how to interact with you or with each other in the classrooms. Like their instructors, they might have varying levels of comfort with masking and social distancing policies. Demonstrating empathy and compassion for students’ feelings, experiences, and circumstances is essential to cultivating a sense of student belonging at this time. Make time to discuss how to get around any issues, and establish norms together with your students on the type of participation and interaction expected in class. Strategies such as Minute papers, iClicker polls, or a back-channel chat are helpful to collect ongoing feedback from your students, and responding directly to that feedback lets them know you’re aware of their needs.
Set up a channel of communication with students
To effectively build community, you need to ensure you can reach your students. Plenty of communication channels have become available during the pandemic to keep students connected to their instructors and peers. Canvas announcements and Canvas emails enable you to send easily to all students in a class or section. U-M Slack, MS Teams chat, Canvas chat, and Google chat help you connect with students during class activities. More casual communication also helps build community! Invite your students to post a picture of themselves so they can see each other without masks, using a Canvas discussion board, a Harmonize discussion, or in a course Slack channel.
Ensure that students can connect with one another to share ideas and build community between themselves. Ask students to work in small groups or ask them to work on a long-term project throughout the semester, such as developing an in-depth report or a website on one of the course topics . The stable small group that such activities create provides an anchor during uncertain times.
Give students ample opportunities to contribute
In order to feel connected and develop a sense of belonging, students need to feel that their participation matters; they need to share their experiences with others and get responses. Active Learning strategies such as class debates and Think-Pair-Share are useful in providing opportunities for students to speak up and share their experiences, and student-choice elements (readings or activities they pick) give them a greater sense of stake in the course.
If you would like to discuss how to implement these strategies in your class or if you would like to adopt one of the tools mentioned here, please feel free to reach out to the LSATSLearningTeachingConsultants@umich.edu or request a consultation here. We would be happy to consult with you.
- Seven Practices for Building Community and Student Belonging Virtually- The Chronicle of Higher Education (2021)
- Raygoza, M., León, R., & Norris, A. (2020). Humanizing Online Teaching
- How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging - The Chronicle of Higher Education (2021).
- “24 Tricks and Tips for Teaching with Masks,” University of Michigan- LSA Technology Services.