Include a community-building activity at the start of each class

June 30, 2020 | Claudia Stanny

Include a community-building activity at the start of each class

In a face-to-face class, students encounter multiple opportunities to socialize and build community with little effort. They only need to arrive a bit early and chat with students sitting nearby. Some instructors create warm-up activities that orient students to discussion topics for the day. For example, they might post an outline of topics for the day on the white board. Or they might project a PowerPoint slide with a prompt for a pre-class minute-paper to encourage students to gather their thoughts for a class discussion. (Note: Faculty can collect these minute papers at the end of class as an efficient way to take attendance.)

The online environment demands more intentionality to create similar opportunities for students to network and build community. At the beginning of an online session, participants might encounter an awkward dead time during which other students arrive and wait for the official start of the session. Adrienne Phelps-Coco offers suggestions for using this wait time to build community in the online environment.

Greet students as they login to a synchronous online session
Say hello to students individually as they enter the synchronous webinar session. The greeting will also serve as an audio check. Greeting early arrivals and chatting with them briefly will help you connect names and faces and will help students relate to you as a person.

Create informal small groups for pre-class discussion 
Open a synchronous webinar class session before the official class start time (say, 10 or 15 minutes early). As students sign in, greet them and assign each student to a breakout room with a few other students. Limit each breakout room to four or five students so that students can keep their mics open and chat with each other informally, as they do before class in a physical classroom. Most students enjoy this opportunity to connect with others informally. Students who don't feel comfortable with these chats will figure out that they can avoid them if they login to the synchronous session just as the formal class time begins.

Creating informal connections between students in the class can create benefits for class discussion once class does get rolling. Informal interactions help students get comfortable speaking in the online setting. Adrienne reports that when she starts a class too close to the formal start time to put students in the breakout rooms before class, the discussion during class time seems to be much less lively.

Put a question prompt on the screen for a warm-up activity
Not all webinar software enables breakout rooms. If so, use the pre-class wait time to give students a minute-paper assignment. Post a question prompt related to the topics you plan to discuss in class, either in a PowerPoint slide, in an open Word document on your shared desktop, or on the White Board for the webinar. Include instructions that direct students to respond to the prompt in the chat window. When students post a comment to chat, they gather their thoughts about the upcoming class discussion. They can also connect with other students as they read their posts.


Thanks to Adrienne Phelps-Coco, Ph.D., Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, for contributions to this teaching tip.

06/30/2020 ajc