Start by Setting the Tone

During the toughest summer of many of our professional lives, faculty across the university have been working tenaciously to design effective and resilient learning experiences for our students. We’re all making compassion and flexibility our themes for the fall. When facing uncertainty, it’s helpful to have a supportive community around us. As the first day of class approaches, we can think about our opportunities to build such communities.

Whether we’re teaching online, remotely, or face-to-face, the first day(s) will be best spent connecting with our students and helping them to connect with one another. If the first day of class is just an administrative day, focused on policies, logistics, standards, etc., we’ll miss our best opportunity to shape how students feel about the learning they’ll be doing this fall. We’ll set a better tone for the term if we can foster a sense of belonging , address students’ uncertainties, and demonstrate our care for them and for the learning they’ll do during our time together.

The following are some practical strategies for building community from the first day:

Humanize yourself. It’s often difficult for us to perceive how intimidating we can seem to students. They learn more when we can establish trust and build immediacy, though, including through our presence online . You can begin by introducing yourself during the first Zoom meeting or class session (if you have one). Adding an intro video, or a picture with a paragraph of text, on Canvas helps to ensure that students see it even if they miss the Zoom meeting. If you’re not especially comfortable talking about yourself, you don’t have to get too personal; just explaining how you fell in love with your field can be endearing. It’s even more important to show your investment in your students and their learning, so welcoming them to your course, encouraging them to meet with you, and inviting their questions goes a long way.

Get to know your students. There are many things you can learn about your students that help you shape their learning experience. In any semester, you might like to know about their interests, where they come from, what courses they’ve taken before, etc. Even if you’re teaching a large class, you can learn a lot about who’s in your class by polling them, using Zoom or Kahoot, or inviting them to introduce themselves through video, audio, or text on a Canvas discussion board or Padlet. This semester, you also need to know about their technology access. Do they have sufficient connectivity and equipment for Zoom? Can they stream video? Do they have webcams? You might also want to know if they have privacy and freedom from distraction. You can use a survey, a writing prompt, or both, to elicit this information.

Helping students interact with and feel comfortable with each other. Even in a normal semester, students often feel isolated in their classes. First-year students in particular may experience the university only in high enrollment courses, where they never speak. Chamblis and Takacs (2014) insist that a sense of social connectedness is a prerequisite for learning. Helping students connect with one another will be beneficial not only for their learning, but also potentially for their mental health, since many people have been feeling more isolated during the pandemic. Asking students to complete some tasks in groups or pairs, right from the start, will habituate them to collaborating and working actively. You can use breakout rooms in Zoom or groups in Canvas for small-group discussions, activities, and other work. It helps to give students a chance to bond (and perhaps share contact information) before they begin collaborating, so introducing themselves should be the first task any time they work together.

Attend to tone. We communicate with students in many ways: on Canvas, in the syllabus, on Zoom, in videos, in project descriptions, and in feedback on their work. Although we’re all likely to remember to use a welcoming tone when speaking with students (e.g., on Zoom or in videos), we can also adjust our written communication to sound supportive. The way we write to our students will be especially important this semester, because so much of our communication will happen remotely. When you’re creating your Canvas page or other course documents, it might help to ask, what can I add or edit to make this sound welcoming for students? How can I convey that I’m glad that they’re in the class, that I care about their learning, and I have confidence they can succeed? Especially if your course has a reputation for being intimidating, you may need to assuage students’ anxieties. You can show them how you’ve designed the course to support their learning, with plenty of opportunities for practice and feedback, and you can steer them toward resources that will help them learn.

We look forward to working with you throughout the semester. Please email us any time at for support.