SIP 13.2 The ‘Why’ of Community-building During a Pandemic

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Professor and student in a chemistry classroom; both wearing masks.

Higher education has traditionally recognized community-building as a method of underpinning a successful classroom experience for students and faculty. Never has this been more important – we are (hopefully) heading into the final mandated virtual semester of the pandemic, but everyone is tired and isolated, and students are struggling to find motivation to continue with their education. Creating and sustaining a strong community this semester may be the key to helping us all reach the finish line in May.

The SIPsquad has examined the topic of “how” to engage in community-building twice during the pandemic, offering practical suggestions such as developing shared community norms with students, engaging in active-listening activities that build bonds among students, and modeling and encouraging vulnerability that builds on strengths and compensates for weaknesses. Please visit these past SIPs for more community-building practices and ideas to integrate into your online or remote classrooms:

  1. SIP 11.15, “Maintaining Community During a Pandemic”
  2. SIP 12.3, “Building Community Online.”

In this article, we focus on the “why” of community-building and encourage you to reach out to your students as soon as possible.

Take a SIP of This: The “Why” of Community-building During a Pandemic

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Rose Cavanaugh explained that “establishing a sense of community in the classroom helps predict whether your students will participate in class discussions, have high or low levels of anxiety and even have better grades.”

Some of the basic implementations of community-building may have a direct and meaningful impact on student engagement, student learning and overall outcomes this semester. Consider these ideas:

  • Check out the website for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The first thing you will see is the organization’s tagline, “You are not alone.” Dig deeper and you will find many articles on the value of community as a tool to fight depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. In a NAMI article titled “The Importance of Community and Mental Health,” the author suggests that the three most beneficial aspects that community provides are a sense of belonging, support and purpose. By creating a strong community within your classroom and overtly connecting to the overarching Metropolitan State University of Denver community, you will let your students know that they belong in college, even if college is taking place in their dining room right now. They will see that you care about their success, and this will inspire them to remember their purpose for being here: getting that degree.
  • Another way that community positively impacts teaching and learning is that it helps to lower stress. When students experience the anxiety, worry and generalized stress that the pandemic has produced, their affective filter shoots through the roof and impedes their ability to engage with the material in your class. The Mayo Clinic suggests that one of the best ways to reduce stress is to cultivate a “social support network” that diminishes feelings of loneliness that can cause stress. This is not to say that faculty members should give out their phone numbers to students or feel obligated to socialize with them outside of class, but it does speak to the fact that a caring, personalized relationship can put students at ease and free up some of the mental space they will need to effectively learn. Try creating this social support network by starting each class by asking students how they are, by getting to know who they are and how they are managing during this difficult time, and most of all by letting them know that you care.
  • Finally, we must remember that students are here to learn subject-matter content and skills, but they are also here to experience the social-emotional growth that is coincident to academic progress. Building and sustaining community can help us to nurture the aspects of social-emotional growth that have been stunted or even eliminated during the isolation of a pandemic. While the literature tends to focus on social-emotional learning at the K-12 level, it is important to consider that when students come to campus, see their friends, grab some free pizza or attend an on-campus activity, they are reaping the benefits of positive peer influence and increased motivation. Isolated at home during Covid-19, this community influence has disappeared. By offering students a community inside the classroom, faculty are empowering students to keep on track with desired growth until we can get back to campus and allow this to happen organically. This manual, “A Guide to Incorporating Social-Emotional Learning in the College Classroom: Busting Anxiety, Boosting Ability,”  is a great resource that is full of tips and suggestions to help you do this.

Explaining to your students why it is more important than ever to build community in their classes can promote buy-in and emphasize the necessity for everyone to participate in this goal. However you decide to approach community-building this semester, make sure to share your logic with your students so they realize your actions are intentional. Ask students for feedback on your ideas and incorporate theirs to further enhance your efforts.

Community-building may be the most important activity you engage in with your students this semester. It won’t make the pandemic end any faster, but it may help all of us feel a little less alone as we navigate it together.

Still thirsty? Take a SIP of this:

Beauchamp, Schwartz, Dividson Piscareta. “Seven Practices for Building Community and Student Belonging Virtually.” August 27, 2020.

Cavanaugh, Sarah Rose. “How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 11, 2019 — Lots of great, concrete suggestions for how to engage students through community-building and other avenues.

Gilbert, Stephanie. “The Importance of Community and Mental Health.” NAMI website, blog post posted November 19, 2019.

Mayo Clinic: “Social Support – Tap This Tool to Beat Stress.”

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