Module 2: Quality activities and assessments

2.6 Building community through activities & assessments

Why learning communities matter

Designing activities and assessments that create a learning community can help to build learner investment in your course. Learners are more committed to and enthusiastic about a course when they feel connected to their instructor and to course content.

What learners have to say…

The professor extended some grace when I missed something on a deadline. After that it felt like, okay, yeah, I don’t want to screw up on the guy again. I’m going to try and do well… because [the instructor] is engaged and enthusiastic about it, and I actually am interested.

(Troop et al., 2020)

What learners have to say…
[I]nteraction is good because you always learn from dealing with other people—not just dealing with other people, but content, if they see it differently or have different questions than you do.

(Troop et al., 2020)

What learners have to say…
I felt like there wasn’t enough communication, thus easy to fall behind in the course.

(Troop et al., 2020)

The evidence on this is quite clear: When it comes to success in online learning, the presence of a learning community, and the quality of the interactions within that community, matter to learner success—perhaps even the most (Moore, 1989; Anderson, 2003; Xu & Smith, 2013; Jaggars & Xu, 2016). Well-designed learner interactions with content, peers, and instructors can help learners feel part of a community and can work to mitigate feelings of isolation that sometimes surface in online courses, which can ultimately lead to decreased learner engagement and success.

How to create community in your online course

(“online teaching” icon by ProSymbols, from the Noun Project. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.)

Xu and Smith (2013) examined 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 college students in Washington State, investigating how well students succeeded in the online environment in terms of their ability to persist and earn strong grades, relative to their ability to do so in face-to-face courses. They found that the primary factor that predicted better student grades in online courses was the amount of interaction between the instructor and the learner.

Encouraging learners to get to know one another is essential for cultivating a learning community. Learners will have plenty of time during the course to talk about content and potentially work on projects together. In the early weeks of your course, the most important task is to help learners feel engaged with the course as a community in a social space, creating social presence between them in the course. This sense of support and connection has an immensely beneficial impact, which will help facilitate learning through the rest of the course (Garrison, 2010). While learners tend to report that content-based social interactions are the most helpful for their learning, they nonetheless indicate the importance of social and emotional connections online for success (Yukselturk & Top, 2006). In the following sections, we explore how to create community through learner–instructor and learner–learner interactions.

Strategies for building community through learner–instructor interaction

One of the most important tasks that an online instructor can do in the early weeks of a course is to set a positive tone for learning (which we discuss in detail in Module 4). The following anecdote from an instructor reflecting on his undergraduate experience is quite illuminating in this regard.

When I was an undergraduate electrical engineering student, my co-students and I were notified that a new professional engineer professor who scored 100 on a very difficult national exam was coming to our university. He was a retired theoretical NASA scientist-engineer, and we began to quake in our shoes. We looked at one another and wondered who might be the first casualty of his exponential tutelage. Yet, when we first were in his lectures and mathematical prowess, it was as if we were sitting in the presence of a trusted and wise teacher-mentor. He was friendly, cordial, open, approachable, funny, a theoretical-applied-mathematical-engineering genius, and he had a resilient-personalized attitude of caring for us as struggling-to-be-engineers. In other words, he initialed his own motivation towards us, which in turn stimulated us to learn because we believed without any doubt that he truly cared for our success—and he went the extra self-motivational mile to validate his pay-it-forward success for each one of us, time-and-time again.

Male student wearing headphones taking online course training, watching webinar, remote seminar university class, virtual learning with social distance web teacher, tutor or coach on computer screen.
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Activities and assessments that promote engagement should be meaningful and intentional, otherwise they can be perceived as busy work that learners find burdensome, rather than helping to create a sense of community in the course.

Consider that “engagement” and “participation” are not necessarily the same thing, and engagement does not always have to be assessed. In this respect, identifying “engagement” in an online course, as in an in-person course, requires careful consideration. If your course is synchronous, or has synchronous elements, be especially mindful of how you are asking learners to participate.

In her flow chart for camera use in online classrooms, Dr. Lindsay Masland (2021) reminds us that

seeing a person’s face is just one way to get to know them. There are many ways to incorporate sharing, support, and belongingness into your classroom that don’t rely on sight or cameras.

