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  7. Community Building: The Learner’s Perspective
  8.  » Community Building: The Learner’s Perspectives

Michelle Yao’s reflection Michelle Yao

I feel part of a classroom community when… 

(1) The professor is accessible to me and cares about my learning outside of class. 

In my chemistry lecture class, my professor holds office hours 3 times a week. Sometimes if students have last minute questions (especially before an exam), he often goes over time to make sure that he has answered all of them. My professor’s dedication has encouraged a judgment-free environment for intellectual exploration, where “no question is a dumb question.” 

The takeaway: being actively involved in supporting student learning is instrumental in fostering an open and trusting community where students feel free to participate. 

Ways to support student learning include:

  • Replying to emails within a day or two of receiving them, and informing students as soon as possible when there is a change in grading or syllabus/assignment structure
  • Showing sensitivity to individual student concerns and circumstances (sickness, family situations, etc.) and how they may affect their learning

(2) The professor makes an effort to get to know me while in the classroom. 

In my statistics lecture class, every morning my professor makes conversation with us and addresses us by name. This practice has made me feel acknowledged and “seen”, which has inspired me (and many of my classmates) to actively participate in class discussion. 

The takeaway: what you do at the beginning greatly affects the class tone for the rest of the semester, and has the capability of inspiring students to mirror the “community feel” you create.

Some ways to set the tone for a class: 

  • Use polls and “reaction emojis” to engage students
  • Use “mandatory participation” as an opportunity to get to learn student interests and build robust relationships in class

I feel like I am developing a positive relationship with my classmates and my instructor when… 

(1) My professor uses technology intentionally to create a space to connect with my peers and professor outside of the classroom.

In my chemistry lab course of over 100 students, my professor always answers questions on the online forum within a couple of hours of someone posting, and her responses are written in an informal and friendly tone of voice. Her humor and initiative have encouraged me to submit questions and connect with my professor, TAs, and classmates outside of lecture. 

The takeaway: online forums outside of class time are a powerful tool for building community in large classes.

Some ways to use technology for building community:

  • Set clear expectations for how online discussion forums will be used
  • Contribute actively to the forum to model how you would like students to participate 

(2) I am encouraged to form study groups with my peers.

During my chemistry lab office hours, my professor suggested that I form a study group with my peers to go over a difficult concept. This encouragement from my professor has not only allowed me to meet new friends and become a better learner in class, but also feel like part of a community. 

The takeaway: spaces that professors create for learning are invaluable to helping students build relationships that strengthen the class community.

A way to leverage learning spaces to encourage student collaboration: create student “community groups” for the semester and allow for group interaction during class so that students are able to get to know each other

Sajan Bar’s reflection 

I feel part of a classroom community when…

  • I connect with my peers virtually through Slack and ungraded discussion boards in which I respond to others and actually learn about their experiences. 
  • I am heard by the instructor and my peers and they actively engage in debate and conversation.
  • My peers and professors make course material culturally, socially, and professionally relevant by connecting to the real world and students’ lives/future careers
  • I share common learning experiences with my classmates such as going on field trips or engaging with guest speakers (one of my favorite classroom experiences was meeting Ron Klain over Zoom in my Intro Econ course). 

I feel like I am developing a positive relationship with my classmates and my instructor when…

  • I communicate with my peers in small groups and learn about their lives outside of the coursework.
  • I attend office hours or smaller meetings with my professors to: i) learn about their experiences and pathways. This includes learning about how my professors got to where they are; and their professional experiences in industry; and ii) figure out what I am interested in and learn about opportunities in the field (a Chemical Engineering professor took a moment to speak with me last Spring, and it helped open many doors for me).
  • My professors and peers remember my name and how to pronounce it correctly (It can be a turn off when 8 weeks into the semester the professor is still saying my name wrong).

Donian Chyong’s reflection

I feel part of a classroom community when…I am connected with my fellow learners and when I feel comfortable asking questions. In one of my medium sized lecture classes, the professor effectively combines breakout rooms with a powerpoint-based lecture to create community and use peer-learning strategies to help students retain the information and key themes. The professor makes a point of always having time left over at the end of lecture to send 4-5 students into each breakout room. In each breakout room, we discuss an open-ended question posed by the professor about the class material including questions that are the basis for scholarly debate today in the field. 

In a different class, the professor employs a very similar lecture and breakout room format, but this professor goes an extra step to combine the breakout rooms with discussion about the required readings for that day. The professor uses breakout rooms as an opportunity to ensure that students keep up with the readings by having the TAs move between the breakout rooms to see that all students are participating in the discussion. In each breakout room of 4-5 people, the professor asks us to assign a presenter, notetaker, time keeper, and facilitator so that the discussion can proceed smoothly, and someone can summarize the discussion we had in the breakout room to the class when all the students return to the main session. In this way, I was able to find community in my class by socializing in between answering the discussion questions and engaging with what my peers thought about the class material.

Based on my personal experiences, I learned that I learn best when both the professor and students create a culture of questions. I do not want to interrupt the professor when they are in the zone with their lecture, so if professors could remember to pause between main points to acknowledge questions, I would feel more comfortable raising my hand. I also make it a point to ask the professor in one of the first classes of the semester about what method the professor prefers for asking questions, whether that is jumping in and interrupting, raising a discrete hand, or even asking through chat. I also realize I need to be more comfortable acknowledging when I do not understand something even if no one else seems to be jumping in to ask questions.

I feel like I am developing a positive relationship with my classmates and my instructor when…the instructor creates many opportunities for the students to work together and learn together. Creating opportunities for social interaction through pair work, breakout room discussions, or group projects can build community by helping students make memories with each other. At the very least, while taking a class through Zoom, I started recognizing names and connecting those people with memories made in the class even while being separated physically. This is applicable even for in person classes because instead of just sitting next to each other in isolation and silence in the lecture hall, social interactions help students learn together.

In these Zoom classes, one of the advantages of having online discussions with webcams is that students’ names are next to the camera images of the people. This helps me learn some of my peers’ names, and more importantly, I feel more valued and a part of the learning community when the professor also learns my name and calls on me by name when I have a question or comment. Using each others’ names in the breakout rooms helps the conversation become more personal, thereby creating more engagement with the class material we are discussing.

Yarin Reindorp’s reflection 

I feel part of a classroom community when… personal connections with my peers and instructors are able to be made. For me, the primary ways in which that has happened were by initiatives, mostly by instructors, that help students and instructors get to know each other, alongside fostering a classroom environment that is respectful and safe. In the sciences, that usually means that there is a sense of acknowledgment of challenges and repeated encouragement. 

One of my classes in the chemistry department this year was a great example of that. The professor started the semester by asking all of us to submit a survey response to questions about ourselves, and thus got some understanding of our experiences and interests. She also shared her own answers with us, giving us the opportunity to get to know her beyond her instruction alone. In this large lecture course, this initiative had a positive impact on many of us, allowing us to feel seen and heard, and a space was made for personal connections to be built in this class. 

As a result, along with many other aspects of the course and this instructor’s approach, the class environment became increasingly more open and comfortable as the semester progressed. The material covered in that class was extremely challenging, but we received constant reminders from the instructor that our difficulty is understandable and that with constant work many of the concepts will become second nature. With the instructor acknowledging our struggles, making us feel that all questions are welcomed, and offering ways to improve, we felt that we can openly struggle together, and the atmosphere felt less competitive and more collaborative. With time, I felt my confidence and motivation to participate more actively and engage more meaningfully increase, as a result of the class environment being one in which making mistakes, delivering wrong answers, asking “basic” questions, and struggling are all accepted and treated with respect.