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Community Building in the Classroom

What is community building and why is it important? How do I build community in my class? This research-informed guide addresses these questions with a particular focus on synchronous community building strategies. At the same time, many of the community building strategies presented in this guide can also be adapted to the asynchronous modality. Considerations for asynchronous engagement are outlined at the end of the guide. 

The CTL is here to consult with instructors on further exploring community building strategies. To schedule your one-on-one consultation, please contact the Faculty Programs and Services team at CTLfaculty@columbia.edu.

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For additional support with community building in your course, email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule your 1-1 consultation.

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Community Building in the Classroom. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/community-building/

What is Community Building?

A community is a supportive social group in which members feel a sense of belonging and share a common interest, experience, or goals (Berry, 2017; Brown, 2001; McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Rovai, 2003). Particularly in a learning community, members (both students and instructors) engage in collective inquiry and provide each other with academic and social support (Lai, 2015; Shrivastava, 1999). 

Community building in the classroom is about creating a space in which students and instructors are committed to a shared learning goal and achieve learning through frequent collaboration and social interaction (Adams & Wilson, 2020; Berry, 2019; McMillan & Chavis, 1986). With intentional planning and deliberate pedagogical choices, cultivating and reinforcing positive interactions among classroom participants becomes an essential component of building a classroom community.

Why Build Community?

Community building is vital to active student engagement in a course across all modalities. Research shows that when students feel that they belong to their academic community, that they matter to one another, and that they can find emotional, social, and cognitive support for one another, they are able to engage in dialogue and reflection more actively and take ownership and responsibility of their own learning (Baker, 2010; Berry, 2019; Brown, 2001; Bush et al. 2010; Cowan, 2012; Lohr & Haley, 2018; Sadera et al., 2009). 

In particular, the community of inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, 2009; Garrison et al., 2010) is widely noted for its three elements – social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence – that are deemed critical for fostering a community of actively engaged participants.

Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison et al., 2010)

The interplay of the social presence (participants’ ability to establish themselves as real/authentic selves in their academic community), cognitive presence (participants’ ability to construct meaning and confirm understanding), and teaching presence (instructor’s ability to design, facilitate, and provide direct instruction) cultivates a community that provides optimal support for student learning. Deliberate community building is therefore a key component of successful student engagement and performance in class.

Community Building Strategies 

This section provides community building strategies that are organized in three broad categories: social icebreakers, metacognitive activities, and content-based activities. These strategies are presented as suggestions and are not meant to be prescriptive; adapt and modify these example activities according to your unique teaching context.

To ensure the successful implementation of community building strategies in your course, consider your context, the technologies available to you and your students, and what must be prepared and established prior to students interacting and collaborating with each other as a whole class or in small groups (see checklist below).

Preparing for community building in class  
Set up community agreements to establish mutual expectations for participating in whole class interaction (e.g., taking turns to speak, actively listening to others)
Check the technology in advance (e.g., microphones, speakers, cameras, polling tools, online collaborative documents, video-conferencing platforms). Ensure that the features you plan to use are enabled and are working.
When setting up small group interactions, consider asking students to have their earphones and electronic devices ready in case they need to use their individual devices for their group activity.
Have contact information of classroom tech support handy so that you can request technical help when needed.


Social Icebreakers 

What are social icebreakers? Social icebreakers are instructional tactics designed to facilitate rapport building with students, foster a safe learning environment, and relieve inhibition or tension in the class (Chlup & Collins, 2010; Fisher &Tucker, 2004; McGrath et al., 2014).

Why would I use social icebreakers? What do they achieve? Through icebreakers, students are able to not only warm up to each other but also familiarize themselves with the technological tools or platforms that you might often use in your class (e.g., discussion boards, polls, collaborative documents, etc.). When the anxiety of being in a new class environment with new classmates eases, students are more willing to participate in class and actively engage in learning.

When would I use social icebreakers? Social icebreakers often occur at the beginning of the semester, but they need not only be a one-time event on the first day of class. In fact, using icebreakers at various times throughout the course would allow students to continue the community building process and allow for more substantive interaction among themselves.

Sample activities

  • Put students in pairs.
  • Create and distribute a handout with a few questions as a conversation starter: What is your name? What is your academic major? Why did you choose your major? Why are you taking this class?
  • Ask students to alternate interviewing each other.

