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Building community in online courses takes thinking intentionally about where students can connect with each other and with their instructors. There are many ways to establish and sustain community in an online course. Consider how you might structure your class to encourage interactions between students or with you in:

  • Synchronous class time
  • Asynchronous discussions
  • Group assignments or projects
  • Study groups or other means for students to work together informally
  • Office hours or other outside of class meetings with your students

What follows are common ways of building community in online courses as well as some suggestions about tools that you might use.

How will you let students know that you would like to create a sense of community in the course? How will students know what “community” means within your specific course?

If community is important for your course, consider framing your initial assignments and discussions around establishing connections and helping students get to know each other and you.

Possibilities include:

  • Student introductions in Canvas discussion boards or, for smaller classes/sections, live during synchronous sessions.
    • Ask students to let the class know something about themselves, such as their preferred name/nickname and pronouns. Some instructors like to include something outside of course material, such as hobbies or interesting facts, to get to know student interests. Icebreakers can also be course-related, such as why the student chose the course, what they’ve heard about the topic that they find interesting, etc. Students can also embed images in their discussion posts. Canvas also allows for video or audio introductions. Some students may find this task more intimidating, especially in larger groups, but if students are expected to speak/present throughout the course this can also be good practice.
    • For large classes, consider breaking students into smaller groups for introductions and discussions; it can be easier to engage with and get to know others in a small group. There are multiple ways to design student groups.
    • Be clear about how formal/informal these introductions should be. Are they casual or would you like students to use this to practice more refined introductions they may expect to do at a conference or in their future careers? This will set the stage for the type of community you develop in your course.
    • For any introductions, it’s helpful for the instructor and TAs to participate and model the posts they’d like to see. If you would like students to introduce themselves on a discussion board, start the discussion off with your own post.
  • Collect anonymous information about students. Ask students to submit brief reflections or introductions to you, or complete a survey. Topics could include their background, goals for the course, what they’re most interested in, or what they’re more concerned about. You can use these to get to know students (and for creating student groups), and/or collate aggregate anonymous results for the class; students may find it helpful to know that they’re not the only ones anxious about something in the class.
  • Involve students in creating the norms for the course. Ask students to share ideas and come to a consensus on how to engage with the course and each other.

Students may be accustomed to different norms than you would like for your class. Make sure to convey your expectations for virtual engagement.


  • Setting aside time in the first week of class to discuss expectations for the online space with your students.
  • Providing students with a guide such as these Zoom Tips for Students, or asking students to collaboratively create rules of engagement for the course.
  • Providing students with tips for how to do well in your course online. The best strategies may vary by course, but the Weingarten Center has a few Tips for Online Learning to get started.

A few questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • What does good participation and discussion mean for this course, whether during live class meetings or asynchronously in discussion boards or other assignments? How do I let students know what that looks like? Do I want students to turn on their video cameras during synchronous sessions? (You can encourage students to turn on their cameras, especially if you tell students why this matters to you, but keep in mind that some students may be in environments that make it challenging to share video).
  • How can students communicate that they are engaged with the material? How can they communicate their understanding (or confusion) with the ideas that are covered?
  • How should students ask questions? How can students get in touch with me while they work on asynchronous tasks? When should students expect a response? When should they contact a TA instead?
  • Who should students contact if they are having issues with technology that impact the course? 
  • How and when should students set up meetings with me and/or a TA?
  • Create discussion questions or structure peer reviews in ways that allow students to interact meaningfully with each other. Provide clear deadlines and expectations so that students know how to get the most out of discussion, such as how many replies or reviews students should post, and what a helpful contribution should include.
  • Have students share using a variety of text, images, and video when possible so that they see something of each other. Pictures and videos can begin to bridge the sense of isolation students and faculty can feel in online classes. Using video tools for assignments both adds variety for students and allows students to see each other and you.
  • When possible, participate in discussion boards and other types of asynchronous activities regularly by posting your own comments, adding questions, and helping students see the purpose of the activity. Your participation can model what you’re looking for in student posts, encourage participation, and show students you value their ideas and work.

Instructors at Penn regularly report that having students work in small groups helps build community and connection as well as increasing the amount students learn. To create successful group activities:

  • Have a clear purpose for students. Identify a concrete and meaningful project that no one student could do alone so they have to collaborate.
  • Think ahead about the size and makeup of the groups. Groups of 3 – 4 tend to work well in the online space. Groups larger than 5 can be challenging to engage with. Some possible grouping plans include:
    • Manually assigned groups
    • Grouping by interest, and allowing student groups to focus their work around that interest (for example, students interested in learning about a specific disease could choose a project on that disease).
    • Grouping by different perspectives; in courses where students have different backgrounds and goals for taking the course, consider whether it would be helpful for students to share these different perspectives and skills in their group.
    • Grouping by background; students who don’t have as much background experience or course work in the topic may find it easier to talk with other students with similar background.
    • Grouping by time zone. This can be particularly helpful when students need to meet or collaborate outside of scheduled class meetings.
    • Random groups. This can help students get to know new people in the class.
    • Self-assigned groups. This can be helpful for classes where students already know each other, but can be challenging for students who don’t already have friends in the class.
  • Identify whether students should work in real time (synchronously) or interact on their own time with structured deadlines (asynchronously).
  • Structure the process that you want groups to follow, any roles students might take on, and how you will track their progress and participation.
  • Consider how you can provide feedback during group work. Occasionally joining student conversations or providing written feedback can help keep students on track and feel supported.
    • In Zoom, you can temporarily join breakout sessions
    • Asking groups to record their work on a shared Google Document, Canvas Discussion, or Canvas Assignment allows you and TAs to see group progress at a glance. You can also provide comments on Google Documents and Canvas Assignments and Discussions.
  • Connect the value of the class to the students’ interests by providing students with real-life questions and examples as well as the opportunity to work on challenges and questions that they find meaningful. When possible, give students some choice in their assignments.
  • Whenever possible use images, readings and other materials that reflect the range of students in your class. This way all students feel welcomed by the class materials.
  • Require or encourage students to check in with you. In some classes, instructors use very short (10 min) check-ins at least once a semester to get to know their students and help students feel comfortable reaching out should they have questions or need help. 
  • Have “life happens” policies that allow students to skip some assignments, drop their lowest grade, or to turn in things late if they need to. Try to be flexible so that students can work around their own schedules and situations. Expecting that students have complicated lives respects them as people but also sends them the message that you are human too.
  • Particularly in online courses faculty presence matters. Instructors who interact regularly with students create a strong sense that there is a human who cares about the students in the class.