Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Concrete Strategies for Building Community

Directly assign tasks that involve students getting to know each other

  • Department: Drama
  • Course format: Seminar/Studio
  • Strategy: In a course for first-year students that relies on students knowing each other, instructor created assignments for early in the semester where students must get to know each other in small groups (either because the assignment explicitly involved something about students’ particular interests/likes/dislikes or because short ice-breaker tasks were included as part of the “assigned” small group activities).
  • Advantages: explicitly geared toward students getting to know each other; factored in time for community building as part of assigned work (rather than as an add-on or assuming it will happen).
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Ideal early in the semester; previously tried with only small groups of students but should generalize. Note: assignment should be designed for remote completion (with adaptations for in-person); details on how to assign students to groups could be decided later. 
  • Tools: Various, including Zoom breakout rooms

Host informal “work time” sessions 

  • Department: Drama
  • Course format: Studio
  • Strategy: Holding sessions with open “work time” so that students (and instructors) can see what others are working on. Students used screen shares to share what they were doing. During the segment, instructor used a breakout room for one-on-one time with students and to address individual questions. One instructor who used this strategy also worked on her own projects and shared with students as well, highlighting aspects relevant to the course.
  • Advantages: Dedicated time for working with peers while instructor is there for support; could help students with time management challenges in addition to creating a classroom community; sharing work in studio context is important for students so they can learn from each other; reported that this increased motivation.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Students could work on or off screen, turning video/audio on when they have a questions or something to share
  • Tools: Zoom with breakout room and screenshare

Create a venue for students to share out their work 

  • Department: IDeATe
  • Course format: Project-based
  • Strategy: Virtual showcase of student work for those who would like to show it in a public context. Essentially a gallery webpage after semester is over.  
  • Advantages: Many IDeATe courses have some kind of showcase at the end. Doing it virtually isn’t ideal, but it gives students something to look forward to and be proud of their work.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Don’t make this a course requirement--students might not feel comfortable showing the work they had to create at a distance (they may feel it’s lower quality because they don’t have access to resources on campus).
  • Tools: Department websites; could potentially have zoom sessions for students to discuss their projects synchronously.

Hold an “Ask me anything about my discipline” lecture 

  • Department: History
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy:  Let students “drive” during a lecture by inviting them to “Ask me anything (related to <fill in your discipline>)”. Instructor offered a small amount of extra credit to students who submitted a question. 
  • Advantages: Majority of students completed this optional assignment, and students demonstrated great care and thoughtfulness in crafting questions about the course material as well as bigger picture questions in history. This strategy gave the instructor a window into what students were thinking, and it led to a lively lecture. In a large lecture course where it is not practical for everyone to talk, this was a way to invite students who were seriously engaged with the course to express themselves. Instructor was blown away by the high level of the questions students asked.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: May be important to ask students to submit questions in advance, so they give it some thought. Instructor only used students’ first names when introducing each question.
  • Tools: Email, google forms, or Canvas assignment for students to submit questions

Create study groups by students’ schedules/time zone 

  • Department: Physics and Engineering
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: Instructor assigned students to study groups based on schedules/time zones to facilitate students getting together at a convenient time. 
  • Advantages: When students are still building community, they may have difficulty connecting on academic tasks as well as socially. This strategy showed that the instructor values collaborative learning and helped to scaffold students in getting study groups going.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: This strategy could be augmented by bringing in a group of senior students to join the class and meet with study groups in breakouts -- to give students a different perspective on the course and its role in the curriculum and/or to share lessons learned, create community within the major.
  • Tools: Zoom, CATME, etc

Encourage students to (visually) share what they are eating during class 

  • Department: Psychology/HCII
  • Course format: seminar/discussion
  • Strategy: For a small class that meets near meal time (when students would likely be hungry), the instructors encouraged students to bring a snack to class. Each class meeting, the instructor invited one student (on a rotating basis) to show what they were eating (via webcam) and describe what it was and why they liked it.   
  • Advantages: Students and instructors could have fun with this informal class starter, e.g., taking a bite on camera, describing their chosen food as if in a commercial, etc. Students could (at their discretion) choose a food that was special to them, reflective of their cultural heritage, or just something they enjoyed eating. (Side bonus: It gave students a reason to turn on their video cameras.)
  • Implementation considerations/questions: It could be desirable to tell students in advance who was slated to “share” their food, or it might be good to give students the option to “pass”. This was not an official assignment, and no points were associated with it.
  • Tools: Zoom (including webcam)

Provide structure for students to get to know each other 

  • Department: Dietrich College/Psychology
  • Course format: any (esp project-based or seminar, where students will be working in groups)
  • Strategy: Before giving students their first “real” group activity (or first breakout activity), give them the set of questions from the Fast Friends protocol (Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vaollone, & Bator, 1997), where questions start off with small talk and progressively get more deep. In Psychology, students not only enacted the protocol to build relationships but also discussed the science behind this technique. See a sample set of resources implementing this approach.
  • Advantages: Research has shown that this approach can support relationship building by simulating (in a sped-up way) the process of getting to know someone gradually. It gives students something concrete to do to get to know each other, rather than relying on them to naturally have small talk over Zoom (which may be harder than in person).
  • Implementation considerations/questions: May be best to do this over several breakout sessions with groups staying the same for several weeks in a row. Groups could switch a few times across the semester, at which point the process could be repeated.
  • Tools: Zoom breakout rooms for live, face-to-face discussions among students. (Could also be done via discussion boards, but the questions would need to be sequenced appropriately.) 