Masland recommends using the built-in features of whatever platform you are using, such as the chat, a reactions feature, polls, and other types of real-time feedback. Similarly, the analytics systems of modern learning content management systems can be helpful, but should be viewed as limited indicators of engagement. Page views is not a meaningful measure of engagement, for example; it may just be a reflection of whether a learner normally views documents online or offline. As well, a learner who checks a discussion board briefly each day for new content may be as engaged as another learner who reads the discussion board over for an extended period weekly.

In the sense that online affordances, modes of communication, and media contexts vary as widely as learning styles and study habits, providing a variety of learning activities and soliciting feedback from the class frequently on their preferred modes of learning is an important way to manage class interaction online while promoting 21st century literacies involving computer-mediated environments.

Examples of building community through learner–instructor interaction

Quality Essential

Example 1: “First connection” activity

Professor Nadine Ibrahim included an Easter egg at the end of her syllabus, offering this invitation to her learners:

If you’ve read this syllabus to the end, well done and thank you. Let me know that you’ve read the syllabus by sending me a picture of your favourite city to my email.

This allowed learners to explore the syllabus and look up her contact information so that they became familiar with her email address; she then followed up with each learner who took up her invitation, personally welcoming them to the course.

Strategies for building community through learner–learner interaction

Techniques and tools that extend classroom discussions are invaluable for fostering a deeper engagement with course material, and help to establish a learning community. Learner engagement can occur in a variety of ways in an online course. Formal and informal conversations that happen on webinar systems, discussion boards, in online chats, and through group work allow learners to construct knowledge collaboratively while revealing gaps in knowledge to be addressed by the instructor. Learners can collaborate on a shared digital platform, which allows for persistent content, provides a response mechanism for both learners and instructors, and gives learners the ability interact asynchronously as well as synchronously.

If you are teaching online-synchronous, consider adding asynchronous discussion, which enables participation for those with bandwidth issues, time constraints, and other barriers to synchronous participation. More on perspectives and strategies for effective interactions to support course community appears later in this module.

Consider this three-stage model when incorporating group discussion in your course (adapted from Khan et al., 2017 (PDF) and Dixon, 2014):


Find out what learners already know about the subject to determine an appropriate level for the discussion. Polls, a low-stakes quiz, or surveys can work well in online, in-person, and dual-delivery courses.

Connection to prior learning

Refer to Module 1.7 Learning About Your Learners for examples of approaches to diagnostic assessment and other strategies to learn about your learners.


How will the discussion contribute to achieving learning outcomes? How does it fit with other course elements that precede or follow it?


Will the discussion be assessed? If so, clearly define what is expected of learners and consider using a rubric. If the discussion will not be assessed, how will the discussion contribute to learners’ preparation for future assessment?

Learners may communicate with each other informally during synchronous instructional time, as well as outside of the classroom. As an instructor, you may also require more formal learner-to-learner interaction. It is helpful to provide learners with guidelines for appropriate behaviour when interacting with their colleagues. A course agreement, code of conduct, and/or “netiquette” guide should be outlined in the syllabus and reviewed with your class in the first weeks of term. It is also useful to review your university’s established code of behaviour around appropriate use of IT systems.

Strategies for planning your discussion-based activities

Whether the discussion activity or assessment is undertaken synchronously (e.g., in breakout rooms) or asynchronously (e.g., on a discussion board), follow the same principles of intentional assignment and assessment design outlined above. Make sure to the following:

  • provide clear, detailed instructions
    • Explain whether or not the discussion is graded. If yes, how will students be assessed? What are the criteria for success?
    • Outline the rules of engagement, including guidelines on responding to other students.
  • be mindful of time and workload
    • For discussion boards, stagger due dates of the responses and posts, and consider whether limiting the post/response window would help ease student and instructor workload. For example, the discussion board remains open and active for three days rather than the full week.
    • Have a clear sense of how much time you expect students to devote to discussion boards. Are the expectations for time commitment reasonable, especially if students are not graded on their contributions?
  • connect your synchronous and asynchronous discussions
    • Connect your synchronous and asynchronous discussions to course content and learning goals. How does the discussion contribute to learning?

