Four Ways to Cultivate Community & Connection in Pandemic Classrooms: Insights from a Student Research Project

Contributed by Kelly Hamshaw
Community Development & Applied Economics, CTL Faculty Associate

With the Fall 2020 semester in our collective rearview mirror and with preparations for the Spring 2021 semester ahead of us, we have an opportunity to reflect upon what worked well and what could be improved in our pandemic classrooms. Regardless of teaching modality, COVID-19 significantly impacted our standard practices of engaging and connecting with our students. Personally, I have missed the energy generated during a spontaneous popcorn-style discussion, brainstorming with small groups of students as they navigate a challenge in their service-learning project, and the post-class “walk and chats” on my way to back to Morrill Hall. These activities helped foster community and connection in our classrooms in the “before times”. Yet cultivating community and connection matter as much now, and perhaps even more, during these uncertain times.

How we can effectively build connection and community as we teach in new ways and with new technologies? How important are community, connection, and caring for creating a sense of belonging and inclusion during pandemic teaching? To address these critical questions, students in Professor David Conner’s CDAE 250: Research Methods course partnered with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) across the Fall 2020 semester. Students worked in small groups to review the academic literature, create and launch an online student survey, and conduct interviews with student and faculty members across campus.

Over 400 current UVM students responded to the survey. Nearly 90% reported that community is an important factor for their satisfaction with their college education to some or a great extent. Yet only 51% of students reported at least some degree of community feeling in their Fall 2020 courses. These findings suggest that there is opportunity for improvement as we look ahead to Spring 2021. Interestingly, most student respondents (nearly 83%) believe that the faculty member holds the primary responsibility for creating a sense of community within the classroom (whether or not we as faculty members agree with this notion, it is important to recognize that students hold this belief). The vast majority of students also acknowledged that the students enrolled in a course play a large role in creating community within the classroom (94% responded that they somewhat or strongly agreed).

Student and faculty responses also provided important insights regarding how faculty can help foster a sense of community and connection with their students while teaching during a pandemic.

The following four suggestions provide concrete strategies to consider for your spring courses.

  1. Get to know your students
    Over three-quarters of student survey respondents (78%) reported that faculty efforts to get to know students within the class has a large positive effect on developing a sense of community. Multiple student interviewees remarked that they appreciated when faculty members built in time to learn about their students’ interests, goals, and experiences—especially in the absence of those informal conversations that typically would occur before or after in-person class sessions. Sixty-four percent of students reported that periodic check-ins initiated by their faculty member had a large positive effect on their experience in the class. Building time into your course to learn about your students as individuals can pay dividends as the semester moves along by enhancing connection, developing rapport, and providing faculty members with valuable insights into who our students are as individuals—something that can be difficult in remote or online courses.

    Things to consider:

    • Create a Blackboard survey to ask students to share about themselves – from what brought them to your class, what their extracurricular interests are, or a positive highlight from their winter break.
    • Encourage students to come to “office hours” early in the semester to establish a personal connection.
    • Hold space for “checking in” with your students on a regular basis and consider making it a regular practice throughout the semester.
  2. Lead with Empathy and Compassion
    COVID-19 has impacted all of us, in tangible and intangible ways, as we navigate balancing learning, working, and taking care of loved ones and ourselves during a pandemic. Acknowledge that students, like faculty members, are learning how to effectively navigate a remote or socially distant classroom in these surreal circumstances. One student shared in an interview, “When a professor acknowledges that you’re busy, it’s good, when they make you feel like they think their class is your only class, it cannot separate you further from a professor.” Keep in mind that students are likely to have courses in different modalities and perhaps using different technologies. Students responded positively to faculty members that shared how they’re coping within the contexts of both class and daily life. More than half of the student survey respondents (52%) reported a large positive effect when faculty members shared personal anecdotes and updates, while 40% reported a small positive effect. “Being real about it all” encourages students to feel more comfortable coming to office hours, asking questions, and reaching out for help.

