Four Ways to Cultivate Community in your Online Class

Cliff Rouder
Online Learning, Participation

We all know how empowering and motivating it feels when we’re part of a community working hard toward a common goal--perhaps now more than ever. That feeling of connecting and belonging; having a voice and knowing you’ll be heard; knowing you’re supported and supporting others: this is what community can feel like in an online course. But community is more than a feeling. Indeed, the research tells us that these are key ingredients to student success in your course, and by extension, to retention in the major and in college.

Understanding that community can look different depending on class size, here are some ways to build that foundation early on:

1. Make your goal of creating community transparent.

Tell your students the reasons why it’s important, what you will do, and what you expect them to do, to help build that community. You might even make this one of your course goals. By the end of the semester, what will students need to demonstrate to know whether they’ve met this goal, and how will you get them there? Perhaps it will be through successful collaborative work. Perhaps it will be through participating in discussion boards. Consider these other ideas below.

2. Build in different ways of presenting content and demonstrating competence.

If we proactively do this, then we will have met the learning needs of as many students as possible, which can reduce the need for individual student accommodation. Think about representing content via audio and visual means in addition to text. Think about alternative assessments besides exams and papers. We call this proactive approach to course design Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. As always in course design, we start with our course goals first and then work backwards to design assessments and learning activities.

3. Build in social opportunities for students.

How about creating a space where students can connect on a social level? Think of them gathering around the water cooler to talk about non-course related topics. Can you connect them to former students who are now working in their fields of interest? 

4. Personalize and humanize your online classroom.

There are many ways you can do this:

  • Welcome them into your home space. Show them your pet, your child, your environment, and encourage them to do the same. Be mindful though that some may be hesitant to appear on webcam, so encourage, but don’t require. Students can always use their audio, the Zoom chat tool, discussion boards, or photos if they don’t want to turn on their webcams.

  • Ask them to come to virtual office hours. You’ll be amazed at how a 10-minute “getting to know you” session can decrease their hesitation about coming to you for assistance. Then, check in frequently with the whole class in your synchronous or asynchronous sessions.

  • Do some interesting ice-breakers. Try on for size “Three truths and a lie,” or “What are you binge-watching?” This gets students talking about themselves, but also comparing their experiences to their peers.

  • Have them send you the pronouns they use and be mindful about using them. Everyone has a need to feel validated and this is a simple step that can greatly assist some of our most vulnerable students.

  • Create guidelines together for communicating respectfully when their points of view differ. An online course is an artificial space where the rules of interaction don’t always seem obvious. Inviting the students to participate in setting the ground rules for civil discourse gets them involved in building community from the ground up.

  • Purposefully connect course content to their lives and future ambitions. Remember, your course does not exist in isolation, but it can feel that way to students. Always look for opportunities to connect your course to recent events, their past experiences as students, and/or their personal and career aspirations.

With just a little effort--and some humanity--you can create a community of learners in your online course. As always, the CAT is here to help you in this endeavor, so don’t hesitate to book a consultation with one of our amazing faculty developers or educational technologists at We've also compiled a great collection of resources to help you design your online course, which you can access at

Cliff Rouder, Ed.D., is Pedagogy and Design Specialist at Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

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