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Building community

A student’s sense of belonging impacts student outcomes, motivation, and retention (O’Keeffe, 2013; Zumbrunn et al., 2014). When students feel connected to others, they are more likely to be motivated to study and to stay in higher education. Additionally, they are more likely to access knowledge, information and support through these social connections. For first-year students especially, developing a community with their peers can greatly contribute to finding support on how to study a particular topic. Think of your own experiences as a student. How many times did you use friends and acquaintances to ask questions or clarify course content?

What are some strategies for building community in your course? How might positive relationships between you and your students be developed? A student’s perception of community stems from three main sources: interactions with fellow students, with their teacher, and with the content itself. Engagement and meaningful participation are crucial to establishing a community, but groups need time to develop and go through several phases before they reach a harmonious relationship (Tuckman, 1965). To facilitate this community-building process, check out the following ideas, and consider trying out a few that suit your course and teaching style.

Instructor - Student Relationships

Teachers’ availability and helpfulness have been found to impact student achievement in higher education (Schneider & Preckel, 2017). These aspects are closely related to creating a safe learning environment in which students feel comfortable to express themselves, share, and engage with other students. 

  • Contact: Consider a time and space where students have the opportunity to check in with you and with each other in class: e.g. at the beginning and at the end of the class. 

If you are teaching online, consider using the chat function to ask icebreaker questions as class begins or after breaks, checking understanding with short (3 question) yes/no thumbs up/down questions before breaks, doing quick check ins during synchronous meetings, or encouraging students to ask and/or answer each other’s questions.

  • Reach out: Send your students a welcome email or post an introduction video in the course. As an alternative example, one professor at FSE sends all of his students a postcard before the course starts.

  • Establish interactive habits with students: What are the norms of engagement for students and how do you model this behaviour yourself? For example, if you would like students to actively engage in discussion forums, posting something yourself and actively responding to comments helps increase their participation as well.

If you are teaching online, consider the use of a webcam, the raise hand function, profile photos, status/feedback tools, the chat, (un)mute, etc. How would you like your students to interact?

  • Communicate high expectations: And follow up--show that you have interest in their development.

  • Humanize your course while being present: teachers availability can impact students’ perception of teacher proximity. Consider:

    • (online) office hours

    • Consistent presence in discussion boards. For example, let students know that you’ll check the forum on a regular basis, i.e. at the start or at the end of each week. 

    • Allow your personality to come out. Think about a personal introduction (let students learn from your career path) or provide video or audio feedback on assignments. 

    • Learn and use student names as much as possible. Practice the pronunciation of student names with which you are unfamiliar.

Student - Student Relationships

Facilitate peer-to-peer interaction throughout your course to support community building among students by planning for the following in your course:

  • Small-group interactions (ie: in breakout groups) with clear tasks

  • Discussion boards 

    • Start with an introduction thread or icebreaker question: require everyone to share something (to become comfortable using the discussion board) 

    • Start with it immediately at the outset of the course

    • Set expectations and establish minimum requirements

    • Align discussion topics with course activities 

  • Consider integrating a collaborative learning activity in your course 

  • Try integrating low-stakes, ungraded assignments such as personal essays that fellow students could check or give feedback on. This will improve their writing skills and at the same time support connections between them in “debrief” discussions.

Student - Content Relationships

  • Provide certainty: A predictable structure in your course design allows students to focus on the content.

  • Create relevancy: Make connections between course content and the real world by, for example, integrating examples of authentic tasks. Contextualised authentic learning activities help students to connect to the content and translate what they have learned to the work environment.

  • Check progress: Exit tickets / one-minute thesis writing activities can ensure that learning stays on track and allows you to adjust some content or teaching, if needed.

  • Start early: Have students annotate the course syllabus as an introductory activity.

Whom to contact?

Contact EDU Support or your faculty's Embedded Expert from ESI for tailored didactic advice in using these suggestions in your teaching. For technical assistance please contact Nestorsupport.


O’Keeffe, P. (2013). A Sense of Belonging: Improving Student Retention. College Student Journal 47(4), 605-613,

Schneider, M., & Preckel F. (2017). Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A sstematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin 143(6), 565-600,

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384–399,

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study. Instructional Science 42, 661-684,

Last modified: 22 June 04:04 pm
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