    Things to consider:

    • Identify class policies that can offer flexibility when students experience pandemic-related challenges.
    • Share some insights into how you’re adapting to the challenges brought by COVID-19.
    • Be available for informal conversations prior to starting or ending class sessions.
    • Invite or incentivize student attendance to office hours.
  3. Share your investment in adapting your course
    Student interviews indicated that students recognize the difficulty of adapting courses for pandemic teaching—along with the challenges of general pandemic life. Many expressed a deep appreciation for faculty members who clearly invested in adapting their classes by learning new technology platforms and re-imagining course assignments. Students shared that they were more invested in those courses to reciprocate their faculty members’ efforts. Conversely, students expressed that when faculty members showed a lack of investment in their learning, they felt a sense of apathy towards the course. Students shared that they appreciated that teaching in a new modality or adjusting to new technology are challenges for faculty members. While we may strive for a seamless experience without any tech glitches, one student noted a positive response to when faculty members are transparent about the bumps or twists along the way, reporting “I feel like I respect them more when they acknowledge mistakes because they’re more real, there’s a new sense of relatability and reality built-in.” Another student echoed how acknowledging the reality of pandemic teaching builds stronger rapport by saying, “I appreciate it when teachers joke about technical difficulties, or express mutual frustration. It’s okay to look human. It’s okay to laugh about the problem as you fix it.”

    Things to consider:

    • Be transparent about your efforts to adapt to pandemic teaching.
    • Choose your technology thoughtfully, practice with it for proficiency, and share your rationale for using it.
    • Acknowledge that technology glitches or mistakes may occur as part of our shared pandemic teaching and learning experience.
    • Evaluate your major course assignments and adjust in ways that make sense for your class modality.
  4. Create Opportunity for Peer-to-Peer Connections
    Students shared a deep sense of loss for missed opportunities to get to know their peers within their classrooms. Whether students selected the “UVM At Home” option or returned to campus, their social interactions were substantively curtailed by COVID-19. Although vitally important to students’ college experiences, these connections can be difficult to build and maintain in remote or online courses. Faculty members can strategically weave in opportunities for peer-to-peer connections that will increase overall class engagement and cultivate a sense of belonging within the pandemic classroom. One student interviewee shared, “To me, I believe that to have a sense of belonging in the class, I have to feel comfortable with most of the students in the classroom and feel a sense that I know them. Whether that is by name, major, just feeling like I’m not talking to strangers!”.

    Students noted that breakout discussion groups and low-stakes group assignments were especially helpful in larger remote courses where students were more likely to have their cameras off and be muted during synchronous meetings. In fact, over 75% of students surveyed felt that opportunities for small group discussions in breakout rooms during class strengthened a sense of community, and approximately 60% reported that group projects led to a positive effect on their experience.

    Things to Consider:

    • Incorporate icebreaker activities in the early weeks of the new semester.
    • Use the Channels or the newly launched Breakout Room features on MS Teams to have TA-led or student-led discussions during synchronous class meetings.
    • YellowDig is now widely available for UVM faculty to use as a discussion board platform that fosters peer engagement.
    • Develop group projects with clear structure and support so that students can create community while practicing collaborative skills.

Of course, community, connection, and engagement will look, sound, and feel different in each class given the modality, faculty teaching style and experience, and disciplinary content, just as they would in a “before times” classroom.

In addition, the convenience sampling methods and other COVID-19-related precautions limited the generalizability of the findings from this project to the whole UVM community. Nevertheless, listening to student voices and experiences offers concrete ideas for increasing a sense of community, connection, and engagement in the spring semester.

Interested in exploring how you might weave some of these community-building insights into your Spring courses? The CTL is offering a month-long series of Support and Community events where you can attend a variety of workshops, office hours, and practice sessions on MS Teams.

CTL Faculty Associates are available throughout January and into the Spring semester for individual consults focused on individual courses and are happy to serve as a sounding board as you consider how these insights on community, connection, and care might apply to your classes.

Special thanks to Professor David Conner and the student researchers in CDAE 250: Research Methods for exploring this important topic during the Fall 2020 semester!

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Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Vermont
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3 Responses to Four Ways to Cultivate Community & Connection in Pandemic Classrooms: Insights from a Student Research Project

  1. Kelly Hamshaw says:

    @Alex, I’ve made similar pleas to my students about joining office hours to “keep me company”–whether for a 5-minute quick chat to introduce themselves or longer conversations about brainstorming ideas about potential internships or simply just how they’re doing in this mostly remote world.

    @Shana, thank you so much for the feedback! Dr. David Conner’s class did an amazing job with their applied research project and it was my pleasure to distill their findings into some actionable steps. Wishing you a great start to the new semester!

  2. Alex messinger says:

    “Encourage students to come to “office hours” early in the semester to establish a personal connection.” I know a faculty member that encouraged students to ‘just stop by, I’m bored just hanging out there by myself. We can talk about anything– family, weather– whatever!’ That really sends a message!

  3. Shana Haines says:

    Thank you for conducting this study and writing about it so clearly, Kelly! Your findings helped me reflect on my teaching this past semester and make changes to my syllabi for this spring!

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