By: Julie Dobbin
Creating a sense of community and building relationships in the classroom is essential to fostering learning (Karakas, 2011: 205). For optimal learning to occur, instructors and/or TAs should get to know their students on a personal level as well as provide them the chance to get to know fellow classmates. Community building should be a priority before communicating course material. Research has shown that “participants need to know each other and socialize both before and after education” (Gregorčič, 2009: 361). Major “pedagogies of the twentieth century” see the creation of a friendly and communal environment as “a precondition for learning” (Gregorčič, 2009: 361). The typical way instructors or TAs may try to accomplish this is by starting off the first meeting with “routine class-introductions”(Trott, 2012: 475). As David Trott has argued of praxis-based pedagogy, introducing oneself in a classroom setting most often results in getting to know what your classmates do and not who they are. When students feel that they are part of a community, they are more comfortable, which in turn, makes the learning process much easier. It is important for students to learn from their peers and not only from the instructor or TA. I argue that building one’s classroom into a community can foster the learning process and also make it more meaningful for all students, instructors, and TAs. There are three different strategies in particular that, I think, both instructors and TAs can use that will work towards building relationships and therefore create a sense of community in the classroom. These activities do require class time to be set aide, but they are nonetheless worthwhile steps to take to make students comfortable with each other and with the instructor and/or TA.
The first innovative practice can be done on the first day and consists of directing students “to trace one of their hands onto a blank sheet of paper, and on each of the five traced fingers to write their responses to the question: ‘If you had the opportunity to create a spiritually healthy organization, what would be the five values you would emphasize the most?’” (Trott, 2012: 477). For the next step, students must “form dyads to trace another, third new hand that partially covers their separate sheets of paper,” which leads to the sense of shared values and not just one’s own. The shift is from the ‘me’ to the ‘we’ and therefore a sense of community begins to take form. Once the first two steps are completed, “each pair of students will discuss and decide upon the top five values to then write them on their new handprint.” The final phase consists of reforming the class into a circle by asking each pair of students (so a one hand dyad) to share “aloud the five values they had chosen.” Finally, student responses are displayed so they can be visible to the entire class. As Trott demonstrates, this can lead to real-life situations being discussed and therefore creates an open-sharing climate. This activity provides an atmosphere where students can be “focused and interpersonally interconnected on a much deeper than surface-level introductions”(Trott, 2012: 477).
Although this case study was of the teaching of an already spiritual course by name, the approach can nonetheless be successful in any class with any group of students. Any religious studies course could benefit from this activity, as could many other disciplines beyond it. Shortcomings include that it isn’t feasible in large classrooms with a high number of students. The activity, however, could be run in tutorials since the TA can have smaller groups. Therefore, this introductory activity could be very appropriate for professors of smaller classes and TAs.
A second strategy to build community is to ask all students a question as a way of taking attendance. These questions should be simple but revealing: for example, “What is one of your pet peeves?” or “Who is one person you will never forget?” (Kaye-Skinner, 2014). This practice results in everyone having to speak, which insures that shy students also participate in conversation with their classmates. Questions that require long answers may not be suitable for days where the class agenda is full, but in this case an instructor or TA could choose a question that is specific to the topic being discussed that day. This strategy would be time-consuming for larger classrooms but can be easily incorporated by TAs in their tutorials (Kaye-Skinner, 2014). By taking attendance this way, instructors and TAs get to know their students not only by face but by personality based on the nature of each individual answer. Students are also required to engage right from the start of the class, which is great way to break the ice and set expectations for future class involvement.
The third practice is especially suited to online courses, which are becoming increasingly popular due to the flexibility and convenience. Building a sense of community online may seem impossible because students are not in a classroom and are therefore isolated. One possible solution to this problem, however, is “synchronous online sessions which involve audio, video, and text chat as well as various collaboration tools to enhance any asynchronous online course” (Kelly, 2014). Rob Kelly suggests using a virtual classroom application called “Elluminate,” a web-conferencing program has been proven to “improve community” (Kelly, 2014). Instructors and/or TAs could also provide live video sessions. Of course, not everyone will make the effort to be available for these, but “if you make the experience valuable, students will make an effort to be present at the live session” (Kelly, 2014).
Instructors and TAs should strive to foster student learning on a human-to-human level and recognize that “students are not customers; they are acolytes” (Trott, 2012: 471). Students coming to university are not just searching for knowledge to get them into a desired career path; they are also growing and becoming members of society as well as persons who are searching for their place in the world. They are emotional and spiritual beings and not just a student number, and that is why relationship building is crucial. Learning should be done collectively, and building a sense of community provides this and much more. New students may also feel quite alone when moving to a new city or attending university for the first time. I would argue that instructors and TAs have a responsibility to make their classroom a community—and that, as a result of such community-building efforts, students will feel that they are never alone and are central to the learning process.
Gregorčič, Marta. “Cultural capital and innovative pedagogy: a case study among indigenous communities in Mexico and Honduras.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46 (2009): 357-66. Accessed January 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/14703290903301750
Karakas, Fahri. “Positive Management Education: Creating Creative Minds, Passionate Hearts and Kindred Spirits.” Journal of Management Education 35 (2011): 198-226. Accessed January 5, 2016. doi:10.1177/1052562910372806.
Kaye-Skinner, Lew. Faculty Focus Blog, October 30, 2014. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/using-attendance-questions-build-community-enhance-teaching/
Kelly, Rob. Faculty Focus Blog, March 14, 2014. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/asynchronous-learning-and-trends/build-community-extend-learning-online-synchronous-sessions/
Trott, David. “Teaching spirituality and work: A praxis-based pedagogy.” Management Learning 44 (2012): 470-92. Accessed January 5, 2016. doi:10.1177/1350507612456501