Strategies for moderating and encouraging discussion, once activities begin

Once the discussion is live, there are strategies you can employ to encourage meaningful and sustained discussion. Some examples are as follows:

  • Create open-ended questions, which are “discussable” (i.e., where learners discuss, debate, persuade, share their perspectives) and foster deeper engagement with course concepts and material. Avoid posing questions that solicit basic facts or questions where there is an obvious yes or no response, which limit discussion.
  • Ask clarifying questions that encourage students to think about what they know and don’t know. For example, “why do you think that?” or “what is your reasoning here?”
  • Include questions which ask for evidence and justification. These types of questions are uniquely suited for online discussion forums since content, including images, video, and external links can be embedded, excerpted, or shared with groups.
    • In quantitative subjects, debating the merits of a range of approaches to a problem can serve as motivation for debate for seemingly “closed” questions.
    • In some disciplines, questions that probe motivation and purpose are effective in stimulating debate and peer communication, which can be coupled with scenarios or case studies.

As the instructor, you can participate in the discussion and offer feedback, guidance, and resources but don’t overwhelm students. You also do not need to respond to every post; instead, the timeliness and quality of your responses are more important than the quantity (Wise, et al., 2013).

Examples of building community through learner–learner interactions

Quality Essential

Example 2: Discussion activity templates

The University of Waterloo Centre for Extended Learning has compiled a series of discussion activity examples and templates that guide instructors in planning effective online discussions.

This resource from the Taylor Institute for Teaching & Learning at the University of Calgary provides a useful template for planning online discussion board activities:

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Example 3: Community-building activities

OCAD University has developed a tool kit to support faculty in their online course delivery. Starting on page 72 of the linked resource, the tool kit describes several easy-to-implement, quick, and frequent community-building activities. The authors recommend building in a “right to pass” when using these strategies to build trust and community between students.

Quality Advanced

Example 4: The appreciative close

In this article for Faculty Focus, Shawn Vecellio describes the community-building technique of the appreciative close, wherein learners are given time and space to acknowledge each other’s contributions to the class community.

As Vecellio notes, “[s]tudents report that:

  • The practice gives students the opportunity to reflect upon and share their appreciations in ways that will positively shape the classroom culture, lead to a deeper sense of investment in learning and engagement and help them feel seen and valued.
  • When students can recognize the differences between their peers in class and acknowledge those differences as gifts to be shared, we’ll know we have created a safe space for learning.
  • A public statement goes a long way toward showing appreciation to someone. It [also helps] in creating a greater sense of community in the classroom. Our class has grown to be more comfortable and honest with each other as a whole, which has made our discussion much more fruitful.
  • Leaving space for affirmations gives us an opportunity to build community in our class and lowers the barrier between the teacher and students in the sense that students are also appreciated for what they bring to class” (Vecellio, 2021).

The Appreciative Close: A Strategy for Creating a Classroom Community

An EDII perspective on building community

Building a community online can be a challenge due to the lack of physical proximity and temporal lag in communication. However, if you take the time to get to know your learners and encourage them to share a bit about their motivation for taking the course, and perhaps about themselves, you can begin to foster a sense of belonging and community in your online course. As well, intentional communication with learners helps instructors become more attuned to the hidden dynamics of the course and be more deliberate in your asks for assessments, in your guidance of course discussions, and your debriefs of concepts.

In order to build community, support all of our learners, and help each individual feel a sense of belonging, we must begin to increase our awareness of the ways that cultural contexts influence online student behaviours and levels of engagement . . . what we tend to do is ignore cultural differences in our online classes. That’s a mistake, however, because it leads to marginalizing whole populations of our students, even if unintentionally.”

There can be many hidden cultural elements in a learner group:

  • language (monolingualism, bilingualism, unbalanced bilingualism, language loss),
  • perceptions of instructor–learner relationship (e.g., instructor as purveyor of knowledge rather than guide or facilitator),
  • amount of wait time/reflection time before asking a question or answering a question,
  • attitude toward asking questions—questions to highlight ignorance rather than guide learner,
  • avoidance of standing out publicly,
  • preference for activities that are cooperative rather than competitive,
  • value for an independent self versus interdependent self, and
  • interpersonal time versus clock time, among others.

By adopting the strategies outlined in this module, and this course, you can create a well-designed learning environment that clearly outlines the expectations for each individual learner and their interactions with peers in a way that will help them grow within your community and increase their respect and appreciation for others.

Key take-aways:

  • Providing learners with meaningful feedback and quality interactions can help to keep learners engaged and invested.
  • Through learner–instructor interactions, particularly early in the course, you can set a positive tone for learning.
  • Giving learners the opportunity to interact with other learners can be invaluable for fostering deep engagement and building course community.


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