Building community

Aerial view of the University of Sheffield campus, spread over the cityIdeas for building a sense of community for your students.

Page break

Students experience university life from within a number of different ‘communities’ - the whole University, the department, social groups and clubs, and of course the degree programme and module.

What you can do at department level

Department level community building activities could include a series of informal social sessions such as coffee sessions, inter-level quizzes and seminars so that students can interact with peers and colleagues outside their classes.

The Students’ Union and its societies are also important community creators. Consider working with them to run forums and events for student activities that are open to all.

What you can do individually

Think about how you connect with your students in the classroom, through your course materials and through digital tools. There are lots of ideas below.

Use live sessions to check in with students

Try to use your live teaching sessions for interaction rather than content delivery. Start each session with a ‘checking in’ activity that asks students how they are feeling.

These types of activities are an investment in the classroom community. They allow every student’s voice to be heard and show students that how they are feeling is important to you.

One technique you could employ is the rose and thorn check-in. This asks students to share a rose— a highlight, success or something positive that has happened — and a thorn, a challenge experienced or something they could use more support with.

Think about how you will connect with students in between sessions.

  • Plan how you will communicate with your students and keep a regular communication schedule. For example, you could start each week by sending students an overview of the coming week’s topic.
  • Respond to learners who contact you in a timely fashion and reach out to students who are struggling or disengaged.

Allow your personality to shine through the materials

There are also ways of maintaining a teacher presence without having to make direct contact with students.

By capturing your personality and passion within the course materials, you can make your course feel like a lively and welcoming place to be. This module introduction video sets the scene in an engaging manner.

Here are some of the places you can let your personality shine through:

  • Use video to record personal introductions - from office staff as well as academics - show the faces of the people they will be interacting with during their study.
  • Introduce yourself to your learners with some personal information beyond your academic profile. How did you get into this field? Why does this topic interest you? What parts of the course are you most looking forward to?
  • Use a conversational and friendly tone in all written materials - from assignment instructions to weekly announcements. Don’t be afraid to use humour and analogies.
  • Annotate your reading lists with helpful insights about the literature.
  • Share personal anecdotes and experiences within the academic content.
  • Use short formative quizzes with feedback written in your voice. This will position you as the student’s guide through the course material.
  • Consider giving video or audio feedback on assignments - your voice can add extra emphasis to key points and soften criticism that may be perceived negatively.

Create an online coffee shop

Host a virtual coffee shop where students and faculty can get to know each other, discuss off-topic subjects or share study tips. This might be a specific thread on a discussion forum or a live hangout scheduled at a recurring time. In order to engage as many students as possible it is best to consult with student representatives as to when these activities should be scheduled for and in what format.

Arranging loosely structured, optional platforms for social networking and connectivity, can build community and help students feel less isolated. It also gives you an opportunity to find out how students are doing in the class and adapt your approach if necessary.

Guidance on using discussion boards

The School of Law has set up Google Currents community pages for each of their subject areas (related programmes are grouped together). These are social spaces for students to get to know each other. They also have a Google Current page for each module where students can post queries / comments about work relating to the module and staff can post generic feedback, additional resources etc.

An alternative forum for project based learning is Make:Projects. Pete Mylon from MEE uses this as a way of building community around shared projects.

Page break

Use peer learning activities

Small group activities can help students to build connections and strengthen peer relationships. This is particularly important when students are new to the University and will not have all of the usual student interaction to help them to settle in. See our resource on social transitions for more ideas.

Peer learning can be encouraged both within the curriculum and outside of the curriculum in more informal settings. Examples within the curriculum could include embedding team-based learning through group tasks, discussions, team quizzes or competitions, or meeting tutees as a tutor group regularly as well as individually. See our guidance on group work.

Alternatively, peer learning can be encouraged informally, so that students can study and develop their understanding of the materials together outside of their contact time. Direct your students to this guidance on setting up a study group.

Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) schemes supported by 301 Academic Skills Centre are designed to run alongside a module or programme, fostering cross-year support and community within a programme, with trained student facilitators from higher years running interactive and informal study sessions for newer students in small groups.

Page break

Further Information

301: Peer learning

Communicating with students

Supporting student induction and transitions