Building Community in the Remote Context

Yale Guiding Principles for our 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. Acknowledging the challenge of building community when all of some of the students have to engage remotely, they specifically address how instructors and their students can work together to build community and manage the dynamics of a class in a fully or partially 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 support learning and to students’ sense of satisfaction with their learning experience. To reduce the sense of isolation that engaging in a class remotely 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, in or out of class
  • 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 engaging in synchronous or asynchronous discussions (e.g., explain how you would like the chat to be used) to help students feel confident contributing
  • Use pair or group work (during synchronous and asynchronous learning) and give ample time for that work
  • 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 at the start of your course:

  • 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.

Share expectations for discussion with students throughout the semester

Although instructors may have addressed technical expectations for remote discussion expectations on the first day (e.g., using chat, 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 participating virtually.
Instructors may also wish to develop norms for class discussion content and conduct. These guidelines encourage students to be aware of the discussion dynamics and how to interact with each other, even in moments of conflict. Frequently incorporating these guidelines into the discussion or at the start of class can reinforce their importance and serve as a reminder for how students should strive to interact. 
If the format of the class changes (e.g., from in-person to remote), new expectations will likely be necessary and should be communicated to students. Instructors can anticipate that it will take some time for students to adjust to the new format. 


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

Inclusive Classroom Climate.” Poorvu Center, Yale University.
Strategies for Preventing Disruption and Disrespect.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.

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