(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 59)

  • Put students in different groups of 4-6. In their groups, students list as many things as they can that they all have in common. 
  • Each group reports back to the rest of the class after the small group discussion. 

(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 60)

Soundtrack of your life
  • Have students share a) a set of 5-10 songs that represent the soundtrack of their lives or b) a set of 6 songs with 2 representing their past, 2 representing their present, and 2 representing their future. 
  • Then ask students to explain why they included each song.

(Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2010, p. 62)

Where are you from?
  • On a shared map (e.g., interactive response map on PollEverywhere), ask students to add their name, location, and introduce themselves, and identify one interesting fact about their location.

(McGrath et al., 2014)

Your favorite quote
  • On a virtual whiteboard (e.g., Zoom whiteboard) or other online platforms (e.g., discussion boards on CourseWorks, Google slides or documents), ask students to post their favorite quote and explain why.
  • Then have students respond to posts of other students’ that resonate with them. They could either leave a comment or “like” others’ posts.

(Chlup & Collins, 2010)


Metacognitive Activities

What are metacognitive activities? Metacognition refers to knowledge about one’s own thoughts, including the cognitive process and regulation involved in directing one’s learning (Ambrose et al., 2010; Akyol & Garrison, 2011; Dunlosky & Medcalfe, 2009; Lai, 2011). Metacognitive activities (e.g., self-assessment, self-explanation, monitoring, revising, etc.) allow students to reflect on and regulate their own learning. For a more detailed explanation, see the CTL resource on Metacognition.

Why would I use metacognitive activities? What do they achieve? Metacognitive activities encourage students to become more self-aware as critical thinkers and problem solvers. When students are aware of their own learning process, their learning is enhanced (Bransford et al., 1999; Lin, 2001). For the purpose of community building, allowing students to collaboratively engage in metacognitive activities provides them with opportunities to practice metacognitive skills together and build shared learning experiences in their academic community. By collectively reflecting on and regulating their own learning process, students learn to think critically and to clearly communicate their thoughts to others. 

When would I use metacognitive activities? We encourage you to use metacognitive activities frequently and consistently throughout your course in order to serve students and their learning needs. It is important to not only help students articulate their own thinking but also establish a shared understanding of the goals for metacognitive activities. Therefore, create opportunities early in the course to have a conversation with students about the value and usefulness of metacognitive activities and continue the conversation throughout the course.

Sample activities

Personal definition of learning
  • Ask students to write a formal statement about their views on learning. Provide them with some prompts such as: What is learning? What is knowledge? How does one acquire knowledge? What skills do individuals need to access and share knowledge? How do you specifically learn?
  • Put students into groups of 3-4 and arrange breakout rooms or meeting rooms online for small group discussions. Ask each group to take notes on a collaborative document or a virtual whiteboard (e.g., Zoom whiteboard).
  • As a whole class, debrief and ask each group to share what they discussed.

(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 61)

Biographical writing prompts
  • Have students independently read an assigned article about learning and then reflect on their childhood memories in detail in relation to their reading assignment. 
  • Provide a specific reflection prompt to respond to: e.g., What is your very first memory of learning? This can be anything that you consider to have learned, whether it be learning to read, speak, sing, write the alphabets, use chopsticks, put on clothes, tie shoes, etc. How does the reading assignment inform your reflection on your first memory of learning?
  • Instruct students to post their written reflection on an online discussion board.
  • Ask students to read each other’s post and respond to each other.
  • Identify any common themes or patterns that might emerge in students’ reflection posts and debrief with the whole class.

(Lohr & Haley, 2018)

Goal ranking and matching
  • Present course objectives to students and ask them to rank the objectives by importance to their lives and explain why. 
  • Then ask students to write down their personal learning goals for the course and compare them to the course objectives. How do the students’ personal learning goals and the predetermined course objectives compare or contrast with each other?
  • Ask students to share their responses with their partner or group.
  • Collect students’ responses and debrief as a whole class. Discuss areas of common ground and areas where the goals don’t coincide.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993, as cited in Barkley et al., 2014, pp. 62-63)

Group reflection
  • After a group assignment or project, ask students to self-reflect on their work as a group by answering the following questions:
    • To what extent did we successfully accomplish the goals of the task?
    • To what extent did we use resources available to us?
    • If we were the instructor, what would we identify as strengths of our work and limitations in our work?
    • When we do an assignment or task like this again, what do we want to remember to do differently? What worked well for us that we should use next time?
  • To establish continuity and depth in the students’ reflection process, build in reflection opportunities for all major group assignments in your course.

