Building a learning community in the time of COVID-19: Overcoming isolation and keeping students motivated

Image by Martine Auvray from Pixabay

We are living, teaching and learning in extraordinary times. This semester, we had an increased focus on developing a sense of belonging and connection with and between our students. When travel restrictions were put in place, teachers sought to ensure equitable and engaged learners online and face-to-face. With all teaching now online and many teaching from off campus, motivating, and engaging students who are isolated and disconnected is becoming a focus for many. Continuing to be able to study enables students to connect with normality and their futures whilst providing a distraction, a sense of purpose and even some fun for their current days.

Focus on relationship-rich experiences

The relationship between teachers and students have always been key to student retention and engagement. Building and maintaining connection at distance is definitely harder. Although many students are used to virtual ways of connecting socially, in these times, the teacher could be a sole point of contact for some or could facilitate meaningful conversation, distraction and connection. Fostering a sense of belonging and an inclusive community online is hard but rewarding.

This is not a time to worry about over-communication. However, alongside regular formal announcements and notifications, it is good to post regular, less formal messages and to use other media – such as a quick video or podcast update at the beginning and end of the week. Seed the discussion board with posts from your tutors to catalyse conversation and try to ensure posts get answered. Be proactive and guess what the students will be most worried about when the news changes and the semester proceeds.

All of our lives are being affected by the present circumstances. It is good to be open with students about the disruption and encourage them to do so too. Teachers are rapidly adapting to using new technologies – sometimes things don’t work but students appreciate teachers who are open and imperfect. I always ask the students for help with the technology in the classroom and do so now that we are all online together. If you are going to try new approaches, poll the students about their opinions or ideas. They will know what works for them and can help you. You can either use a polling tool or just ask on the discussion board.

We are all in this together and sharing your experiences and encouraging your students to do the same can help to build a sense of community.

Share your experiences with your students. Be authentic – don’t be afraid to let them know that COVID-19 is disrupting your life too. We are all in this together and sharing your experiences and encouraging your students to do the same can help to build a sense of community. This can be done either synchronously in a check-in session or asynchronously on a discussion board.

Model positive habits with your cohort by encouraging them to build healthy habits while in isolation. Consider having a healthy tips discussion board where you can share ideas together such as home yoga practice videos or mindfulness apps. Pause live sessions for water or bathroom breaks and encourage students to take some exercise away from the screen between sessions. For asynchronous delivery, structure, chunk and release the content to encourage bite-sized learning instead of binge viewing, and gently provide nudges to students to health and wellbeing activities.

Consider using the SRES to connect with your students and personalise your communications. Offer online consultations (“office hours”) via Zoom.

The University is supporting students in a number of different ways and the range of options is changing daily. It is good to be aware of the support available. Although every effort is being made to communicate this support to students, they may read announcements, emails and posts by their teachers more readily.

Favour asynchronous content delivery and maximise engagement

Whilst streaming lectures live provides some structure and consistency for students, it puts you and the technology under considerable stress. It may also put many students at a disadvantage. Many, including those who have poor internet connections, are sharing their connections with others in their residence, have increased family commitments and complications or are studying in a different timezone, will value the flexibility that pre-recorded content gives them. It is also much easier to ensure that content is accessible and easy to find if it is chunked and made using tools designed for online delivery. You will also have resources for next time. You can also ask students to co-create content, such as videos explaining key concepts or multiple choice questions using tools like Peerwise.

The time spent together can be used for collaboration, problem solving and discussion rather than transmission.

Students appreciate every opportunity to practice and get feedback on their learning and understanding. Canvas has great tools for producing formative multiple choice quizzes. Classroom polling tools can be used to engage students in their learning in both synchronous and synchronous approaches. Discussion boards and tools like Padlet can also be used to encourage students to give their opinions or share ideas. Padlet has the added benefit of allowing posts to be anonymous.

Be topical and connect content to the news

Many subjects lend themselves to discussions related to COVID-19. Whatever you teach or research, the contribution that your discipline is making to understanding and dealing with the current crisis, and its relevance to the future will be of huge interest to the students. I’ve been trying to get my first year chemistry students interested in intermolecular forces and the differences between soaps and detergents for years. Now is my chance.

Celebrate diversity and connection to Sydney

As the last few weeks have demonstrated, the University of Sydney is a special place. It is worth celebrating the diversity of the students cohort and the tradition of education on our campus and region, informal and formal, physical, verbal and virtual, that stretches over tens of thousands of years. Encourage your students to learn about this by pointing them to some of the wonderful online resources available, including:

Don’t be afraid to have some fun

If you are brave enough, you can introduce some fun elements to the week. Students are likely to respect you for trying. In supporting and engaging with our teams, many of us are already trying some of the ideas below. Keeping inside the Canvas environment and setting out some etiquette rules will ensure things stay fun but respectful.

  • Share a picture of your workspace.
  • Share your journey, the ups and downs, and the key moments in your career.
  • Share the most ‘boring’ thing that happened this week (this works well because it is democratising and everyone will have something to share).
  • Have a competition for the most imaginative Zoom background.
  • Hold a virtual morning tea.
  • Add a “pet corner” thread on your discussion board and add a picture of your pet. Encourage the students to do so too and occasionally post about your furry friends’ latest misadventures.
  • Share some subject related jokes or memes. I’m lucky that there are many great chemistry joke sites on the web.
  • Introduce some games – for example, you can generate crossword or wordsearch puzzles with important terms from your subject’s terminology or glossary using online puzzle generators. School teachers have been doing this for years. You will find lots of tools on the web.
My dog, Indie, giving me a hard stare: “My human, it is time for a health break.


Tell me more!

Many great resources have been released over the last few weeks. We’ve found those from the Chronicle of Higher Education to be particularly useful, including:

If you would like to talk through some of your ideas about building through with an expert in educational design and online-supported learning, you can book a consultation:

Book an online consultation with an educational designer


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