Creating Community in the Online Classroom

by Jackie Wickham Smith

On Thursday, March 15th, I attended Dr. Lisa Cravens-Brown’s TeachXperts presentation, “Creating Community in the Classroom.” Although Dr. Cravens-Brown’s presentation focused on physical spaces, I was curious if some of her ideas could also apply to online learning; and was delighted to discover that they did.

Dr. Cravens-Brown began her presentation by sharing two main concepts from research on community building in education. First, a sense of belonging to a community positively impacts several variables in education: task persistence, motivation, course success, and perception of the instructor. Second, environments influence perception – the structure of the classroom sends students a message about what they will have to do and how they will have to act in the course. Both of these concepts are key in online courses, and instructors should be intentional about incorporating community building into their online courses and setting up an environment within the course site that engages students. Dr. Cravens-Brown provided several practical tips for best applying these concepts; I’ll highlight the most relevant to online courses here.


  • Begin setting expectations and creating community before class starts. Send an e-mail to all of your students welcoming them to the course and letting them know that they’ll be expected to be engaged participants in their own learning throughout the course. Include a photo – both as your Canvas avatar and in the body of the e-mail – and encourage (or require!) your students to do the same when they introduce themselves. When possible, share research about the impact of active learning on learning outcomes.
  • Create a social identity for your class. Include community norms and expectations in your syllabus – or have students work together to create them in a pre-class discussion thread. In lieu of the traditional “personal and professional introduction,” consider asking students to share a humorous anecdote or discover things they have in common outside of class. Have students share their purpose for being in the class – including the transferable skills they want to learn – and check in throughout the quarter on their shared progress towards achieving those goals.
  • Establish and maintain trust.  Throughout the class, communicate goals for each week or module, and then check in with students to ensure the goals were achieved. Use your students’ names whenever possible – announcements highlighting great work that week, discussion responses, personalized assignment feedback.


Dr. Cravens-Brown’s presentation highlighted the need to be intentional in all aspects of teaching – not only communicating course content, but structuring your course – whether the physical classroom or the online course site – to create an atmosphere that motivates your students to learn.