Building an Online Classroom Community: Top Strategies for Engaging Students on Zoom

Online classroom

Online classroomLast week, I was honored to lead a discussion with Yale University faculty on how to build an online classroom community.  The discussion was sponsored by Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

The Center provides a host of resources to students and faculty.  When Yale had to convert its classes to online learning last spring, the Center was instrumental in helping faculty pivot to the online teaching environment. Accordingly, I participated in the Center’s two-week intensive summer “boot camp” on how to teach effectively over Zoom. Thanks to their fantastic resources and support, I successfully converted my seminar at the Yale School of Music, Fostering Collaborative Creativity and Innovation in the Post-COVID World, to an on-line course.  The Center then asked me to share my own practices in building an online community in my class.   You can read about the discussion here.

My strategies for building community break down into four areas:

  1. Preparing to build an online classroom community;
  2. Fostering community in the classroom;
  3. Learning through collaborative project groups; and
  4. Additional strategies for building an online classroom community during COVID

1. Prepare to build an online classroom community

The first step in building an online community took place the day before our classes started when  I hosted a virtual “happy hour”.  This was a fun, low-key way for students to meet each other and to hear from me.   It also gave me a chance to hear what they had done in the summer and how they were managing with COVID-19.

Using a practice that I learned from the Poorvu Center, I created a “Welcome Video” which I posted to my class’s online blackboard, Canvas.  In the video, I shared my background and teaching philosophy, laid out how the class would operate, and told students why I love teaching this class.

Yet a third strategy I used to build our online community was to schedule one-on-one meetings with each student in my class to learn about their training, background, and course goals.  In so doing, I was able to create a personal relationship with each of my students.

2. Build an online community in the classroom

I used a number of different strategies to build community in the classroom. Our class met synchronously four days a week from 8:00am-9:15am EST.  The class remained open for 15 minutes longer so that students could ask questions or continue the discussion.

Flipped Classroom

Our class used the “flipped classroom model.

For each class, students watched a series of 10-minute videos where I laid out the content and theory of the material we were studying.   This freed up class time for “active learning”, including:

  • Discussion
  • Brainstorming
  • Problem-Solving
  • Role-playing and practicing
  • Small group meetings and activities in Zoom breakout rooms.
Breakout Rooms

For group meetings, we used Zoom Breakout Rooms.  To make the best use of breakout rooms, I suggest doing the following:

  • Lay out clear goals for students and give them specific questions to discuss
  • Broadcast the prompts and indicate how much time students have
  • Visit each breakout room to answer questions and keep people on track
  • After returning to the main room, ask one student from each group to share what the group discussed

Class Participation         

  • In class:

Our “flipped classroom” gave rise to lively, interactive class discussions.  Students answered questions by volunteering to speak, as well as responding in the Zoom chat.  In fact,  I shared the chats from every class in the Announcements section of our online blackboard tool, Canvas.

  • Outside of class:

Class discussions also took place via the Canvas Discussion Board. I  monitored the discussions and made comments on each entry.

Weekly journals were another vehicle for class participation.  Students wrote their reflections on what we covered in class, with stretch questions to get them to think bigger.  I then responded to each journal in order to deepen the student’s learning. The journals were a great way to see what resonated for students and provided another way for us to develop a personal relationship.

3. Build an online classroom community with collaborative project groups

The focal point of learning in my class is the semester-long collaborative project group.  Building community with project groups starts with using an effective process of creating the groups.

In putting the groups together, I balanced four elements:

Once we chose the groups, the groups met weekly to work on their projects.

Every week, there were specific assignments based on the content we covered in class that week.  Each group submitted a report to me on what they accomplished in the group meetings. The groups also shared their process with their classmates and the classmates gave each other feedback.

Over the course of the semester, each project group designed, developed, performed, and evaluated a successful project, all online!  You can read about the projects here.

As a result of this collaborative endeavor, each project group developed was a closely-knit community based on mutual trust and respect. Moreover,  the sharing in class further deepened the overall community of the entire class.  Students got to know each other and they enjoyed working together.

4. Building an online classroom community during COVID

There were a number of other factors specific to the nature of an online semester in the time of COVID.

  • Validate students’ challenges

This has been an incredibly challenging year for Yale School of Music students.  Yale University did an outstanding job in creating health and safety guidelines for school.  Yet, the specter of COVID hung over the students’ heads. Moreover, social distancing and isolation made it very difficult for students to socialize, thus missing an important part of a university experience.

In addition to having all their classes move online, these graduate students come to the School of Music to study with the world’s leading music professors and to have many live performance opportunities.  Due to COVID, live performance became very difficult.  Our school restructured the semester to provide a live performance block in the middle of the semester.  However, wind, brass, and voice students were not permitted to perform together and the other instrument groups had to perform masked and socially distanced in small groups.

I made sure to validate the challenges that my students experienced and to commend them on their hard work in my class.  I also followed up with students who were struggling to hear more about their struggles and brainstorm possible solutions.

By validating their challenges, my students all knew that I cared about them. This too contributed to the feeling of trust and support within the classroom.

  • Be vulnerable and authentic

I had my own challenges with COVID and shared these with my students, along with my strategies for managing through COVID.   This created a common bond between me and my students.  In fact, Harvard Business School Professor Francesa Gina spoke about how being vulnerable and sharing her challenges with her students made her a better educator.  You can watch the webinar and learn other strategies that Professor Gina used to build a connection with her students.

  • Model Positivity

One of the key elements of my class is how to develop a positive mindset. By working on projects to solve real-world problems, students gained the knowledge of how to face challenges and translate their classroom learning into real-world success.

5 Top Tips for Building An Online Classroom Community

In short, it is possible to create a vibrant classroom community in the remote teaching context. Here are my five top tips for building an online classroom community:

  1. Create a personal relationship with students
  2. Be vulnerable: let your students know you and be authentic
  3. Validate: acknowledge the challenges
  4. Build in variety and interaction from instructor to students and student to student
  5. Model positivity: show that there are solutions to the challenges

For more strategies, be sure to read the summary of our discussion at the Poorvu Center.