Faculty Development

Building Community

**This page is from an old version of CSUN's Teaching Toolkit. Find an updated version on the current Teaching Toolkit on Canvas.**

The online environment opens tremendous possibilities for education with the advantage of a flexible schedule. Despite the convenience, learning remotely can cause feelings of isolation, fear, and frustration in students. In a typical online class, facilitators can apply best practices for course design and construct a similar level of interaction that happens in face-to-face environments. However, the challenge to move courses online during an emergency situation requires rapid planning and strategic use of some online practices that will support student engagement in times of disruption.

What can you do to connect with your students remotely?

In this type of environment, it’s important to be intentional in the ways that you convey your human presence, empathy, and awareness online because these humanized practices lay the foundation for community building. Below are some straight-forward strategies you can use in your classes to start building community with your students:

Be available to your students

Show your presence online in any way possible. Send out announcements, emails, create Discussions in your Canvas course. Organize synchronous interactions whenever possible by meeting with students on Zoom or using chat and messaging tools. 

Stefanie Drew, CSUN faculty in Psychology, uses the Remind App* to communicate with students via text messages without sharing personal numbers.  She utilizes features like pre-scheduled texts, group broadcasts and individual messages:   “Of all the apps I use in teaching, if I could only have ONE, it would be Remind.  I love that I can communicate with students in a way that they are used to, while also facilitating learning and building community”

*Remind App is a web-based tool that has a free version for educators (as of this posting)

Build your online profile in Canvas

You probably have already done this if you use Canvas but you can review and update your user profile in Canvas in a way that students can get to know you a little more. Tell them to do the same. Teaching classes during an emergency situation is also an opportunity to connect with your students as you would do in the first week of class. Present yourself as a real person, share your identities and encourage your students to follow the same practice.

Make the most of the first day of class

How can you ensure that your students leave the first class session motivated and prepared for success? 

Check out these resources:

First Day of Class: by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Preparing for a Positive First Day of Class: Five Terrific Tips- by Lori Baker-Schena 

Making the First Day of Class Really First Class- by Cynthia Desrochers 

The First Day of Class: A Once in a Semester Opportunity- Faculty Focus Teaching Professor Blog

Use an opener (icebreaker activities)

We appreciate that not everyone likes participating in icebreaker style openers, however they do seem help to get people to interact with one another while paving the way for building a trusting and psychologically safe learning climate. It is difficult to get to know one another in new situations and even more so in online spaces, so taking some time to start building your community on the first day of class can go a long way. Helping students get to know you and get to know each other can help humanize the classroom and create a supportive friendly, and intellectually stimulating learning environment.

There are many different variations of icebreaker strategies using a number of different analog and digital tools. Many of the face-to-face icebreakers can be translated to synchronous Zoom sessions by using the Breakout Room features (which needs be enabled in the settings first) or as prompts in a asynchronous Canvas discussion forums. Popular prompts include (see below for more icebreaker ideas):

  • Two truths and a lie (everyone tries to guess which is the lie)
  • Do a show and tell with a meaningful object on your desk or in your home
  • Have everyone share something they read, saw or listened to recently that they really enjoyed
  • Ask preference questions like: What is your favorite food? What is your favorite animal? Etc.
  • This or that. Give two options and let them pick sides. For example: Cat or Dog.
  • Get them thinking outside the box with a farfetched prompt. For example: If you had to choose between having the power of flight or invisibility, which would you choose and why? 
  • Find out who they admire. For example: Who is someone you look up to that you'd be elated to get an email/twitter mention from?

Casey terHorst, CSUN faculty in Biology, does an icebreaker on the first day of class as a way to remember students’ names and visualize the classroom community using the online bulletin board tool Padlet*: “On the first day, I ask everybody to upload their name, picture, pronouns, and an answer to a silly question, so I get a glimpse of who they are, but then I use the Padlet as a reference all semester when I can’t remember somebody’s name.”

Kunpeng Li, CSUN faculty in Systems and Operations, uses Google Slides* to build online community for the first week of class. Every student is required to create a new slide to introduce themselves with names, photos, and several personal things to share with their peers. Students can comment and communicate with each other in the speaker notes section. Students will also be tested on the knowledge of their peers by taking a Canvas quiz, which is a fun way to get students familiarized with class quizzes in Canvas.

Ellen Edeburn, CSUN faculty in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, uses FlipGrid to increase student engagement and enhance discussion board assignments. During the first two weeks of the semester, she builds community by asking her students to respond to a “getting to know you” prompt using FlipGrid linked within her Canvas course. Students are introduced to each other via a two minute video-short and a fun selfie.

* Padlet, Google Slides and FlipGrid are web-based tools that have free versions for educators (as of this posting).

For more ideas for prompts and associated technology tools you can use, take a look at these article:

Make room for social moments

Community building often occurs in those moments before and after the instruction. In an online environment, we can't rely as much on spontaneity and have to deliberately create social moments. You can show up to your online session earlier or start your online meetings/lessons with a quick check-in to see how everyone is doing during this pandemic. Listen empathically to what your students want to share. Another strategy is to create a "water cooler" type of Discussion where your students feel compelled to share updates on their lives and the current events. Let this be a space that simulates social media, though you should still remind your students to follow rules of netiquette.

