Step 3: Class Community

Keeping students engaged and motivated is a common challenge across all grade levels, subject matter, and institutional types. This can be even more difficult in remote courses, because they can lack face-to-face interaction.

Yet, when it comes to communication, remote and online courses have a major advantage of providing a stage for all students to contribute and share their ideas, even the ones who may be too quiet to strike up a discussion in a face-to-face classroom setting.  Discussions promote active learning and allow students to build on content, share and construct ideas, and reflect on their own experiences while learning about the experiences of others.

So how can we make this happen? How can we encourage students to participate in a way that is meaningful and authentic? The answer lies with creating a community of inquiry.  

A community of inquiry includes three elements:
  • Social presence: is fostered by engaging with students in communication, supporting group cohesion, and open communication. Creating a social atmosphere via communication will help students to recognize that they are there based on a common purpose of inquiry into the subject.
  • Cognitive presence: is fostered by promoting interaction with the topic, exploration, and the chance to exchange information, connect, and apply new ideas. For example, ask students to think about how they are learning, how they connect with a topic, and what it could mean to others.
  • Teaching presence: is cultivated by helping focus discussions, facilitating discourse, directing and guiding students, and sharing personal meaning. Providing feedback and being involved in the discussions will help students to remember that you are guiding their learning, rather than relying on the book to do the teaching.
The three elements overlap each other, synthesizing together to create an engaging and meaningful remote or online learning experience.  

If you would like to know more information on creating a community of inquiry, this paper is a great starting point:

Venn Diagram Community of Inquiry

Kent State has a great video discussing engagement:

UNSW Australia also has some great insight on engaging students:

Increasing Student Engagement in Remote/Online Courses: Some Best Practices

Many strategies can be explored in learning experiences that will support student engagement and satisfaction. When integrated within online instruction, they might look like:

Quality content, design and toolkit: Course content is interactive (may include graphics, videos) but also explicit about course expectations (what is optional vs. required). Students know “what’s in it for me?” and can make a connection between course content and the real world. From the first “Getting Started” activity, students know what to expect in this online learning experience. Tools used in the course create a comfortable learning aesthetic, making participation easier and more meaningful.

Participation that ‘counts:’ Engagement in active learning must be valued in the gradebook. In order to award points for active learning, online instructors can use rubrics and checklists. Learners receive prompt and specific feedback for their efforts to positively reinforce participation.

High level of instructor presence: Instructors do more than assign grades and respond to emails; they maintain a vibrant and consistent “high touch” presence in their courses. The instructor’s presence is obvious to students but not overwhelming. From the very beginning (or even before a course) learners feel instructor presence through easy to access, multimedia messages. Information relayed by the instructor is factual, frequent, and focused.

Active learning experiences and choice: Curriculum guides students in learning by doing and working together. Whether solving problems, creating products, or responding to challenges, learner interest and preference play a role in assignments. When learners feel the assignments are meaningful and worthy of their effort; they are motivated to complete the course activities.

Research basis

There is a strong literature awareness of engagement in education that explores types of engagement (behavioral, cognitive or emotional), the definition of learner engagement, aspects of and affects of engaging pedagogy and the measurement of learner engagement.
Key research understandings presented in Vicki Trowler’s Student Engagement Literature Review (2010) include the following:

Higher level of investment of learner time and effort correlates with higher positive educational outcomes – various qualities of learner effort (being challenged, for example) can increase the benefit

    • Instructor’s behaviors and attitudes contribute to learner engagement (or lack of engagement)

    • Institutional resources, support and expectations (including non-teaching staff) contribute to learner engagement (or lack of engagement)

    • Effects of engagement efforts are contextualized in context (in a given field of study, particular strategies may be more relevant)

    • Engagement plays specific and different roles within various teaching ideologies where it has a specific significance and purpose

As much of the research focuses on defining and measuring learner engagement, practices which produce learner engagement are underrepresented in the literature, so many recommended strategies come from broader indicators of “deeper learning.” The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, 2012) espouses five Benchmarks for Effective Educational Practice, including:
  1. Level of Academic Challenge
  2. Active and Collaborative Learning
  3. Student-Faculty Interaction
  4. Enriching Educational Experiences
  5. Supportive Campus Environment

Recommended Faculty Practices

By researching these indicators at many universities through student and faculty surveys, NSSE has identified high impact approaches related to learner engagement such as student research and service learning. Given the institutional nature of many NSSE recommended strategies, faculty members are offered specific strategies for improving student engagement in DEEP Practice Beliefs – Promoting Student Success: What Faculty Members Can Do (Kinzie, 2005):

  • Embrace undergraduates and their learning

  • Set and maintain high expectations for student performance

  • Clarify what students need to do to succeed

  • Use engaging pedagogical approaches appropriate for course objectives and students’ abilities and learning [preference]s

  • Build on students’ knowledge, abilities, and talents

  • Provide meaningful feedback to students

  • Weave diversity into the curriculum including out-of-class assignments

  • Make time for students

  • Hold students accountable for taking their share of the responsibility for their learning


  • Putting it together. Authored by: Online Learning Consortium & Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution

Practical techniques for building online community

There are a variety of structural ways in which class communities can be nurtured within an online or remote class. These include:

  • informal online discussion forums,
  • reflective student blogs,
  • a discussion forum devoted to metacognitive reflections,and
  • group projects.

Informal online discussion forums

Providing students with an informal discussion forum in which they can post any questions or concerns about course content or the course can provide students with a chance to informally connect with their peers. In practice, though, these forums are often ignored by students if this is not a graded activity.

Reflective student blogs

Student blogs can be used to provide students with an opportunity to reflect on their learning process or to engage in transfer activities in which they apply what they have learned in other contexts. These blogs may be shared solely within the class by using the blogging tool within the LMS or they may be shared publicly to help students develop a public voice. Students can be asked to provide comments and feedbacks to other students’ posts to help provide a greater sense of connection among students.

Gardner Campbell provides a discussion of how his students have been using blogging appears in this May 20, 2020 Tea for Teaching podcast:

Metacognitive discussion forum

A low-stakes discussion forum in which students reflect on their learning provides students with an opportunity to reflect on and share their learning practices. One example of this is provided by the Metacognitive Cafe discussion forum developed by Judith Littlejohn and John Kane. This was discussed in this November 8, 2017 Tea for Teaching podcast:

Group projects

Group projects directly provide students with an opportunity to interact with their classmates. Well structured group project-based learning activities can also help students improve their metacognition. An example of this is provided in this September 11, 2019 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Boettcher:

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