Whether students are learning remotely or on campus, crafting opportunities for both casual and more meaningful conversations is essential for course cohesion and engagement.

Learning is a social process

Building relationships between the instructor and students and among students are important aspects of learning. 

Emphasize community from the first day of class. Students and instructors could, for example, record audio clips or videos introducing yourselves and pronouncing your names, to post on the class discussion forum. To encourage informal exchanges, you can open online meeting rooms early to allow students to talk before class. Another approach to community building among students is to start a session with a short, informal question that students answer in breakout rooms or in chat before class starts in earnest. It helps to build a course community if you are willing to connect informally with students; one idea might be to have a coffee hour a few times a semester, in addition to office hours. 

Increase peer interaction by creating structured opportunities for students to communicate. You could have a dedicated forum or tool for discussing homework questions in which students crowd-source answers before you or your TA tags the best responses. Plan activities in every live session when students can work together; many studies show that students who engage in collaborative work on a regular basis better meet learning objectives.(1) This could take the form of sending small groups of students to breakout rooms to solve a problem together, asking all students to take a poll and discuss the results or using outside tools such as Box Notes or an online quizzing tool to have students compete or create together. When designing any group or team work, set deadlines and make sure students are clear on how group communications will happen, so everyone in the group stays aware of progress.

Connect with your students. Schedule online office hours once or twice a week at different times of day to accommodate students in different time zones. If you find that you’re not hearing from some students frequently in live class meetings, you can set up short reserved time slots and have students sign up, to get a better sense of how their learning is progressing and what support they need. Since online courses lack the ability for students to ask questions after class, consider more frequent announcements with reminders, check-ins and updates for the students. You can also build in extra time after class when you’ll stay online to answer questions. Many instructors have shared that students feel more comfortable asking questions through chat during online sessions. It is a good idea to monitor the chat window while you are conducting live sessions, although you may want to delegate this task to a co-instructor, TA or rotating student, especially if you have a particularly large class.

> Building Community in Asynchronous Online Courses (Duke University)
> Encouraging Interaction and Building Community (video) (Duke University)
> Three Tools for Building Community in an Asynchronous Classroom (Duke University)

Effective discussion prompts are focused and open-ended

Discussion boards, when used effectively, can provide an engaging experience for students. Researchers at Duke found that students who participate in online discussion boards are more likely to feel engaged with the content of the course and with each other. (2) 

Ask students to present solutions to a challenging, novel question based on course materials to promote engagement. Online discussion prompts shouldn’t be quiz questions with easy answers or assignments in disguise. For example, instead of asking students to summarize the key points of an article, ask them to choose one concept from a text and find or draw a related image or write a post as if they are describing the concept to a 10-year-old. Especially in an online course, building in flexibility in how students may present their answers (audio, written text, video, infographic) decreases the amount of discussion board fatigue. 

Hold fewer — but deeper — discussions. Give yourself permission to have fewer discussions, but make them engaging conversations that can go on for days or even weeks. One instructor who rethought the traditional “post one, read two” requirement decided to start only five threads at the beginning of the semester about major themes in the course and ask students to post a set number of times a semester in whichever forum felt most relevant or interesting. Later in the semester students were asked to start their own threads. Students who furthered the conversation received more points than those students who posted in a rush toward the end of the time period. If you try this approach, tell your students what meaningful engagement looks like and give them some examples of posts that advance discussion.

Engage in forums weekly. Especially in the first weeks of the course, set the tone of intellectual engagement by responding to forum posts with follow-up questions that probe for more information and avoid giving the right answer: “What additional evidence is there to support this idea?” “Did anyone else reach a different conclusion?” It is not necessary to respond to or even read every post, but you should engage in the conversation a few times a week. By being active in the forums, you also model the type of engagement that you expect from students in the course. Keep in mind that it can take a week or more for a rich online discussion to emerge in a forum.

> Key Questions for Designing Online Discussions (Harvard University)

Successful courses help all students participate in conversations

To foster course community and conversations that are inclusive, it is important to set expectations for discussions, reduce the barriers to access to course materials and provide clear plans for communicating. 

Set discussion guidelines to facilitate respectful engagement. To make your class more inclusive, set clear expectations for interactions, both for your interactions with students or their interactions with one  another. Include discussion guidelines in your syllabus, review them with the class on the first day and periodically throughout the semester, perhaps even asking for student input. These guidelines could include the following (adapted from the University of Michigan’s discussion guideline examples):

  • Respect that others’ opinions and beliefs may differ from your own. If you disagree, you may critique the idea, but not the person.
  • Listen carefully, be courteous and don’t interrupt.
  • Support your statements with evidence and a rationale.
  • Try to moderate how much you contribute to the discussion—if you have a lot to say, try to avoid dominating the conversation; if you’re reluctant to speak up, try to find an opportunity to share your perspective.

Provide multiple ways for students to access course materials. Students who participate in courses remotely may have unequal access to the course materials due to personal circumstances, varying time zones, language barriers or connectivity issues. One way to mitigate such issues is to vary the ways they can access materials and hand in assignments. Live sessions should be recorded to allow for later viewing — or you can find suitable online videos or other sources instead of delivering lectures at all. Give students flexibility in how assignments are executed. For example, a student with limited internet access could hand in a detailed script instead of recording an oral presentation. 

Use more than one medium for communication. Although you should establish norms for course communication, try not to privilege one communication method over another. When students are attending class remotely, they may not feel comfortable having their surroundings visible in a live class session. One way to address this is to let students know that you prefer them to keep their video on but allow them the flexibility to turn it off when they need to. Lily Claiborn, a professor at Vanderbilt University, spoke about how she structured her online course to allow all students to access course materials equally: 

“While most of my students can or will strive to do whatever I ask (engage in live Zoom sessions for our full classtime, for example), there is always at least one student who cannot. It is important to me that all my students have an equal opportunity to engage with our course in these times, and so this is not okay…Instead, I record shorter lectures for students to watch in advance, and we have shorter (optional but encouraged) live Zoom sessions during class time for brief check ins, lecture Q&A, discussions, and homework. Thus far, this has engaged the most students and according to the students, has been the most accessible.” (3)

A course communication plan reduces stress and confusion. Include a communication plan in the syllabus that specifies to the students how and when to communicate with the instructor and sets expectations, such as how many times to check their email each week. In exchange, you need to reliably communicate the details of the course plan and assignments to reduce student anxiety. These steps will help create and maintain a sense of connection within the class and will reduce opportunities for misunderstanding with regard to course assignments and expectations. If you decide to use a communication tool like Microsoft Teams, Slack or GroupMe, be sure to set expectations around how that tool will be used.

> Template questions for a course communication plan (Utah University)
> Make Your Classroom Inclusive from Day One (Duke University)
> Establishing Guidelines for Communication and Interaction (video) (Duke University)

Next Steps


  1. Hammer Chiriac, “Group work as an incentive in learning — students’ experiences of group work”, Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 558. Published online, National Institute of Health, 2014 Jun 5.
  2. The full manuscript is available online and in print at: Robinson, J.; Manturuk, K. R.; Çetinkaya-Rundel, M.; Canelas, D. A. “Analysis of adult learner sense of community in online classes,” Digital Universities: International Best Practices and Applications, 2018, 5(1-2), 163-177. The interdisciplinary team that conducted this research included Jorgianne Hicks (Psychology), Kim Manturuk (Learning Innovation), Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel (Statistics) and Dorian Canelas (Chemistry).
  3. Bandy, Joe, “Inclusive and Equitable Teaching Online,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, April 7, 2020.