Experiment with innovative uses for Discussion Forums

Remember that not all students are ready to participate in rapid live conversations. Mixing synchronous and asynchronous activities allow for all students to show engagement in their own time. If you have bandwidth, you can also explore tools for collaboration such as Padlet, FlipGrid, and Google Drive in Canvas and create space for asynchronous engagement besides Canvas Discussions.

Be transparent on what you expect

Be transparent about your expectations and share with students how you plan to respond when something needs to change. Also consider sharing what students can expect from you as the instructor. For instance:

  • do you show up to class early
  • how quickly do you respond to emails or Canvas discussion posts
  • how many days should students expect to wait to get feedback about their performance in the class
  • how will you respond when students make mistakes and get a problem wrong in public

Everyone benefits when they know what to expect. In fact, this practice is valued as standards in the Quality Learning & Teaching framework:

  • Course etiquette expectations for various forms of course communication and dialog (e.g., chat, "hangout," email, online discussion) are presented and clear to the student. (standard 1.4)
  • A list of technical competencies necessary for course completion is provided, identifying and delineating the role/extent the online environment plays in the total course. (standard 1.6)

When teaching online, this becomes even more important to share with students how you want them to show up and engage. Here are some samples to consider.

Tseng College Course

Given that the Tseng College teaches many online courses, what do many of their course syllabus say? As you review this sample provided by the Distant Learning Team, consider how you might adapt this for an undergraduate course, for freshmen, for students who have never learned online before and/or for students struggling to get their basic needs met while learning. 

Virtual Classroom Sessions

Synchronous (live) Virtual Classroom sessions will be held on a weekly basis.  The sessions will be held on X date/time. Although attendance during the sessions is optional, you are highly encouraged to join and participate in order to achieve a richer, more effective and interactive learning experience. A recorded version of the session will be available for those who are unable to attend at this location (insert link). Attending the live sessions is optional but students are responsible for reviewing the recorded session within the same week in which the session is scheduled and for contributing to the discussion that took place during the session in the associated session forum.

When participating in a live Virtual Classroom, please follow these guidelines:

  • It is recommended that you review the lectures, activities, and readings for the week prior to participating in the weekly session.
  • In preparation for the session, please arrange to be in a quiet area without loud background noise or interruptions so that you can provide your complete, focused attention during the session.
  • As a courtesy, please make an attempt to join the session prior to the start time and participate in the entire session.
  • Configure your audio each time you participate in a session.
  • Please use a headset with microphone when participating in the sessions.
  • Respectful behavior and professional courtesy is a requirement at all times.
  • Attending the live sessions is optional but students are responsible for reviewing the recorded session within the same week in which the session is scheduled and for contributing to the discussion that took place during the session in the associated session forum.

Maximizing Your Learning Experience

Avoid rigid, punitive or consequence-oriented approaches to stating expectations. Instead frame your recommendations in terms of WHY it will positively impact students. Keep it upbeat, specific and when appropriate, create room for co-creation and flexibility. Would any of these examples work for your course?

  • When you join our Zoom classroom, mute yourself and only unmute yourself when you speak; it's difficult to communicate in Zoom when there are multiple background noises interrupting our discussions.
  • Use the raise hand Zoom function when you want to contribute; I want to engage with you all but this is the best way for me to know who wants to talk so I don't miss/exclude anyone.
  • If possible and as long as possible, turn your cameras on during our Zoom sessions; since we're all social beings who respond to facial expressions as clues to engagement, or confusion and disengagement, I'd like for us to be in community as much as possible when we are on Zoom. This feedback will allow me, and all of us, to know if and how we need to adjust so that our learning community has an organic sense of connection and we can individually feel that we belong to this community. I am open to suggestions from you on how to make our Zoom sessions a space for engagement. 
  • Arrange neutral video backgrounds; please avoid using your background to indirectly promote personal and controversial beliefs (e.g., politics, violence, any emotionally charging issues). While we need to have courageous and controversial dialogues when we learn, it's important that those discussions be set up thoughtfully and productively as opposed to passively in our backgrounds. 
  • Do not drive and join our Zoom sessions. While I appreciate you are busy and this gesture demonstrates commitment, more importantly I care about your safety. I don't lecture the entire time during our Zoom sessions and I will be asking you to go into breakout rooms, engage in active learning exercises, and plus you'll be taking notes and following me on Canvas. In addition, for your colleagues, watching others "on the move" is highly distracting for us all. Thus, be safe and identify a good working space when we meet together. 

If you have sample language on your syllabus that you would like to share with others on campus, please email us mailto:facdev@csun.edu

Check out these additional resources on building community


Astin, Alexander W. (1993). What matters in college? : four critical years revisited. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E., Whitt, E., Edison, M., & Nora, A. (1997). "Women’s perceptions of a “chilly climate” and their cognitive outcomes during the first year of college." Journal of College Student Development, 38(2), 109–124.

Whitt, E., Nora, A., Edison, M., Terenzini, P., & Pascarella, E. (1999). "Women’s perceptions of a “chilly climate” and cognitive outcomes in college: Additional evidence." Journal of College Student Development, 40(2), 163–177.