Building Community & Managing the Classroom

Guiding Principles for the Yale Teaching and Learning Community

Prepared by the Yale Faculty of Arts and Science committee on communal expectations for teaching and learning, these guiding principles derive in large part from existing university policies and lay out the responsibilities of students and instructors under partial or full remote learning during the pandemic. They specifically address how instructors and their students can work together to build community and manage the dynamics of the classroom in a remote context.

Building Community

Research has shown that “social presence”—the degree to which students feel connected to each other and to the instructor—is crucial to the success of online learning and to students’ sense of satisfaction with their learning experience. To reduce the sense of isolation that online learning can create, we encourage instructors to work to make the digital space more like the space of trust and belonging that characterizes the face-to-face classroom. In remote teaching, consider using teaching strategies that encourage students’ sense of connectedness. 

Some strategies are social:

  • Welcome students into the online space
  • Allow time for students to connect with each other
  • Be open about your own challenges hosting class remotely, to normalize student concerns
  • Take an interest in student concerns

Other strategies are structural:

  • Establish protocols for synchronous chatting, Zoom hand raising, and muted mics to help more introverted students feel confident in the remote environment
  • Use pair or group work (during synchronous and asynchronous learning)
  • Invite students to connect their lived experience with the subject of study
  • Create frequent opportunities for students to give you feedback and incorporate feedback as relevant and appropriate to your course 

It is also helpful to remember that asynchronous assignments—independent group work, chat discussions, and email communications—can do as much as synchronous work to create a sense of social presence in your class. Ultimately, students will thrive and follow your own model for good communication, which can include, but is not limited to:

  • Being explicit about expectations in the course
  • Being clear about how students can reach you
  • Checking in with students individually 

Communicate expectations for academic continuity on the first day

Your first online class session might feel daunting for you, your teaching fellows, and your students. Consider dedicating time during the first session to reflect on the upcoming learning experience and to give students a chance to develop familiarity with your course’s format and digital tools. 

Below are a few ideas to consider as you introduce your students to your academic continuity plans:

  • Consider how you will welcome students to the class. You might send a welcome message by email, via a Canvas Announcement, or by recording a welcome video message via Zoom or Panopto. You can share the recording link with your students via email or Canvas.
     
  • Share your pedagogical goals for your course with students and ask them to respond to those goals or personalize them. For instance, you may share that one of your goals is to maintain a high level of student participation in the course and ask students to identify benefits and challenges to participation in the online format.
     
  • Share important details about the course’s format (e.g., the lecture recording will be shared via Canvas within 24 hours, student weekly response papers should be posted to the discussion board by Friday at noon, etc.). Being clear about instructions and expectations will help alleviate stress as norms are established.
     
  • Create a discussion board or invite emails where students can share concerns or questions about their learning experience in the remote context.
     
  • Ask students to outline or create a concept map organizing what they’ve learned so far this semester. Your students might post images of these on Canvas and comment upon each other’s reflections.

References

Akcaoglu, M., & Lee, E. (2016). Increasing Social Presence in Online Learning through Small Group Discussions. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(3). doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v17i3.2293

Aragon, S.R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2003 (100), 57-68. doi: 10.1002/ace.119


Managing the Classroom Remotely

Learning in a virtual classroom can significantly alter the dynamics of in-person dialogue to which students are accustomed. Within the context of new and ongoing anxieties, the remote setting may give rise to actions that are – or seem – offensive. This guide is intended to help instructors avoid and/or mitigate these scenarios in class.

Share regularly expectations for discussion with students

Although instructors may have addressed discussion expectations for remote classes on the first day (e.g. using the chat screen, raising hands, muting mics), students will benefit from regular reminders or a written document for reference. These reminders can include standard protocols and emphasize the need for additional patience. Students who experience anxiety and a heavy cognitive load may especially benefit from reminders about expectations for dialogue. These reminders can go a long way toward limiting careless comments.

Reduce anonymity

Students will be more likely to engage respectfully when the anonymity typical of internet commenting is reduced. Instructors might ask students to state their name (“this is ____”) before commenting for the first few classes, request students’ first and last names for Zoom identities, and call students by name regularly as they conduct class. Use of names will help students feel more welcome and responsible for maintaining the integrity of the learning community. Using Yale-supported tools for asynchronous discussion, such as Canvas, also links contributions with student identities to reduce anonymity.

When a seemingly rude remark is made, quickly assess and address it

A seemingly rude remark may represent several things: misunderstanding caused by a poor web connection, an accidental tone poorly translated through Zoom, stress or anxiety in a student’s life, or actual rudeness. Identifying whether or not a remark is accidental in tone can diffuse a situation and invite the student to reframe their comment. If a tone is accidental, give the student a chance to reframe and move on.

If a student shares a comment that can be interpreted as rude or disrespectful, the following approaches may work depending on the situation:

  • Comment that a) the remote setting can make it harder for conversants to empathize with each other, and that b) tone can be easily misconstrued online. This approach recognizes tone without calling out a potentially angry conversant.
  • If the tone is more obvious, comment on the frustrations of remote learning and invite the student to reframe their comment in a more diplomatic way that contributes positively to the conversation.
  • Pause discussion (if the comment is particularly concerning) and ask students to write quietly about their thoughts or the topic at hand for one minute, as a way to diffuse excess emotion and prevent escalation.
  • If appropriate or helpful, consider following up with the party or parties who issued the uncivil remark to remind them about class policies and ensure they feel supported in their learning.

If the instructor believes a student’s comments signal deeper concerns such as mental health, or if a student proves intransigent, the instructor may reach out to the student directly to chat further. We also recommend a confidential conversation with the student’s Residential College Dean. In addition to health and wellness resources, students have various opportunities to receive help and support from departments at Yale.

Additional Resources

Vision 2020: Managing Difficult Classroom Dialogues.” Poorvu Center, Yale University
Inclusive Classroom Climate.” Poorvu Center, Yale University
Addressing Students’ Needs: Dealing With Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom.” Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
Start Talking.” Ed. Kay Landis. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008.

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