Small Teaching Tip #13: Building Stronger Learning Communities

In higher education, teaching is often perceived simply as the transmission of knowledge and that can contribute to our focus on content delivery at the expense of other elements of effective teaching.  Educational philosopher John Dewey argued that effective teachers do more than deliver content to their students.  They also value learning by doing rather than simply listening, giving students the freedom to explore and create their own meaning, and encouraging the application of knowledge to their lived experiences.

In order for these values to flourish in the college classroom, students and professors must build a safe, supportive learning community.  After all, the goal of teaching is not simply to build knowledge and competencies, but also to grow a network in which learners feel comfortable sharing perspectives, challenging one another’s world views, and stretching their thinking.  So the following are a few simple ideas to build greater community in your own classes.

  • Add clear statements to your syllabus that explain expectations regarding community and communication (and discuss them during the first week of class). Consider including topics such as:
    • The roles of students and instructor (e.g.  the instructor may initiate discussion, but students are responsible for facilitating).
    • How you want students to communicate with you and with each other (e.g. behavioral expectations, technology tools, etc.)
    • If you’ll be incorporating online interaction, include a section on netiquette.
    • What students can expect from you in terms of communication (e.g. response time to emails, making appointments, etc.)
    • Your expectations for quality participation (e.g. what “counts” as contributions to class discussion).
    • How students can get support and help when they need it (e.g. your office hours, Center for Student Learning, Helpdesk, etc.)

 

  • At the very beginning of the semester, send students a “welcome” video introducing yourself and the course.  Voicethread is a fantastic application to use for this purpose because it combines online discussion with multimedia content delivery.  For example, you could combine Powerpoint slides that contain information about you and the course with a webcam video of you discussing this information.  Then, students can leave audio, video, or text comments to introduce themselves and ask questions.  Creating such a presentation serves multiple purposes:  First, because you can cover typical syllabus information in the video, it frees up the first day of class for icebreakers and discussions.  Second, if you share personal information and use a webcam to record yourself talking, it allows students to get to know your personality better.  Finally, if you use an application like Voicethread, it allows students to engage one another in conversation and start building community.

 

  • Use the minutes before class starts to get to know your students better.  Many of us arrive to our classrooms without time to spare.  We then concentrate on taking attendance, turning on the computer and projector, and reviewing our lecture notes. Meanwhile, our students sit silently, gazing at their phones.  We may not consider the minutes before class begins as consequential, but they offer a fertile opportunity to get to know our students better and build a more positive classroom environment.   A number of studies suggest that learner satisfaction is related to the social presence and immediacy of the instructor.  So make it a goal to arrive to your classroom early and use those extra few minutes to chat with your students and set the stage for the rest of the class period.

 

  • Incorporate more opportunities for student collaboration.  Yes, students often grumble about group projects, but there are so many other ways to include collaborative learning in your classes.  Consider including more low-stakes opportunities rather than only culminating projects worth a significant portion of the students’ grades.  Peer teaching is one great option and a significant amount of empirical research indicates that working with peers has a positive influence on students’ psychological wellbeing, including autonomy, environmental mastery, and personal growth.  The research of Eric Mazur, who popularized peer instruction in the hard sciences, demonstrates learning gains frequently double and sometimes triple when peer instruction is integrated into class time.  To get you started, check out this post about peer teaching strategies and this one about facilitating drama-free group projects.

 

  • Create an online space where students can “hang out.”  This allows students to build community in a less formal way than structured assignments and in-class discussions.  This digital space could be used for students to ask one another questions, form study groups, and provide support.  There are numerous ways this can be accomplished, including using the OAKS discussion board, social media such as Twitter, Google Hangouts chat, SlackLino.it, or RealTime Board

These are just a few ideas to start building community in your classes.  What ideas do you have?  Please share in the comments!


This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

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