(Tanner, 2012)

Muddiest point
  • After a lecture or a reading assignment, put students into groups and have them answer the following question: What was most confusing about today’s lecture or reading assignment?
  • Invite students to work on, wrestle with, and clarify the muddiest points they have identified. This can be done in many different ways:
    • Have students work in groups to come up with their own clarification or explanation of their muddiest points.
    • Have each group exchange their muddiest points and help each other clarify the muddiest points.
    • Collect each group’s muddiest points and have a whole-class dialogue in review sessions.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993; Tanner, 2012)


Content-based Activities

What are content-based activities? Content-based activities involve the course’s subject matter. Community building can occur not only through informal, casual interactions but also through discipline-specific conversations in collaboration with peers. By engaging in activities that are geared toward achieving their shared learning objectives, students motivate each other to learn and create a safe learning environment for themselves.

Why would I use content-based activities? What do they achieve? Content-based activities serve the purpose of achieving both community building and content learning objectives of the course.  By encouraging students to engage with course content in a collaborative manner with their peers, content-based activities help build a learning community with diverse opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions. Through such peer interactions, students are able to recognize the diversity in perspectives and learn the value of collaboration.

When would I use content-based activities?  Content-based activities can occur at any point of the semester as long as they are implemented with clear goals and guidelines: at the beginning of the semester, content-based activities can orient students to the general subject matter; in the middle of an ongoing course project or course unit, they can facilitate student inquiry and learning; and at the end of a major assignment or course unit, they can be used for collaborative reflection.

Sample activities

Concept-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) 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). 
  • 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., CourseWorks 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)

Considerations for Asynchronous Modality and Large Courses

While the community building strategies presented thus far focus on synchronous live sessions, they can be adapted and used in the asynchronous modality. Also, because community building can be challenging for large courses, some adjustments may be necessary for the community building strategies to be more useful and practical for large courses. Below is a list of general considerations for modifying the community building strategies for different pedagogical contexts.

Asynchronous Modality

  • Assign a community building activity to students to complete in their own time. 
    • Specify the deadline for completion. 
    • Ask students to share their completed activity on a discussion forum and comment on each other’s post (e.g., discussion boards on CourseWorks, shared Google document or slides)
  • Utilize your course’s learning management system (e.g., CourseWorks) to extend the class community to the asynchronous platform. For example, on CourseWorks, consider creating group discussions and arranging regular asynchronous group interactions throughout the semester.
  • Regularly check in on students and make sure to maintain your teaching presence. Some strategies include: 
    • Providing a verbal summary of the community building activity in class.
    • Commenting on student posts online.
    • Emailing the highlights of the completed community building activity.

Large Courses

  • Consider ways to make student interactions more intimate and workload manageable.
    • If you ask students to participate in icebreaker activities or other group assignments, consider putting students into the same groups each time so that they have the opportunity to become acquainted with each other in a smaller group setting throughout the semester.
    • If you ask students to upload posts on discussion boards on CourseWorks or another online platform and read and comment on each other’s posts, consider creating group discussions so that students are expected to read and engage with only their group members’ posts. 
  • After an in-class group activity, having every student group report back to the whole class may be too time-consuming if there are too many small groups. The following are some alternative suggestions for the whole-class debrief. 
    • Rather than having every student group report back, randomly select groups to share their discussions.
    • If you ask students to take notes in a collaborative document during their group activity, skim through their notes and highlight some of them by identifying particular emerging themes/patterns and reading them out loud to the whole class.
    • If students engage in a problem-solving activity in small groups, quickly assess their learning with a polling tool (e.g., PollEverywhere, Zoom poll).
  • Assign students a community building activity in advance so that they can complete it before coming to class. Use Google Forms or other online survey tools to collect their responses. In class, use the survey results to facilitate a whole class discussion. You could also use a polling tool (e.g., PollEverywhere, Zoom poll) to invite students’ participation during class.


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