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Many faculty who move from face-to-face teaching to online instruction worry that their students will not develop a sense of community. However, there are steps you can take in your course design and teaching to cultivate student interaction and cohesion.

Instructor presence

If you want to build a learning community with your students, the first step is cultivating instructor presence—being visible to and available to your students, and interacting with them as a person, not as disembodied chunks of text on a screen.

Some strategies for developing your instructor presence:

Introduce yourself to the class. Share a few personal details (family, pets, hobbies) in addition to your academic experience. Upload a photo to your Canvas profile.

Welcome students to your course. Create a brief video or VoiceThread to go over the course requirements, and be sure to convey your own enthusiasm for the course and what you expect them to learn.

Regular announcements in your Canvas site are a simple way to reach out to students. Use announcements to provide a recap of content that was covered in the previous week and/or a preview of what’s coming in the week ahead. Remind them of upcoming due dates and events. Share relevant news items and current events. Definitely offer words of encouragement! Enable replies to your announcements in case students want to follow up on your remarks.

Create short, informal videos to make announcements or introduce lessons. You can use the Rich Content Editor to record your video directly into Canvas. You can also give audio or video feedback in SpeedGrader.

Communicate your availability to your students. In your syllabus, include your preferred means of contact and expected time frame for replying to questions and returning feedback on student work. Host office hours in Zoom. Create appointment groups in the Canvas calendar so students can sign up for available meeting times with you.

Bring your voice and experience to the class. Most online communication is still written. It’s easy to fall into a formal, academic, third-person style when writing announcements and messages to students. Be professional but conversational, and use the second person (“you”) as often as possible.

Don’t be afraid to use yourself as an example. Talk about a discipline-related decision you had to make. Talk about how you applied a particular research method—why did you choose it for that particular study? How did it work? What mistakes did you make along the way, and how did you learn from those mistakes? When you connect the student learning to your own experiences, you show how it applies in the real world.

Student engagement and connection

One element that differentiates a seminar course from a typical class is a sense of community. With intentional choices about your course design and activities, you can create the same community in an online class.

Set the ground rules for engagement. Make sure students understand that thoughtful, constructive debate is allowed (even encouraged!), but insults are not.

Start with an introduction or “ice breaker” activity. This can be as simple as a discussion thread in which students share a bit about themselves and why they are taking the course. You could ask them to respond to a fun or thought provoking question as well; for example, asking each student to state two truths about themselves and one falsehood, inviting the rest of the class to guess the lie. Students could be asked to include a meaningful photo or to use the media recorder in the Rich Content Editor to post a brief video.

In a Zoom session, you might ask each student to choose a thematic background picture (“a place you’d like to travel to” or “something that begins with the letter M”).

See the University of Washington Bothell Information Technologies site for more Icebreaker Ideas for Students Learning Remotely.

Include a general discussion board open to students for social conversation. You might invite (not require) them to share personal news on “What’s New Wednesday” or something motivational on “Feel Good Friday.”

Plan collaborative work and peer reviewed work. For group assignments, you will need to set the groundwork:

  • Give group members a chance to get to know each other before beginning the actual project.
  • Consider asking each group to complete a contract: Preferred means of communication, available time to work on the project (especially if synchronous time is needed), how group members will address conflict or social loafing, and so forth.
  • If the task requires students to assume roles, ask students to establish those roles at the outset (e.g., “leader,” “reporter”).

As long as students in a group reach a consensus on how to collaborate, give them flexibility. Make the Canvas group tools available to them (including announcements, file sharing, and discussions), but let them know they can also meet in Zoom, use Microsoft Teams, or even text each other (if all members agree to give out their mobile numbers).

When introducing an assignment with peer review, be sure to include a checklist or rubric to guide students through the specifics of what they need to look for in the review.

For logistical details, please see the following articles from the Canvas Guides:

Website to be retired

The Keep Learning website will be retired on January 31, 2022. Please update all of your bookmarks and links to point to our new website,

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Workshops & seminars

Faculty/instructors are invited to register for a workshop or seminar that is designed to help deliver quality learning experiences.

Register now