Building Community in Large Courses

Building community in the classroom involves establishing a mutual respect between the instructor and students, fostering meaningful peer-to-peer connections, and creating an environment that values diversity. This may sound like a tall order for large classes, but a vibrant classroom community could enhance the big class experience for everyone.

Not sure where to start? Here are some tips for interacting with students and helping them feel connected.

Introduce Yourself

Natalie Dautovich: I send an email introducing myself before the course begins. Then, during the first couple of classes I tell them about myself and my background. I explain how I may be of use to them beyond the course (e.g., letters of recommendation, advice about majoring in psychology, advice about graduate school), which frequently results in a portion of the class reaching out to me. I also do a survey at the start of the course to get information about the class as a whole, which I refer to during the course.

Sections are Key

Students working in classHolly Grout: Each lecture of 224 students is divided into 12 sections that meet weekly with a graduate teaching assistant. Three GTAs are assigned per course so that each GTA runs four small sections. These sections are mandatory.

The students do introductory exercises in which they are encouraged to get to know their GTA and other students in the course. I tell them that section and their GTA are their first life-lines for the course and strongly encourage them to take advantage of both.

Learn Students’ Names

Matthew Dolliver: I use a number of techniques to help “shrink” the course and build a sense of community. First, I make every effort to learn and use people’s names (flashcards are a big help). Additionally, I do my best to get to class early and talk to students. Together I find that being able to call people by name and building a rapport creates the feeling of a more personal community in the classroom.

Beyond this, I will also ask students to engage directly with each other through small groups or other activities that also help give each student direct access to me.

Arrive Early and Talk to Students

Albert Pionke: I make a pretty big effort to get to my room early, and by early, I mean 20 minutes before the class is scheduled to start. Part of that has to do with making sure all the tech is going to work, but then, assuming everything’s working, I tend to ambush the students who have also gotten there early. I’ll sort of sit down and have a 30-second conversation with them, and if this terrifies them, then I leave. But if it engages them, then I tend to stay for another couple of minutes and ask how they’re doing, why they’re in the course, and what they think of whatever we’ve read.

Over the course of the semester, I probably talk with a third of them like this at least once and some of them a lot more because they’ll start to migrate down to the front of the room, and they’ll initiate the conversation.

Be Accessible

Brendan Ames: Ultimately, I try to make my students feel like valued members of the class. I seek their input on the course via informal course evaluations a few times each term and then alter my lecture accordingly, make a point to say hi to my students when I see them outside of class, be as accessible as possible via office hours and email, and so on.