In an on-campus class, the development of community among students can come somewhat naturally as a result of their participation in your assignments. Class discussions, team projects and presentations, and study groups can help students get to know one another and develop a sense of familiarity and cohesion. What’s more, an impromptu invite to coffee or lunch after class is a very typical way for students to make friendships and build connections with their classmates.

Given that online students may never have the opportunity to meet in person, the process of building community in online courses can be more difficult. However, that’s not to say it can’t be done; it certainly can! It does take some effort, as well as some strategies that differ from the ones you’d use in an on-campus course.

We recently asked instructors: What methods you use to encourage community in your online classes? Below, you’ll see how they responded.

Methods used to encourage community in online courses

Notably, 36% of our survey’s respondents don’t teach online courses. However, among the 64% of respondents who do, or have, taught online, we observed the following trends:

  • The most popular method of encouraging community makes use of the course’s discussion board. Fifty percent of instructors noted that they assign discussion-board questions that require students to respond to each other. Because discussion boards are generally part of a course or school’s LMS, they are a natural and readily available means of encouraging students to become more accustomed to reading and responding to their classmates’ discoveries, ideas, and opinions.
  • Another 49% require students to post introductions. Through these introductions. students can get to know a bit more about their classmates beyond the simple fact of their mutual presence in the course. Another benefit: If you’re teaching a true distance-learning course, students may also notice that another student lives … which may lead to an in-person meetup or study group.
  • Required group activities and exercises also proved fairly popular, with 29% of respondents incorporating these into their classes. (Want to help your students collaborate effectively in their online group projects? Read and share our previous post, Success Strategies for Teamwork in the Online Setting.)
  • A relatively small percentage of our respondents require real-time meetings. Only 12% of instructors schedule synchronous online meetings; 10% of instructors required face-to-face class meetings; and 10% hold required one-on-one meetings between each student and themselves.
  • Only 5% of instructors respond that they’ve implemented “study buddies” in their courses. The remaining instructors may feel that the onus is on students to set up these groups. If that’s the case for your course, you might encourage students to set up virtual or in-person study groups in a general conversation thread on your course discussion board. Your students could also benefit from the tips described in our post Learning from Fellow Students: Creating a Study Group and in Studying Tips that Will Reduce Stress (Hint: It’s About Teamwork), a post from the blog.

Additional ideas for fostering community in online courses

Among the instructors who responded to our survey, 5% noted that they use other ways to connect and engage the students in their online courses. Below, we’ve listed a few of the activities and strategies they use. Some of these may work for your class, especially if most students live in one particular area. Others might spark a creative idea that suits the unique needs of your course.

  • “Build professional learning community groups that meet every week.”
  • “Attend and discuss music events.”
  • “Collaborative culminating project built through face-to-face meetings and carried through online.”
  • “Students are encouraged to ask questions of each other and the instructor.”

For more ideas, you can also review our recent post: Creating Community in Online Courses: Tips from Faculty.

As noted in our earlier post, Community Building: Do Students Want Collaboration?, most students do want to feel connected with others in their classes (whether online or on campus). So the efforts you make to help them get to know one another will be appreciated by a large number of the students in your course!

How do you build community in your online courses? Share your strategies below.