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September 17, 2019

Benefits of a Strong Classroom Community

Prof. Jennifer Widom's CS46N: Big Data, Big Discoveries, Big Fallacies IntroSems class on a field trip to Google HQ.

For faculty interested in having their students succeed, forming a strong classroom community is a great place to start. Students who report a strong sense of community have also been shown in various studies to be more likely to attend and participate in class, more likely to complete coursework, more likely to succeed academically, and even more likely to graduate from college (Elliott, Gamino, and Jenkins, 2016). The benefits are especially strong for undergraduate, first-generation and minority students, as Stanford faculty research has demonstrated (Steele, 2010Walton & Cohen, 2011).

For IntroSem students, the value of a strong classroom community might be further compounded by the fact that many first- and second-year students are in a “late adolescent” development stage, and therefore, “facilitating students’ interactions with peers and providing a forum in which they can explore and solidify their opinions and identities may be an important factor in providing an appropriate environmental fit for their developmental needs” (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen [2007], 217).

As a faculty member, you’ve probably experienced the feeling of a great classroom community, where the students are motivated and excited, classroom discussion flows freely, and most students seem to be friendly and doing well. But how do you bottle that magic? What exactly is a good classroom community, and what activities can build it most effectively?

There are no shortage of definitions from faculty and researchers on what classroom community means. (A 2002 article by Alfred P. Rovai even tests out an instrument to measure classroom community!) Generally definitions tend to emphasize student student feelings of connectedness (“cohesion, spirit, trust, and interdependence,” in Rovai’s framework)--students feel a sense of belonging and comfort with their instructors and each other, leading to a positive learning experience. 

Research-Supported Ideas for Building Classroom Community

Discussion and Interaction

Austin Smith's class on family trees

You already know that discussion is great for learning and student motivation--it’s also good, as we would expect for classroom community. Several studies support the idea that the best classroom communities come from interactive spaces, where students feel comfortable talking with each other and with the instructor. Gray, Tuchscherer and Gray (2017) examined the Introductory Engineering classroom, studying a series of “micro-interventions” against a control class. The micro-interventions were “meant to increase equitable student talk and interactions in the classroom while highlighting reasoning over correct answers.” While the micro-interventions are wide-ranging, they include a range of strategies to increase peer-to-peer interactions, peer testimonials to “enable discussions of the challenges faced by first-year engineering students,” and interactive learning strategies.

The micro-interventions led students to report a greater sense of community than in a lecture-based control class. Plus, it led to greater student retention—the usual withdrawal rate for the class was 28%, but this dropped to 13% in courses with the micro-interventions. 

Similarly, Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen (2007) tested several characteristics of instructors and examined how these interacted with college students’ senses of class belonging. The results suggested that of the factors they studied, “the encouragement of student participation and interaction” was the most important (216-7). Student assessment of their interaction and participation were measured with questions such as whether students felt comfortable discussing each other’s ideas, whether they felt they could volunteer opinions, and whether students were comfortable disagreeing with the instructor. 

How you can get started early: You can start building the student conversation even before class starts by making use of classroom technology. You could:

  • Set up a discussion board on Canvas and encourage students to introduce themselves before the class. 
  • Set up an important Google doc in the “Collaboration” section of Canvas (the syllabus, an early reading) and ask students to edit or add comments, to get discussion flowing before the class even begins. 

For more specific strategies for facilitating discussions, see the IntroSems Faculty Handbook, Section III. 


Cooperative Learning in Groups

BIOE 32Q: Bon Appétit, Marie Curie! The Science Behind Haute Cuisine

Somewhat similarly to the first idea, Summers and Svinick (2007) demonstrated that student perceptions of classroom community are significantly higher in classes that use cooperative learning. Their model of cooperative learning is based on a model of student groups that are socially interdependent, meaning that “the efforts of all group members are needed within cooperative learning situations or else the group will not be successful with regard to the learning task.”

There might be additional benefits of cooperative learning--there’s a chance it will make students more interested in their knowledge and less in their grades. Summer and Svinick found that “mastery orientation and perceptions of interactive learning were significantly higher and performance-approach was significantly lower for students in cooperative learning classrooms.” In other words, students in courses using cooperative learning were comparatively more interested in their mastery over the subject, compared to lecture-oriented control classes, which showed more students interested in their grade average.

How you can get started early: Incorporate some low-stakes ways to prepare students to work together in groups. This is particularly valuable as scaffolding to any higher-stakes collaborative project later in the quarter!

  • Early in the quarter, have a full-class discussion about community expectations
  • Help students get to know each other with low-stakes games and icebreakers. 

For more specifics, check out our Newsletter from the Archives, “Fostering Inclusion from Day One.”


Instructor Warmth and Openness

Student and faculty at the Excellence Awards

This might seem like a difficult thing to quantify, but there have been several studies that have shown that students feel more of a sense of belonging when their perceive their instructors as warm and open. Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen (2007) demonstrate that students who scored high in questions about faculty member’s friendliness, enthusiasm, and openness to other viewpoints, among other questions, also reported a higher sense of classroom belonging. Booker’s 2016 study found that students felt the strongest connection to faculty who were “connected with them both inside and outside of the classroom.” Some students reported especially appreciating faculty who “were accessible outside of class for office hours, had virtual chats, and had an ‘open door policy’” (222). 

Gabriel (2018) argues that these instructor attention to classroom climate is especially important for minority and first-generation students, who, especially as they begin college, are often adjusting not just to new academic structures but also to a new cultural context which might seem unwelcoming (14). Gabriel warns that “some incoming students… can be fearful of college or nervous about talking directly to their professors…” (15), so some attention to getting to know students in their first semesters can go a long way in increasing student comfort level and, by extension, academic success throughout college. 

How you can get started early: Think early and often about your impressions, and encourage warmth with these tips:

  • Customize your IntroSem bios: Students respond better to faculty who put in a little extra effort and make these personal
  • Require individual conferences early on; break early intimidation threshold.
  • Try arriving at class 10 minutes early and chatting with students informally as they enter

To customize your IntroSem bio and for more ideas, contact