Strategies for Building Community

Create community in the learning environment by building nonjudgmental, positive relationships with students and fostering positive student-to-student relationships. 

Your classroom community

In developing a survey to assess classroom community, Rovai (2002) observes that “the characteristics of sense of community, regardless of setting, include feelings of connectedness, cohesion, spirit, trust, and interdependence among members” (p. 201). Paring down Rovai’s survey, Cho and Demmans Epp (2019) suggest instructors can cultivate community by providing students opportunities to connect and get to know each other, and to feel comfortable whether asking for help or speaking up when uncertain.

A variety of strategies and activities can be used throughout the semester to allow students to get to know one another, to see and care about each other as individuals, and to build and maintain community. Icebreakers allow students to see connections with other students, fostering belonging. Student communication groups promote relationships among students. Student annotations of the course syllabus and development of community agreements allow students to know that they are an important part of your classroom community. Content-based activities allow students to share ideas about course concepts or materials in a formal or informal way.


Student Communication Groups

Student communication groups provide an opportunity for students, especially busy commuting students or students in online courses, to get to know each other and have a small “support network” of peers to reach out to with any course related concerns or questions. Tip: Groups of 5-8 students work best. 


These can be formed in Canvas or other spaces: 

The “People” page in Canvas allows us to create groups of students in whatever modality you teach. These groups can be labeled “Student Communication” groups and are typically used purely for that function and not for group assignment work (although you could also use these groups to break up larger class discussion boards to have students respond to their peers). Students can use  text chains, WhatsApp groups, or whatever other communication channel they prefer for groups outside Canvas. Maha Bali recommends these “third places” for “addressing socioemotional needs and keeping the pulse of the class” and suggests that instructors participate occasionally.

Student Annotations of Your Syllabus

Allowing students to make and share notes about the syllabus provides an opportunity for them to connect with each other and you, their instructor, and improve their learning. If we think about the syllabus as the most important document that a student will use in your class, allowing them to make suggestions for clarifying, improving and/or strengthening it will help them be more engaged. For example, students can make suggestions for changing assignment due dates, strengthening assignment instructions, or adjusting course policies, which in turn will facilitate a sense of belonging in the classroom. 

Remi Kalir shares his syllabus annotation assignment here and discusses this work in a series of blog posts. Alternatively, you might want to solicit student feedback on a specific component of or policy in your syllabus. The University of Wisconsin shares a Syllabus Annotation Exercise that focuses on a specific policy in the syllabus. 

Tip: Consider carving out time to allow students to complete this activity in class. They may feel more comfortable discussing their proposed annotations with peers and then working together in class to make their annotations in a Google Doc.

Community Agreements developed with Students

Classroom (or community or discussion) agreements (or ground rules) foster respectful and supportive learning environments for your students. Agreements help ensure that everyone understands the expectations for classroom behavior and discussion; moreover, they promote engagement and can also ensure that everyone feels included, providing a safe space for learning. Difficult discussions and conversations are often part of our courses, so having agreements or ground rules in place can help us navigate any topic that might come up in class. This Guide from the New School includes some specific examples of classroom agreement that promote belonging. Patricia Virella (Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership) offers strategies for using discussion protocols to discuss equity and other difficult topics.

Agreements are a great strategy to use with students as you begin with your semester, but agreements can be created and revised at any time through the semester. Students can work individually or in groups to create agreements that will then be reviewed and accepted by the class.

Content-based Activities

These activities build community by asking students to collaborate or share ideas with classmates on materials related to your course content. 

Sample content-based activities from the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning:


specific soundtrack

  • Have students find songs that use certain concepts of a discipline. For example, in an economics course, it could be choosing songs that have references to economics-related terms (e.g., 7 Rings by Ariana Grande, Money by Pink Floyd, Taxman by the Beatles, Youngstown by Bruce Springsteen, etc.). 
  • Ask students to analyze the song lyrics in relation to the concepts/theories of the discipline and share their thoughts with the rest of the class.
  • In a whole class, debrief with students on their analysis and deconstruct the implicit theories/concepts behind the collective songs’ lyrics.

(Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2010, pp. 64-65)

Favorite content sharing
  • Put students in pairs and have them share their favorite course/discipline-related content with each other and discuss why. For example, in a literature class, students could read their favorite poem out loud to each other and discuss why it is their favorite poem.
  • As a whole class, debrief and reflect together on the sharing activity. This is an opportunity to make connections between different points of students’ interests.

(shared by a member of the Columbia teaching community at the Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute)

Course- concept mapping
  • Ask students to map out a concept that is central to the course. Example: How do we learn about the past? (for history) What is art? (for art appreciation) If applicable, direct students to use a collaborative document or a virtual whiteboard (e.g., Zoom whiteboard, Google Jamboard) to collaboratively create their concept map.
  • In a whole class discussion, ask the spokesperson of each group to share their map and explain their ideas.
  • Use student reports as the basis for explaining the purpose or organization of the course.

(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 63)

Search for real-life examples
  • Ask students to find an example in real life that connects to a course topic they are learning about and document it via writing, videos, photos, etc.
  • Example prompts:
    • “Leadership”: Think of someone who you think is a good leader and list the qualities that make that person a good leader.
    • “Grammar”: Find any writing or spoken words that you consider “ungrammatical” but are still widely used (e.g., in advertisements, billboards, TV shows, magazines, movies, text messages, email exchanges, phone conversations, meetings, etc.)
    • “Conglomerate”: Make a list of all the big multi-industry companies you can think of.
  • Have students post their examples on a discussion board online or a virtual whiteboard (e.g., Zoom whiteboard, Google Jamboard). 
  • During class, students share their examples either in small groups or as a whole class. 

(Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 167)

Resource sharing
  • If applicable, allow students to share resources for any class assignment or project that they are working on.
  • Create an online repository space (e.g.,Google folder, Canvas page) where students can share links, photos, citations, etc. and ask each other questions.
  • To encourage students to take advantage of the collective repository, you could require students to use a minimum number of shared resources in their own assignments or projects.

(Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 181)

Online Classes

You can ask your online students to participate in the community building strategies listed above. Other ways to build community online include social annotation (Adams & Wilson, 2020) and communicating regularly with your students (for example, announcements, participating in discussion boards).

Resources and References

Adams, B., & Wilson, N. S. (2020). Building Community in Asynchronous Online Higher Education Courses through Collaborative Annotation. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 49(2), 250–261.

Bali, Maha. (nd). Third Places for Ongoing Community Building. OneHE. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from

Breen, Deborah. (2022). Creating Community Agreements With Your Students. Boston University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Cho, J. & Demmans Epp, C. (2019). Improving the Classroom Community Scale: Toward a short-form of the CCS. Presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada.

Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Community Building in the Classroom. Retrieved January 11, 2023 from

Developing Community Agreements in Your Classroom. UNC Greensboro.

Guide to Teaching and Learning: Community Agreements. The New School.

Kalir, Remi. Annotate the Syllabus. OneHE.

Kalir, Remil. #Annotated Syllabus.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(3), 197–211.

Syllabus Annotation Exercise. OER Activity Sourcebook. University of Wisconsin.


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