Giving pets a cameo appearance  

  • Department: Various
  • Course format: any
  • Strategy: Several instructors mentioned that at some point during Spring, their pet had appeared on camera unexpectedly – to positive effect. One instructor started a mini tradition of inviting his pet on screen at the end of lecture (to say “hello” to the class) and wondered if students stayed on just to see the pet. ;-)
  • Advantages: Takes almost no time. Small gesture to give a window onto instructors’ home life.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: In some courses that used this strategy, the instructor would invite students to bring their pets in at the end of class as well...
  • Tools: Zoom (including webcam)

Arrive to class early or stay after 

  • Department: Various
  • Course format: any
  • Strategy: Instructor logged in to class a few minutes early (letting students into main Zoom session from waiting room) and struck up an informal conversation with students before class began. 
  • Advantages: Gives instructor a chance to share about what they are experiencing too – opening up the conversation that we all have ups and downs in dealing with the pandemic. Gives students a chance to ask questions – about the course and/or about other, more general topics.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Depending on the instructor’s and students’ schedules, before or after class may be easier. Might be useful to mention to students your intent to arrive early or stay after class, so they know this is another opportunity for informal interaction.
  • Tools: Zoom

Check in often with your students; ask them to share

  • Department: Various
  • Course format: Any
  • Strategy:  At the beginning or end of class  ask students about a success and a challenge they had this week. Make sure that students can chime in on chat as well as verbally. 
  • Advantages: Acknowledges everyone has ups and downs in dealing with the pandemic. Encourages student reflection. Takes very little time in that instructor need not respond to each student’s sharing...
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Class time is valuable, but this strategy can be used at whatever frequency works for you: every week, every class session, etc. Start this strategy early in the semester so students know what to expect. Remember: you can always reach out to individual students via email in addition, as follow-up, etc.
  • Tools: Zoom

Share a bit of yourself with students 

  • Department: Various
  • Course format: Any
  • Strategy:  Instructors can model some vulnerability (for instance how Zoom is also difficult for you as the instructor, or that you wish you could reach out better). Some instructors regularly shared their own experiences (a moment in their week, something quirky about themselves) on social media. Others created and posted a short video at the beginning of each week, to provide a message of support and to preview this week’s work/focus.
  • Advantages: Builds trust with students which help students connect with you better.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: 
  • Tools: Zoom, social media

Create small groups of students to interact frequently

  • Department: Various
  • Course format: any 
  • Strategy: During class or outside of class, assign students to do class-related assignments in small groups. Assignments can vary from very short (compose a Canvas discussion post together) to moderate length (weekly problems, as would occur in recitation) to longer lasting (team project). Include some short introduction activities for students to break the ice before getting to the assigned task. (Ice breaker questions include: What did you have for dinner last night? Why are you taking this class? What is something someone wouldn’t guess about you? What new thing did you try/learn this week? What is something you’ve read recently that you’d like to share?) After talking in pairs, students can introduce their partner to the rest of the classroom.
  •  Advantages: This strategy can be used flexibly for tasks that take different amounts of time. Students get to know each other both through structured ice breakers and through repeated opportunities to work together.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Consider having students interact in the same small groups for at least a few class sessions so they have a chance to connect to each other. In addition to some stable groups, you can choose to randomize short conversations/discussions in the classroom to make sure students get to interact with a variety of students throughout the semester. If wanting to create pairs makes the breakout difficult, allow chat between students to have that pair discussion. 
  • Tools: Zoom with breakouts

Invite students to share a special location/scene with the class

  • Department: Engineering 
  • Course format: any (esp lecture)
  • Strategy: Instructor invited students to send in a picture of a public place/scene that is special to them and that could be used as a Zoom background. The instructor used a different student picture for their Zoom background for different class meetings and shared the student’s description of it.
  • Advantages: Quick and easy strategy for the instructor. Instructor could pick a picture/description at random for each class. Even if some students did not submit a picture (it was not required), all students still get to learn a little bit about those who did.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Instructors may want to specifically request that pictures be public locations or landscapes (not private spaces), and focus on sharing the student's own description of the location -- i.e., w/o adding their own commentary. 
  • Tools: Zoom for live class sessions, with virtual background features

Invite students to attend office hours in groups 

  • Department: Biological Sciences, Statistics, and various other 
  • Course format: any 
  • Strategy: Invite students to sign up (e.g., in groups of ~5 students) for special office hour slots (could be for 20-30 minutes each, not necessarily a whole hour) during the first few weeks of the semester. These office hours could be a time for the instructor and students to talk about the course (e.g., what they’re excited/nervous about, what the instructor is providing as resources to help students) or about students’ academic or personal interests.
  • Advantages: By holding these sessions in moderate-sized groups, the instructor reduces the number of group meetings and students get to know each other.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Students could earn a small number of points for signing up and attending a small-group meeting. Several instructors implemented this strategy successfully for classes with 50-80 students. (Note: 80 students in 5-student groups meeting for 20+ minutes each would take < 4 hours/week for the first 2 weeks.) For larger courses, one instructor suggested assigning scaffolded asynchronous activities in lieu of selected class times during the first couple weeks to open up more time slots for this strategy.
  • Tools: Zoom, chat