Create strong class beginnings to build community and establish a strong instructor presence

August 29, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Whether you teach online or in a traditional face-to-face class, the success of the class depends in part on the sense of community you establish with students. Use the first few days of class to establish your presence in the class, build trust with students, and help students connect with one another. When students feel they are part of a learning community and feel connected with each other and the instructor, they experience greater academic success, are more likely to complete a course, and are more likely to be retained as students (Boston, Sadera, Robertson, Song, & Midon, 2009).

 Strategies for Building Community

 In both the online and face-to-face environment, classes with a strong sense of community experience a sense of shared purpose and mutual respect. Build community by establishing and enforcing rules and expectations about how members interact with one another. For example, set expectations about civil discourse in class discussions or posts to online forums. Instructors should model these expected behaviors for class interactions, actively encourage students to contribute to class discussion, create opportunities for students to share knowledge and skills, and respond to students who express concerns about class climate (Vesely, Bloom, & Sherlock, 2007). These deliberate efforts establish trust, respect, and support among members of the class and contribute to an open environment.  

 Social Presence

 Social presence refers to the degree to which students feel their instructors (or other class members) are “with them” in a class. Adopt strategies that bolster the sense that “someone is out there.” Ley and Gannon-Cook (2014) suggest several activities that instructors can use to increase their social presence in a class:

  • Respond to emails in a timely manner (clearly explain to students what you mean by “timely”),
  • Adopt a friendly tone in email messages,
  • Participate regularly in online discussion forums,
  • Give clear feedback to help students improve during class discussions or online forums,
  • Provide feedback on submitted work that arrives early enough that students can use the feedback to improve later submissions.

 In the online environment, reduce the “perceived distance” between instructors and students by recording feedback in a voice or video file (York & Richardson, 2012). The Academic Technology Center can show faculty how to create and upload these files to the eLearning system. Remember to provide feedback as text to students with documented hearing difficulties. Faculty who teach face-to-face classes can use this strategy if students submit written work in a drop box in eLearning.


Boston, W., Diaz, S.R., Gibson, A., Ice, P., Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2009). An Exploration of the Relationship Between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 67-83.

Sadera, W. A., Robertson, J., Song, L., & Midon, M. N. (2009). The Role of Community in Online Learning Success. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 277-284. Retrieved from

Vesely, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock, J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3). Available online at

York, C.S. & Richardson, J.C. (2012). Interpersonal interaction in online learning: Experienced online instructors’ perceptions of influencing factors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 83—98. Retrieved from


This tip is based on “Starting Strong by Building Community, Social Presence, and Swift Trust” submitted by Wren Mills, Ph.D., Distance Learning Training Coordinator, Wester Kentucky University to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (, which permits non-commercial reuse, adaptation, and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly attributed to the author.

 “Create strong class beginnings to build community and establish a strong instructor presence,” modified or edited by Claudia J. Stanny is Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Claudia J. Stanny.